Readings for the Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time: NM 11: 25-29; PS 19:8, 10, 12-14; JAS 5: 1-6; JN 17: 17B, 17A; MK 9: 38-43, 45, 47-48
Since the pope’s arrival in the U.S. last Tuesday, it’s been all Francis all the time on television and in the newspapers. He’s charmed us all, and even somehow inveigled Republican lawmakers to applaud ending capital punishment, protecting the environment, opening borders to immigrants, and ending arms sales of all kinds.
Washington Post columnist, George Will, however is holding out. On the eve of the pontiff’s arrival, Will called the pope an over-the-top consumer, distant from the poor, flamboyant, sanctimonious, unscientific, wooly-headed, reactionary, and un-American. He isn’t smart or honest enough, Will suggested, to know that the capitalism he criticizes has pulled the masses from their poverty, extended life expectancy, and has the power to clean up the environment without burdensome regulations. Fossil fuels have saved the world. Without it we’d all be starving. The wealth is indeed trickling down.
So the pope is wrong when he speaks of “the excluded.” Capitalism-as-we-know-it is blameless and excludes no one. We need do nothing but forge ahead (like lemmings), intimated Will, an ultimate Beltway insider.
I bring all of that up because this week’s readings are about insiders and outsiders and how the Judeo-Christian tradition, like Pope Francis, stand firmly on the side of those insiders feel compelled to protect themselves against. Unlike Will, the readings say, the Jesus tradition stands against the rich, and on the side of the poor – especially children. The tradition calls us to transformation, not defense of the status quo.
In Will’s defense, however, it must be said that he stands in good company. Like him, the very disciples of Moses and Jesus were exclusivists. As they show in today’s readings, they too felt compelled to protect their privilege and turf and to turn away those they perceived as threatening interlopers.
On the other hand, both Moses and Jesus are like Pope Francis. They take a Big Tent approach to matters of the Spirit, wealth distribution and protection of the vulnerable. Both recognize the Divine Spirit of prophecy and healing wherever they are effective. Where that Spirit works, the rich are denounced as in today’s reading from the Letter of James. Meanwhile, the poorest of the poor are defended in uncompromising terms – as happens at the end of today’s Gospel.
Consider the content of the readings themselves.
In today’s first selection from the Book of Numbers, Moses’ chief of staff, Joshua, is jealous when he hears that Eldad and Medad claimed Moses’ Spirit. They did so even though they had “missed the meeting” where that spirit was conferred. “Tell them to stop!” he demands of Moses.
“What are you talking about?” Moses replies. “They’re on our side. No one can control the gifts of God. I wish everyone could share my spirit of resistance to oppression.” (That’s what the Spirit of Moses is in the Jewish Testament.)
Evidently, Mark has the Numbers account in mind when, in today’s Gospel reading, he structures a dialog between Jesus and his “beloved disciple,” John. (Only, John doesn’t come out very loveable in this story.) Mark parallels Joshua and John, Moses and Jesus perfectly.
John complains to Jesus that an exorcist who “does not follow us” is casting out demons in Jesus’ name. He wants Jesus to stop the fraud.
(John’s remark itself proves interesting. That is, by Mark’s account, none of Jesus’ inner circle really “follows” Jesus. Actually, they understand almost nothing of what Jesus says. They just don’t get it. They argue about who is the greatest, completely missing Jesus’ point about leadership “from below.” And they even prove themselves unequal to the task of casting out evil spirits.)
Like Joshua, John is jealous of an exclusive position and of powers that don’t really belong to him – certainly not in Jesus’ eyes.
So, like Moses, the Master replies “Let them be,” he says. “Whoever is not against us is with us.”
Other contents of today’s readings clarify the polarities Jesus refers to. According to the selection from the Letter of James the rich are against Jesus; exploited agricultural workers and little children are with him.
As a result, James predicts that the rich will soon be reduced to tears and misery. Their crime: living in the lap of luxury and pleasure while building up personal retirement funds at the expense of the defenseless field workers the landlords have underpaid.
For their crimes, the wealthy will see their gold and silver rot away. It will devour their flesh like a searing fire. They’ll end up wearing moth-eaten rags worse than those of the people they’ve exploited.
In the Gospel reading Jesus has even worse things to say about those who mistreat the absolute lowest of the low in the first-century Mediterranean hierarchy, viz. children. As scripture scholar, Ched Myers, points out, for Jesus’ contemporaries children were victims of a “circle of contempt” within the family. They were treated as worse than slaves – as absolute non-entities.
Mark has Jesus contradict that culture in shocking terms. In fearfully poetic language he says that those who mistreat children will be treated worse than James’ exploitative rich. Jesus talks about amputated hands and feet and plucked-out eyes. His words cannot contain his rage.
In the end, George Will’s words barely contain his own rage in the face of Pope Francis embodiment of the Spirit Jesus exhibits in today’s gospel. In this the columnist mirrors would-be “followers” of Jesus — churchgoers who understand nothing of what their masters taught them. They are the rich who would have us ignore and despise the cries not only of children in general but of their own grandchildren and of their own Mother Earth.
In the end, it is they who are the over-the-top consumers, distant from the poor, flamboyant, sanctimonious, unscientific, wooly-headed, reactionary, and un-American.
George Will was more correct than he knew when he finished his screed about Pope Francis saying, “Americans cannot simultaneously honor him and celebrate their nation’s premises.”
Yes, we are called to change!