September 30, 2012 - Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Numbers 11:25-29
Psalm 19:8, 10, 12-14
James 5:1-6
Mark 9:38-43, 45, 47-48

The stories in our first reading and Gospel today are kind of the same. In the first reading, Joshua (Moses’ disciple) tells Moses about people prophesying outside the official circle of prophecy. In the Gospel, John (Jesus’ disciple) tells Jesus about someone exorcising demons outside the official circle of discipleship. In both cases the disciples want the teacher to stop such unofficial actions. In both cases the teacher replies that they are glad that someone is using the power, even unofficially. Would Joshua rather that the prophecy of the Lord go untold? Would the disciples rather that the demons remained in the people? They have lost sight of the fact that good is being accomplished.

The disciples have a desire for a purity of religion. They want their religion to be simple and logical and follow all the rules. The teachers know that religion is logical but it is not simple because people are not simple. All the rules are followed, but the disciples do not know all the rules. It is like when you tell a child about the rule against hitting other people. Then they see a boxing match, and they want to know why the two men are breaking the rules. You can try to explain that this does not break the rule, but they are unlikely to understand why. Some children will consider the boxers to be naughty. Other children will decide that rules are meant to be broken. They will hit a fellow student and declare that they were boxing.

So in religion we start with simple rules, such as “divorce is never permissible.” That rule is true as far as it goes. Then a person sees someone who is divorced and got an annulment, and pretty soon they will either think that the Church needs to stop making so many exceptions to the rules and enforce it strictly like they did in the good old days or that the rule on divorce does not apply anymore. On the one hand we have extreme traditionalists and on the other hand extreme liberals. In reality the rule on divorce and annulments is just extremely complex and always has been.

This desire to make religion simple, or, indeed, simplistic, is in all of us. We want a simple religion that does not need a lot of explanation. We prefer “poor” to “poor in spirit”. We liked the way religion felt when we were children. Good people go to heaven. Bad people go to hell. Jesus loves us. And honestly, those statements are all true. We do not lie to children; we just simplify. When you grow up you realize that there are very few good people in the world and very few real villains. So where do all the people in the middle go? And if Jesus loves us, why is there a hell? There are answers to these questions, but they are not simple. Even the answers we have are simplified versions of the truth that is greater than any human mind.

So when Jesus came, he gave very simple teachings which need to be thought about and explained. Sometimes the literal meaning of his teachings still makes sense, like when he says “Love one another.” Sometimes it does not, like when he says “If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out.” This does not mean that we are picking and choosing which teachings we are going to follow. Jesus gave his teachings to intelligent human beings. He knew that we would figure out what he meant, more or less. We are constantly figuring out his teachings, so that over 2000 years there have been enormous developments in doctrine. Meanwhile, we are also constantly misunderstanding so that the Church has to face new problems all the time. The Church can never change a teaching, but we can always understand it better.

For instance, there are historical figures who took Jesus literally and cut off parts of their body, but that was never very popular for obvious reasons. The principle behind the teaching is really the point: we are naïve if we leave the causes of sin lying around and hope to avoid sin nonetheless. Jesus is saying that even if the cause of sin is as beloved to us as our own right hand, we should cut it off; even if the removal would be as painful as plucking out an eye, we should not hesitate. If a person is causing you to sin, cut them off. Better to enter heaven alone than to go to hell with friends. If your television is causing you to sin, pluck it out of your home. Better to enter heaven having missed all the best episodes than to enter hell having watched them. If the internet or a kind of website is causing you to sin, sever the connection. Better to enter heaven crippled in this digital world than to enter hell well-informed. The removal of these or many other causes of sin would be hard, but not as painful as plucking out your eye. To live without television or internet in this modern age would be a serious disability, but not as bad as having a foot cut off. In other words, even if we are severe with ourselves, we will never exceed the examples that Jesus gave.

For our second reading today, St. James writes an indictment of the rich that seems literal, but he is using the word “rich” here in the way that Jesus used “poor in spirit”, to refer to an attitude, not an objective financial status. He is speaking of the rich in spirit who rob the poor for profit, who murder people who stand in their way, who live for the purpose of luxury and pleasure. The rich in spirit are totally consumed with themselves. When the end comes, they will have saved nothing of real value, they will have no treasure in heaven, everything they have will be destroyed. Someone could be rich in spirit no matter how much money they have.

We must not minimize the teaching of Jesus and look at every rule for its exceptions, but we are not being more religious if we try to take them all literally and be more Catholic than the Pope. The Church gives us the Catechism as a reference book if you want to understand some of the complexity. If you want to understand more, there is a lot to study, but, no matter how much theology we learn, what we need above all is the humility to realize that we do not understand completely. That is why we can never judge. We also need the humility to trust the teachings of Jesus and the 2000 years of understanding by the Church. With some rules of the Church, like contraception, gaymarriage, and social teaching, people will say, “I cannot understand the Church’s position.” That is fine, so long as they do not take this lack of understanding and think that it proves something. We need the humility to trust even when we do not understand, to not think that our own way of working out the issue trumps the Bible and 2000 years of tradition.