In this Sunday’s Gospel there is a certain tension between legitimate freedom and truths we must insist upon. We also have a lot to learn in sorting out friends and foes.
I. Foe or Friend? – The text begins, John said to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone driving out demons in your name, and we tried to prevent him because he does not follow us.” Jesus replied, “Do not prevent him. 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.”
The Apostle John’s consternation bespeaks confused priorities. Task number one is to advance the Kingdom of God, taking back territory from the Evil One. If someone can drive out demons in Jesus’ name, we ought to praise the Lord! Such a one is not a foe; the enemy of my enemy is my friend.
The apostles seem more concerned with pedigree and control. Perhaps notions of personal advancement, power, prestige, and pride beset them as well. Souls being set free seems to have been a secondary concern.
Misplaced priorities! There should be more about Jesus and His Kingdom, less about me and my glory. Don’t stop others from driving out demons. Help them, or at least get out of the way!
This command not to prevent him is of course a general norm not an absolute one. There are certain things that the Lord gave only for the apostles to do. It was they, not just anyone, who were to preach and formally teach in Jesus’ name, to baptize, to confirm, to celebrate the Eucharist, to forgive sins, to lead with authority, and to appoint successors and helpers by the laying on of hands. In addition, the Rite of Major Exorcism is reserved to appointed priests, though many lay people have charisms to heal and to drive away the influence of demons through approved methods such as unbound and other forms of deprecatory prayers.
Thus, even though priests have certain exclusive duties, it is foolish to think that every gift is reserved for the priesthood. Lay people bring many gifts: prayer, holiness, and the abilities to teach and to share leadership in parishes. They bring practical skills, too, such as administration, organization, and works of charity.
“Furthermore, many elements of sanctification and of truth” are found outside the visible confines of the Catholic Church: “the written Word of God; the life of grace; faith, hope, and charity, with the other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit, as well as visible elements.” Christ’s Spirit uses these Churches and ecclesial communities as means of salvation, whose power derives from the fullness of grace and truth that Christ has entrusted to the Catholic Church. All these blessings come from Christ and lead to him, and are in themselves calls to “Catholic unity” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #819).
Indeed, I have found that many wonderful Catholics come to us from the evangelical denominations. They bring some many gifts with them. They love Scripture. They love Jesus. They have a wealth of zeal. In the Rite of Reception, we thank God for the communities where they first learned of Christ even as we welcome them to full unity with the Church.
Thus, some whom we see as foes are actually friends in the Lord’s eyes. We should rejoice in the graces of Christ wherever we find them and seek to find full unity in the one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church.
II. Friends are Fundamental – The Lord admonishes the apostles, Whoever is not against us is for us. Anyone who gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ will surely not lose his reward.
This, of course, implies that the apostles will in fact need help, encouragement, and basic necessities as they undertake to proclaim the gospel. Scripture says, Woe to the solitary man! For if he should fall, he has no one to lift him up (Ecclesiastes 4:10).
The attitude of wanting to do everything oneself is not only prideful, it is foolish and impossible. We must accept that one of the provisions necessary for those who would be prophets is the help and support of others.
Neither can the Church blithely reject the help of medical science, psychotherapy, or of the business or government sectors. Other things being equal, there can and should be a proper partnership with these areas of human knowledge and expertise. While distinctions must be made and errors rejected, there is a partnership that should not be rejected. When the ship is sinking (and it is, since the fall of man) it’s all hands on deck.
III. Falsehood is the Fiercest Foe – Through the use of several analogies, the Lord illustrates just how serious it is to lead others into sin by scandal or false teaching: Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were put around his neck and he were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed than with two hands to go into Gehenna, into the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut if off. It is better for you to enter into life crippled than with two feet to be thrown into Gehenna. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. Better for you to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into Gehenna, where ‘their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.’
Here, then, are the worst enemy of all: false teachers and those who give scandal. The “little ones” Jesus refers to here are not just children; all of his disciples are His “little ones.” The Lord uses the strongest language possible here to express His wrath at those who lead His disciples into sin by false teaching or seduction. It would be better for them to die or be maimed than to do such a thing. The Lord says in Jeremiah, Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture, declares the LORD. … You have scattered my flock and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. Behold, I will attend to you for your evil deeds, declares the LORD (Jeremiah 23:1-3). My people have been lost sheep; their shepherds have led them astray and caused them to roam on the mountains. They wandered over mountain and hill and forgot their own resting place (Jeremiah 50:6).
Yes, to mislead or give scandal to God’s people is so awful that Jesus says being cast into the sea with a millstone around one’s neck is a better option. Otherwise, hellfire and worms will be their lot. Jesus says that it is more serious to sin in this way than to lose a hand or a foot or an eye! Elsewhere, Jesus calls false shepherds “wolves.”
The ancient prophets held up the sins of the people before them and called them to return to the Lord wholeheartedly. What about us? In the midst of a moral meltdown and a cultural collapse there are too many silent pulpits. Even more deplorable are those shepherds who outright mislead the faithful through false teaching, deliberate ambiguity, and bad example. Too many today make light of, or excuse, what God calls sin. These problems are not limited to the clergy. They are found in Catholic schools where the faith is contested rather than taught. They are also found among parents who have strayed from the faith and mislead their children.
All of us in any leadership position should consider the strong language Jesus uses here. We do well to ponder whether we are a friend of the Lord or an enemy. The Book of James warns, You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore, whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God (James 4:4). A false or misleading teacher or one who gives scandal to God’s people is the worst sort of enemy to God.
The Gospel opened with John seeing a foe where there was really a friend. Jesus says, in effect, “That’s not what an enemy looks like. He’s driving out demons, and that’s good work for the Kingdom. Do you want to know what an enemy really looks like? Anyone who causes one of my disciples to sin is an enemy in my eyes.”
True friends of the Lord drive out demons by holy teaching, good example, and prayer. Enemies of the Lord drive in demons by false teaching, bad example, and outright seduction. True friends of the Lord lift Him up for all the world to see.
Enjoy this old hymn; try not to tap your toe while you listen!
Don’t exalt the preacher,
don’t exalt the pew,
Preach the Gospel simple,
full, and free;
Prove Him and you will find his promise is true,
“I’ll draw all men unto Me.”
Lift Him up, lift Him up;
Still He speaks from eternity:
“And I, if I be lifted up from the earth,
Will draw all men unto Me.”