On Not Being a Stumbling Block to Others
Scandal. That’s what the translation should actually say in today’s Gospel (Mark 9:38-43, 45, 47-48). Why the lectionary renders the Greek Skandalon as “sin” in this translation is unclear, but what is clear is that in the original Greek, Jesus is making it plain to his followers that those who — by their actions or words — become an obstacle or “stumbling block” to others are the real problem that needs correction.
It may seem like a minor concern, this business about translation, but the NAB translation in our lectionary proceeds to use “sin” in the bodily examples Jesus names: hand, foot, eye. But, again, Jesus doesn’t actually seem to be so concerned about the individual act of sin as we might imagine it today, nor is he very likely to have been concerned about one’s actual physical body. The verb used here in the Greek is Skandalizein, which really means “to cause one to stumble.” And scholars, such as John Donahue and the late Daniel Harrington have explained that these bodily references are metaphorical, referring as St. Paul does so often in his letters to the corporate body — in this case: The Body of Christ.
With this in mind, we can look at today’s Gospel in a whole other light. It’s not about individual acts of indiscretion or sinfulness (not that those aren’t important), as much as it’s about how we relate to one another and to strangers as members of the Body of Christ.
In today’s First Reading (Numbers 11:25-29) we have an interesting story about the bestowal of the Spirit upon those selected to continue Moses’s prophetic ministry to the people of Israel. As it happens, two men who were not at the event where the Lord was said to bestow the Spirit upon these ministers nevertheless began prophesying. Those who were counted among the ministers became very upset and insisted that Moses stop them, for these guys were not “allowed” to be speaking on behalf of God and prophesying.
Moses replied: “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the people of the LORD were prophets! Would that the LORD might bestow his spirit on them all!”
The self-righteous seem convinced that they should be arbiters of who is in and who is out of God’s favor. These two prophets might not have been part of the official ceremony of commissioning, but their deeds and words reflected true reception of God’s Spirit. So often religious people are concerned about who is in and who is out of God’s favor, who should be admitted to ministry, who should be welcome at the Table of the Lord — yet, it is clear in Moses’s response that this is not what is important to God. God wants all people to be prophetic followers of the law and God’s will.
A similar scene plays out in today’s Gospel.
Like Moses, Jesus is nonplussed with the idea that people other than his self-identified followers are out and about doing good works and preaching the Good News in his name. The disciples, self-appointed first-century “brand managers” of Jesus, find it annoying and intolerable that those who are not part of their “in crowd” can still be able to perform good works in the name of Christ.
One of the easily overlooked clues that their behavior isn’t really concerned with Jesus as much as it is with their own status as the arbiters of who is in and who is out comes when John reports the news to Jesus: “Teacher, we saw someone driving out demons in your name, and we tried to prevent him because he does not follow us.”
Catch that? He says this other miracle worker should be prevented from acting not because he doesn’t follow Jesus, but “because he does not follow us,” that is the disciples!
This guy, like the two of the First Reading, is not part of the “in crowd,” does not have the official recognition of those who like to judge the worthy and unworthy, does not play the game according to the disciples’ rules.
And yet, here he is nevertheless performing good works and proclaiming the Good News. Because, in truth, he is certainly “for Christ” (“There is no one who performs a mighty deed in my name who can at the same time speak ill of me. For whoever is not against us is for us”).
Jesus uses the same “us” language in response to John to hammer-home the point of communion (Koinonia), the recognition that it is the Spirit of God that unites “us” and not the arbitrary decisions of the self-selected governors of discipleship. As James has been pointing out in the Second Readings these last weeks, discipleship isn’t determined by what one simply says in terms of their faith, but how it is lived; it is seen in the resulting good fruits.
Returning to the key notion of “scandal” in today’s readings, those who complain to Moses and Jesus might have been upset by the potential “scandal” of someone outside of their “in crowd” doing what they felt they had the right to authorize or forbid. But God makes clear through Moses and in Christ that the real scandal is when the disciples and other “good, religious people” exclude those who seek by their deeds and words to do the will of God.
Within the Body of Christ, these are the “members,” the “limbs” that need to be removed — perhaps only for a time — in order that they do not become a stumbling block for the faith of these “little ones” as Jesus puts it.
In our own time, these readings evoke the many people who fall into the category of the “nones” or “disaffected Catholics” or “former Christians,” who may no longer affiliate with a religious institution, but nevertheless seek to do good work and promote the common good in society. Just because a person is not an official member of this or that church does not mean that he or she isn’t doing God’s Will.
This weekend’s readings really call today’s self-proclaimed followers of Christ to examine their consciences. For the “hand,” “foot,” or “eye” that may need to be removed may be them if their attitude, words, and actions cause others to stumble in their faith and prevent the in-breaking of the inclusive Reign of God.