How would you like a person-to-person phone call from some of the
biggest and most powerful law firms in the country? Perhaps a bevy
of lawyers will even ring your doorbell and pay you a visit. Would
you like a personal letter, signed by the CEO of one of the richest
international corporations in the world? Well, here’s all you have
to do: give your cozy, neighborhood coffee shop a new name – name it
Starbucks. Or, if you’re a coach for a Little League football team
rip the team name off their uniforms and call them "the Microsoft
Meteors." You might name your tiny computer repair store, "the Apple
It won’t be long before your phone rings off the hook and your
mailbox overflows with "Cease and Desist" letters from some very big
law firms representing the aggrieved corporations. A lot of lawyers
make a lot of money doing nothing but protecting corporate names and
logos. Forget about it! You don’t stand a chance! Big companies are
eagle-eyed and fast to swoop in.
You can feel similar proprietary instincts in today’s gospel.
Jesus’ disciples are concerned about some exorcist driving out
demons using Jesus’ name. They are ready to stop them; it’s
trademark infringement and they don’t take it lightly. They are part
of Jesus’ inner circle and feel that they alone have been explicitly
given the authority by Jesus to drive out demons. They want to limit
Jesus’ ministry to the "proper channels" – and that means them.
But that’s not how Jesus sees it. He came to do good for all who
needed his help and he wasn’t about to limit who could dispense that
good or, for that matter, worthy to receive it. His is a ministry of
super-abundance and generosity; while his disciples are concerned
about proper channels and copyrights in the name of Jesus. Can we
extend this gospel still further? Let’s see.
Jesus came to heal the sick and help the poor. If a doctor
dedicates her life; giving of her free time; not charging indigent
patients who don’t have health care; even providing free medication
– but doesn’t explicitly invoke the name of Jesus – would she also
come under Jesus’ banner – "For whoever is not against us is for
us"? Mother Theresa thought if you gave a cup of water to a thirsty
person out of love, you were in fact a follower of Jesus. While we
don’t need to "baptize" every good non-believer for their works
still, we can say they are living in a way Jesus would recognize and
But even people who profess to be Christian have trouble
accepting Jesus’ teaching of tolerance. We Christians have gone so
far as to wage violent wars against one another invoking Jesus’
name. In addition, the violent conquests of South and Central
America were done by Christian nations from Europe, accompanied by
clergy ready to baptize the natives forcibly brought to the font
–after being tortured. What does professing Jesus’ name mean for us?
First of all it means living the life that Jesus lived. If we do, we
will be able to drive out many demons in his name – the demons of
intolerance, injustice, local strife, long-held grudges, poverty and
a long list of other demons.
The context of today’s story suggests another approach. The
disciples’ question and their concern for proper channels and
procedures may also have been a distraction from the real issue at
hand – once again – living life in Jesus’ name. In the chapter
preceding today’s selection Peter has professed his faith in Jesus
as the Messiah. Immediately Jesus makes his first prediction of his
passion (8:31). He does the same just after today’s selection –
another prediction of the passion (9:30-32). As if not hearing him
at all, the disciples are caught arguing about "who was the most
important" (9:34). Then they raise their concern about the
unofficial exorcist they encountered. If they missed Jesus’ two
predictions of his passion, they surely didn’t hear him say that any
follower of his would have to deny self, take up their cross and
follow in his steps (8:34).
We had better be careful about what we claim to be doing and
saying "in Jesus’ name." We would be advised to be less dogmatic and
strive to live more evident Christian lives – in his name. We would
also do well to reflect on our own prejudices: religious, political,
social, economic, racial, gender, etc. If we think we don’t have
any, ask someone who loves us what they perceive as our prejudices.
Then be prepared to be surprised.
Jesus reflects God for us. His teaching reveals a bigger picture
of God than many of us have. Our God may be too small. Today’s
gospel reflects a big open-handed God. So does our first reading. We
see in the Book of Numbers that God wasn’t limited in bestowing some
of the spirit given to Moses on just those 70 elders who got to the
meeting tent on time. The absent Eldad and Medad also got their
portion of the spirit and they too prophesied in the camp. God and
God’s gifts are not just limited to official people, places and
times. Joshua, Moses’ aide, like the disciples, has much to learn
about God. Our "inner circle" doesn’t limit God’s presence and
activity. People may not belong to our group, or be loyal to us –
but can still be touched by God. Moses and Jesus affirm God’s big
heart and gracious, open hands.
Jesus’ reference to causing "these little ones" to sin may not
have been a reference to children, but to those new to the faith –
"these little ones who believe in me." New converts might still have
a tentative foothold in the community and if they experience
unseemly behavior on the part of the more seasoned members, the
newest members ("the little ones") might stumble – even leave the
In many parishes I visit I meet newly baptized people who went
through their preparation for baptism, or their return to the
church, in the RCIA process. They frequently say what inspired and
kept them in the process was the example of their sponsors and
program directors. I’ve also met people who pulled out of the
process because they felt like second-class citizens and weren’t
treated hospitably. One woman said, "They treated us like children."
Today would be a good day to pray for candidates in the RCIA and for
their sponsors and teachers.
Jesus gets rather glum in the last section of the gospel today.
He talks about cutting off the hand and foot or plucking out an eye.
Ugh! But, to tell you the truth, when I was a kid I heard some of my
Mediterranean-born uncles and aunts use such exaggerated language.
It made for a colorful speech and we kids got the point. Jesus was
middleeastern and seems to have used similar vivid and exaggerated
language. We get the point too – don’t we?
Jesus knows the consequences of sin for the community. One person
might sin, but it’s the whole community that suffers. He’s calling
us to take charge of our lives and make whatever changes we have to
in order to live his life. It can feel like cutting off a part of
ourselves when we: try to break a harmful habit we’ve had for a long
time; simplify our lives so we can have more time for others; reduce
our material excesses so as to help those who have less; focus less
on ourselves so we can be more attentive to those immediately around
us; open our eyes and ears to the larger world of the poor; reduce
our wasteful use of our earth’s resources, etc.
Making significant changes in our lives can feel like major
surgery or, as Jesus puts it, like chopping off a hand, or foot, or
plucking out an eye. Who wants to do that! We do, if we have heard
Jesus’ invitation to follow him. And we can because at this
Eucharist we are again being offered transforming grace.