Jesus teaches tolerance

Published 3:42 pm Friday, September 25, 2009

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 Shop.”

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, who was considered 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 applaud.

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, like my country Guatemala, 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 me 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 community.

In the 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.

You know that Jesus was middle eastern and seems to have used 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.