Commentary to the 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time - B -
The Spirit is given to us, but not exclusively
It is not always easy to distinguish friends from enemies; sometimes we are deceived: the most trusted person, the one chosen as a confidant, may one day betray us, while the one we kept under control because we judged him dangerous, in the end, may turn out to be the most loyal companion.
How do we understand who is with us and who is against us? At certain moments, Christians feel that they are walking alone along the straight path traced out by Christ, and they are seized by discouragement. Still, as soon as they look up and look around, they see, unexpectedly, many generous, sincere, well-disposed companions walking alongside them; they are amazed and wonder why they had not noticed them before. He did not see them because they were hidden by the thick veil spread over his eyes by the presumption of being the only true disciple. Envy and jealousy prevented him from recognizing the good done by those who were different from him.
The apostles remained silent when Jesus questioned them about the reasons for their contention along the way; they were ashamed because the Master had exposed their petty ambitions (Mk 8:34). Instead, they were not only willing to admit but took pride in cultivating group pride, a haughty conceit that caused them to consider enemies of Christ and condemn those who did not think like them.
Group pride is very dangerous: it is insidious. It makes one consider holy zeal, which only camouflaged selfishness, fanaticism, and the inability to admit that good exists even outside the religious structure to which one belongs.
To internalize the message, we will repeat:
"Jesus teaches to rejoice in the good, whoever the author is."
First Reading: Numbers 11:25-29
Moses had dedicated his entire life to the service of the people, but, in his last years, he was seized by discouragement. The difficulties and problems multiplied, and the Israelites did nothing but complain, make demands, and rebel. One day he confided to the Lord: Did I conceive all these people? I can no longer bear the burden of such a large and undisciplined people (Num 11,10-15). God then suggested to him: " Assemble for me seventy of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be elders and authorities among the people, I will also take some of the spirit that is on you and will confer it on them” (Nm 11:16-17). It is at this point that our reading begins.
On the appointed day, the seventy men gathered in the tent where God used to converse with Moses, received the spirit and began to prophesy; that is, they entered a state of frenzy and exaltation and spoke in the name of God (v. 25).
There were two elders, Eldad and Medad, who, although they had not participated in the official rite, had received the same spirit and were acting as prophets, just like the other seventy. It was a surprising event, unexpected for everyone, and quite enigmatic because there was no explanation for the fact that two strangers had obtained the same gift from God, even though they were far from the group of the chosen ones.
Should one be saddened? No. Rather, we should rejoice in the fact that the spirit had rested even on those who did not belong to the institution. Instead, someone was worried, dissatisfied and asked Moses to intervene to make them stop. An eminent figure among the Israelites, Joshua himself, sided with those who wanted to restore order and hierarchies. Moses answered him: "Are you jealous? If only all the members of the people would receive the spirit and become prophets."
From this episode, the animators of the Christian communities can take the first message: in order not to feel exhausted like Moses, they must not be centralizers of power, but they must co-responsibilize all the members of their community, sharing with them the tasks and the services to be performed.
The primary teaching, however, concerns the condemnation of fanaticism. Fanatic is the one who attacks anyone who does not think like him or does not belong to his group; he is the one who closes his eyes to the good that others do, convinced that those who are not with him or do not share his beliefs and his projects are evil and must be fought. The fanatic is dangerous because, if he cannot impose himself with reasons, he is inclined to resort to the sword, as happened with Joshua.
The Spirit cannot be enclosed within the confines of any institution. God is free to go outside the box and to arouse good everywhere. Wherever there is good, love, peace, and joy, the Spirit of God is indeed at work.
Second Reading: James 5:1-6
The prophets often resorted to threats against the rich; however, in no book of the Bible is there a condemnation as violent as the one we find in today's reading. In order not to diminish its provocative charge, it should be kept in mind that James does not distinguish, as is often done, between good and bad rich people; he refers to the rich, and that's it.
The invectives of the first part of the passage (vv. 1-3) are terrible: "Come now, you rich, weep and wail over your impending miseries." All that you have accumulated with so much effort and sacrifice will be destroyed; the produce of your fields will rot or burn together with the warehouses in which they are piled; moths will devour your splendid clothes, and the precious jewels will be covered with rust.
