Father THOMAS IDERGARD SJ
Homily for 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Year B: Numbers 11:25-29; Ps 19; James 5:1-6; Mark 9:38-43, 45, 47-48
St. Eugenia Catholic Church, Stockholm (English Mass)
Dear sisters and brothers in Christ,
When we feel uncomfortable with the sayings of Jesus in today’s gospel, it may be because our conception of Jesus is dominated by the image of a buddy, a guy just like us, only a little nicer.
But in the penitential act at the beginning of Mass, we pray “Kyrie, eleison”, “Lord, have mercy” in Greek. “Kyrios”, Lord, was in the Roman Empire a title of the emperor, also worshipped as a god. When the early Church reserved this title for Jesus and thus refused to worship the emperor, she said something completely revolutionary in those days. But it remains controversial also today. Refuse to worship the worldly emperors of dominating secularist ideals and opinions in our culture today; or mention Jesus’s name at a dinner in Stockholm and compare the reactions if you instead mention e.g. the name of Buddha, and you will see.
Jesus causes discomfort because of something all understand deep inside: If Jesus is “Kyrios” – which he himself claims in the historical sources about him, the New Testament, and which the Church at all times has professed – and one acknowledges that, then it has dramatic significance for one’s entire life. Because if he is not one lord but The Lord, everything belongs to him and has to serve him; us included, i.e. everything in us and our lives. Without exception. And no emperor can demand our worship. Of course, this is provoking to the individual ego, wanting to be lord itself, and provoking to ideologies and opinions of this world, demanding lordship over us.
In the gospel, we first heard Jesus saying that we can see all who work in his name as parts of the mission of the Church, irrespectively of relation to the Church. Similarly, our first reading from the Book of Numbers told of people, during the Jewish exodus from Egypt to the Holy land, unexpectedly proclaiming the word of God, outside the circles designated for that particular task.
In Jesus’s name – what is then that? Jesus, “Yeshua” in Aramaic, means “God saves”. The one who understands that God saves, i.e. grants eternal communion with himself through Jesus Christ, can never be against Jesus or the Church, and therefore can hope to receive the good he gives. This invites us to cooperate, e.g. by bringing an acquaintance to Sunday Mass; perhaps a Catholic who has not practiced for a long time, or someone showing an apparent respect for Christian faith. This then of course requires of us to make our faith in Jesus The Lord visible, by e.g. visibly carrying a crucifix or having an icon or another sacred image on the office desk.
We also heard Jesus turning to all who belong to the Church. His talk of people who “bring down one of these little ones who have faith” makes us today naturally think of the horrible and unspeakable sins and crimes of abuse and cover-up committed by some priests and bishops. But the warning to “bring down” also reminds all baptized of our responsibility to be aware of, and to show others, what leads to respectively from salvation, according to what the Church always has taught, with the authority of Christ. The longing for convenience and feelgood must never be allowed to overshadow the vocation to walk in and with the truth.
In the final section of today’s gospel, Jesus clearly tells us that hell exists, i.e. the eternal separation from God; a state that is the continuation of the total denial of God and God’s will here in time. Note that the address is to “you”. This clearly implies that hell shall be a possible, individual reality, which I ought to do everything I possibly can to avoid, and not something I should populate with others. Jesus’s talk about mutilation of body parts is a so-called hyperbole, a rhetorical exaggeration, underlining the point about the reality of hell: nothing in my life must be so valuable to me that it allows me to turn away from God incarnate in Jesus Christ. A reversal, whose most common cause and line of thought were described by the second reading from the Letter of James: the will to feed the ego above all else, particularly with greed for money and power.
These strong warnings are very good, because they help us to look at our own lives right now. Is there anything in my everyday routines, my work, people I deal with, my leisure activities, my relationships to others and myself, that pulls me away from Christ: from openly professing my faith in him and to live according to his will? Jesus wants to help me to re-order everything in my life according to his value scale. Through my prayers, my listening to and reading of the Word of God, and my participation in the sacramental life of the Church, confession not least.
Such a life in the imitation of Jesus Christ according to God’s will and plan, often provides a cleansing suffering. Detaching from the ego, its affections and conceptions, as the main yardstick of one’s life, is painful indeed! Resistance to the doctrine of hell is not only a resistance of the spirit of time to the idea that choices here might have eternal consequences. It is also a more natural resistance, as it were, a pain of re-valuation and conversion, linked to our own inability.
But then, I must not forget that the insight that I will not make it on my own, paradoxically provides the basis for all hope. That, which makes Jesus Christ “Kyrios”, and not the buddy who is just like me, only a little nicer; but rather God, Being itself, adopting a material body and a human soul, although remaining fully divine, so that he can do for and with me, through my physical matter, what I cannot do by and for myself: sanctifying me, transforming me in, and to, more and more of holiness, communion with God. Already in space and time, and fulfilled in the life after this.
This, Christ does through the Church, who remains holy no matter all us sinners in her, because He is here, in her unchanging teaching and her seven sacraments, conferring divine life independent of our weaknesses, in a way he is not present anywhere else; why Sunday Mass attendance of course cannot be exchanged for a walk in the forest.
Dear sisters and brothers, spiritual life is finally about our cooperation with God’s loving gift of himself through his incarnation, i.e. with God’s grace. Christ is God’s visible “law” that is perfect, and “precepts” that are right, as chanted in our responsorial psalm. Our aim to imitate Christ calls us to this constant prayer: Lord, help me with all that I am and have, to better, and more and more, serve you, also when this arises resistance in myself and in others. Amen.