Greatness or Grace?
There is strong language in today’s gospel. To me it sounds like Jesus is angry. Throwing people into the sea with millstones around their necks. Cutting off limbs. It’s shocking language, it’s meant to shock us, to get our attention. Something important is at stake here. But what is it?
This gospel challenges me. The first time I read it, it seemed disjointed. John’s question about an exorcist. Stumbling blocks. Giving a cup of water. Being thrown into hell.
Confusing, right? But then I noticed that today’s text is a continuation of last week’s text, it just picks up right where we left off. And I remembered that as Jesus is speaking in today’s gospel, he has a little child in his arms. Remember that from last week?
“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”
The disciples had been arguing with one another about who was the greatest.
Jesus says to them, “you’re not getting it”. It’s not about the way of greatness, at least not the way you understand greatness. It’s about the way of grace. Being the servant of all. Caring about the vulnerable and powerless. Being inclusive of outsiders. Welcoming a little child. That’s what God is like, that’s how God wants us to be. To show them, Jesus takes the child into his arms.
“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”
But John is preoccupied with other things. Things like greatness, rivalry, competition, who’s in and who’s out:
“Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name and we tried to stop him.”
Has John has heard nothing of what Jesus said?
“Do not stop him!” Jesus explodes.
Do not stop him, because no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able to speak evil of me.
Do not stop him, because whoever gives you a cup of water because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.
Do not stop him, because whoever is not against us is for us.
Jesus is calling John, and through him, all of us, to a more generous way of being. What I’ve been calling the way of grace. A way that is welcoming, expansive and inclusive towards others, the way of cooperation, the way of service, the way of humility. Why? Because there is work to be done. Jesus is calling us, all of us, on a great journey, God’s mission of healing and liberation, and human rivalries and competition just keep setting us back and getting in the way.
The goal is right there, at the end of today’s text. “Be at peace with one another”. But in order to get there we need to purge ourselves of a lot of failings along the way.
John cares about greatness. His human way of greatness is based on rivalry, competition, being an insider and exercising power over outsiders.
When Jesus says, “whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me,” John says, “We saw someone casting out demons in your name and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”
I think that’s one of the most tragic, heart-breaking lines in all of scripture. “We tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” So destructive. But so human.
Casting out demons, however we understand it, is a good thing. This man that John was talking about was bringing healing and liberation to suffering people, and doing it in Jesus’ name. But instead of welcoming him and embracing him, John and the others tried to stop him.
Why? Because he was not following us. He was not one of us. He was one of them.
We have a real propensity for us vs them thinking. We do it all the time. Divisions, tribalism, racism, nationalism, it shows up in all sorts of ways. It’s in the church too. The problem is, as soon as we think of someone as one of them and not one of us, we start to see them differently, to treat them differently, to value them differently. Instead of caring for them and listening to them, instead of valuing people, all people, as created in the image of God, we divide people into us and them, and we care more about us than them. In fact, we often marginalize and vilify them in order to feel better about us.
And when that sort of thinking gets embedded into our personal prejudices and blind spots, when it gets embedded into our social, political, economic, legal and religious systems, it leads to injustice and oppression. Because Africans are not us, they were enslaved. Because Indigenous people are not us we took their land. Because queer people are not us, they are excluded. Because women are not us, they are harassed and assaulted. And whenever there is us vs them thinking, whenever there is injustice and oppression, the ones who suffer the most, the ones who are most likely to be the victims, are the vulnerable and the powerless. Like the little child that Jesus holds in his arms.
Maybe that’s why John’s us vs them thinking makes Jesus angry.
God really cares about the vulnerable and the powerless, so much so that in Jesus, God actually became one of the vulnerable and powerless, and suffered first-hand the consequences of human prejudice and oppression, even to the point of death.
Jesus wants us to give up our human way of greatness and to embrace God’s way of grace. Why? So that we can be at peace with one another. But to get there we going to have to purge ourselves of certain things along the way and we’re going to have to get rid of those things we do or neglect to do that harm those of God’s children who are marginalized and vulnerable. The little ones. Like the child in Jesus’ arms.
And so in this gospel Jesus pulls out his strongest language to talk about the need for us to purge our failings and to purify ourselves. The language of hell. Just to make sure we’re paying attention.
Before going on, we need to talk a bit about “hell”.
The word that Jesus uses here and elsewhere, that we translate as “hell”, is the word Gehenna. Gehenna is a real place, it is the deep valley on the southwest side of the city of Jerusalem. In Jesus’ day it was the place where Jerusalem dumped and burned its garbage. But Gehenna has an even more sinister history. The prophet Jeremiah writes of Gehenna as the place where people came to “burn their sons and daughters in the fire”. This is where child-sacrifice was practised.
Now hear Jesus words again, and picture that little child still in his arms, knowing that the child represents those who are marginalized and vulnerable, those who are the outsiders:
“If any of you offends against one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better if a great millstone were hung around your necks and you were thrown into the sea.
If your hand causes you to offend against one of these little ones, cut it off. It is better for you to live maimed than to go to Gehenna, the place of child sacrifice.
If your foot causes you to offend against one of these little ones, cut it off. It is better for you to live lame than to sacrifice a little child such as this one.
If your eye causes you to offend against one of these little ones, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to be thrown into Gehenna, where the garbage burns and the fire is never quenched.
Today’s gospel tells us that there is nothing that makes God angrier than the abuse and oppression of those who are vulnerable and powerless. God cares for all those exemplified by the little child that Jesus holds in his arms. God cares for the outsider, the excluded, and the marginalized. She welcomes them in her arms. And when they are oppressed there is righteous anger.
Jesus is calling us to purge ourselves of the human way of greatness, to rid ourselves of the arrogance, rivalries, prejudices and competitions that harm the most vulnerable in our midst, and to turn instead to the way of grace, to an expansive, generous, humble and inclusive way of living that welcomes all and cares for those who are marginalized, or perhaps, simply different and not part of our group.
Then, all will be welcome. And we can be at peace with one another.
Homily. Yr B P 26. September 26 2021, Trinity
Readings: Esther 7.1-6,9-10; 9.20-22, Psalm 124, James 5.13-20, Mark 9.38-50