How does one explain so much animosity? James is not angry with wealth itself, which is a good thing and should not be destroyed, but, like the prophets and like Jesus, he denounces its misuse and the danger it represents when it is worshipped as an idol. The rich person quickly forgets that "the rich one in his lowliness, for he will pass away “like the flower of the field.” For the sun comes up with its scorching heat and dries up the grass, its flower droops, and the beauty of its appearance vanishes. So will the rich person fade away in the midst of his pursuits" (Jas 1:10-11). Covetousness is at the root of all sin (Jas 1:14-15) and is the cause of all dissension and conflict (Jas 4:1-4).
In the second part of the reading (vv. 4-6), James passionately denounces the origin of wealth. It is accumulated, for the most part, through injustice against the weakest. It is the result of harassment, abuse, exploitation of workers deprived of the fruit of their labors. Defrauding a worker of his wages is tantamount to killing him.
The poor cannot resist because the rich also have the law, the force, the support of those in power on their side. In front of such a cleverly structured injustice, what can the poor person do? He cannot offer any resistance; he can only rely on the Lord and invoke his intervention.
Faced with the powerless condition to which the poor are reduced, James gives free rein to the harshest threats that have ever been uttered against the rich: "You have lived on earth in luxury and pleasure; you have fattened your hearts for the day of slaughter” (v. 5).
The severity of the rebuke is justified by the fact that the accumulation of wealth is incompatible with the evangelical choice. The goods of this world are meant for everyone and must be shared with those in need, and Jesus declared with extreme clarity: "Everyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple" (Lk 14:33).
Gospel: Mark 9:38-48
The evangelist Mark places two episodes in the same chapter in a deliberately provocative way. In the first, he shows a man who presents himself to Jesus and says to him, “Teacher, I have brought to you my son possessed by a mute spirit. Wherever it seizes him, it throws him down; he foams at the mouth, grinds his teeth, and becomes rigid. I asked your disciples to drive it out, but they were unable to do so” (Mk 9:17-18). In the second, the one proposed to us in today's Gospel an anonymous exorcist is introduced who, using the name of Jesus, obtains excellent results against the forces of evil.
The immediate reaction of the disciples is predictable, and they run to express their surprise, disappointment, and irritation to Jesus. How can someone who does not follow us, who does not belong to our group, perform the same wonders or even greater ones?
This question immediately calls to mind others, and they are the ones we ask ourselves: if someone successfully occupies the field where we are called to carry out our mission, is there cause for rejoicing or concern? Who is authorized to use the name of Jesus? To whom has he bequeathed his Spirit, the power that heals every disease?
The episode narrated in today's passage answers these questions. In the first part (vv. 38-40), the fact is set forth. The healers of antiquity used to pronounce the names of angels, demons, and other personages renowned for their healing powers when performing exorcisms. They believed that this helped to make their interventions more effective and to obtain prodigious results. The most invoked name was Solomon, considered the forerunner and protector of all lovers of the mysteries of knowledge. The name of Jesus, who had become famous throughout Galilee, began to be used in exorcisms, together with that of other exorcists.
One day John ran to the Master and told him: We have discovered that there is a dangerous rival of ours around; he cures people using your name, and we have warned him because he is not one of us, he does not follow us, he does not have our permission.
Notice the reason given: he does not follow us. It is not said that he does not follow Jesus, but that he does not follow them, the disciples, thus revealing that they had a deep-rooted conviction that they were the only and undisputed repositories of good. Jesus belonged only to them; they were the obligatory point of reference for anyone who wanted to invoke his name. They felt annoyed by the fact that someone performed prodigies without belonging to their group.
None of us would mind if, during the grape harvest or the reaping, a stranger offered to give us a hand in the vineyard or the field; it would be ridiculous and mean-spirited to regret that the helper worked harder and better than us. On the other hand, some are saddened if they learn that a non-believer performs acts of love, even heroic ones, of which, yes, even Christians are capable, but not only they. The reaction is generally the same as that of the apostles. We pretend not to see; we try to ignore, we minimize; we do not rejoice in the good done by others because it costs us to admit that there are followers of other religions who are better than us. From no one do we willingly accept lessons in honesty, loyalty, non-violence, hospitality, tolerance.
The discriminating principle suggested by Jesus is clear: whoever acts in favor of man is one of us. The Spirit is not a monopoly of the ecclesial structure, he is as free as the wind "which blows where it wills, and you hear its voice, but you do not know whence it comes and whither it goes" (Jn 3:8), he acts in the Church and outside it.
In our communities, many serve their brothers and sisters, and, in general, they carry out their tasks with diligence and generosity; however, jealousy and envy often appear here and there. They are an unmistakable sign that the job they have taken on has ceased to be a service and has become a means of affirming themselves, of carving out a space of power from which anyone who proposes changes or offers to collaborate is kept away as if he were an intruder. Thus, the Church's ministry is no longer considered the harvest into which the Lord is expected to send the greatest possible number of workers (Mt 9:37-38) but is a cake to be divided among contenders.
The second part of the passage (vv. 41-48) contains a series of sayings of the Lord. The first refers to the offering of a glass of water. This is the most straightforward and most spontaneous gesture, but it should not be overlooked because it can mark the beginning of a relationship of friendship. Already a wise man of the Old Testament had perceived its value: “If your enemies are hungry, give them food to eat, if thirsty, give something to drink” (Prov 25:21). He had intuited that this small sign of welcome could be the premise for reconciliation.
Jesus also recalls this gesture, and—note it—he does not attribute it to one of his disciples, but a stranger. It is a stranger who meets, perhaps for the first time, the messengers of the Gospel and offers them "a cup of water." Though apparently of little consequence, this act of love will not remain fruitless; it will establish a relationship of trust and mark the beginning of a dialogue. Every gesture that encourages meeting and communication between people is precious and should be encouraged.
This first saying is followed by threats against those who scandalize the little ones (v. 42). By scandal is meant any obstacle that hinders the path of the disciple. The little ones who should not be scandalized are not the children but those who are weak in faith, those who, with difficulty, take their first steps in following the Master. Whoever provokes their departure assumes an enormous responsibility. To teach this message, Jesus uses an image, death by drowning, considered by the Jews as the most infamous torture because it made it impossible to bury the corpse properly.
One wonders what the scandal is that makes the little ones lose an incipient faith or what little they have left. The context in which Mark deliberately placed the Lord's words allows us to identify the reason for this grave scandal: ambition (Mk 9:33-40). Conflicts, divisions, and schisms in the Church have always stemmed from pride, the desire for power, and the will to dominate others. Even today, the scandal keeps the "little ones" away from the Church remains the same: the unedifying spectacle of competition and intrigue to occupy the first places and obtain privileges.
The last part of the passage is dedicated to warning against another form of scandal: the one that comes from within, the scandal caused by the hand, the foot, the eyes (vv. 43-48), organs that, at the time of Jesus, indicated impulses to evil, lust, inclinations that distance themselves from God and lead to immoral choices. Jesus demands from the disciple the courage to make the necessary cuts, even if painful if he realizes that some actions, some projects, some feelings are incompatible with the evangelical choice.
The most immediate reference is to the control of sexuality, but not only. Other cuts must be made if one does not want to ruin one's own life and others. The finger-pointing in the arrogant attitude of those who, raising their voice, always impose their will, the hands that steal, the haughty glances and those that reveal greed for money, the feet that, from grudges, run fast towards revenge, must be eliminated; the envious and suspicious eyes that create unsustainable situations in the Christian community, where the brothers and sisters do not even speak to each other anymore.
Whoever does not dare to amputate, in a persistent way, these occasions of sin, whoever satisfies all his whims, is not severe with himself, does not control his passions, runs the risk of falling into Gehenna, "where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched” (v. 44).
Gehenna is the valley that flows south of Jerusalem. It was considered unclean because, in it, some of the kings of Israel had immolated their sons to Baal (Jer 19:5-6); graves were also dug there to bury corpses, and a perpetual fire burned to consume the city's refuse; a foul-smelling smoke made it disgusting. It was cursed, and the rabbis had taken it as a symbol of the ruin to be met by those who sin.
The unquenchable fire is another image derived from the oracle with which the book of Isaiah closes and addressed the enemies of God: "For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be extinguished" (Is 66:24). The worm that does not die indicates the perennial process of putrefaction to which those who behave wickedly are subjected. It is the announcement of the disintegration, of the self-destruction of those who do not follow God's ways.
These images, well known at the time of Jesus, were often used to admonish, to shake the consciences of those who neglected their duties towards God and their neighbor. Those who use them to draw conclusions about the punishments of hell would misinterpret their meaning. On the lips of Jesus, they are a pressing and heartfelt call, addressed to every person, not to ruin his or her own life and that of others. Whoever wastes his or her existence in this world loses, forever, the unique opportunity that God has offered him or her; he ruins himself or herself eternally because no one will be able to give him back the time he has wasted. But this timely insistence on the seriousness of this life should not be misunderstood; it is not an announcement of eternal damnation of the reprobate.