It’s a Scandal
Twenty-Sixth Sunday of the Year. Fr Francis Gaine asks who are the real enemies of Christ.
Jesus always provokes a response in those who encounter him. It’s true that there are those who want to follow but are afraid and those who are held back by something they don’t want to leave behind. But at bottom there are those who are for him, and those who are against. Jesus himself implies as much:
For he that is not against us is for us.
And in different circumstances he says:
He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters.
So who is for Jesus and who against?
In today’s Gospel, Jesus cautions us against judging that those outside his group of disciples are against him. Someone not a disciple has been performing miracles in Jesus’s name, and when the disciples complain about it Jesus admonishes them rather than the lone exorcist. No one, Jesus says, can do such a mighty work in his name and afterwards speak evil of him.
Nor is it that the exorcist is somehow for Jesus but against the disciples. When the disciples made their complaint, their grievance was that the man was not with us. Whom does this ‘us’ include, Jesus or just the disciples? Perhaps their concern was that the man wasn’t following them rather than not following Jesus. So is Jesus replying that the exorcist, though he may not be with the disciples, is nevertheless for Jesus? No. Jesus doesn’t say that the man is for him but not for the disciples. He says:
He that is not against us is for us.
Jesus doesn’t reject the exorcist, but he doesn’t exclude the erring disciples either. Jesus and the disciples are ‘us’. Whatever their mistakes, the disciples are not his enemies. Who though are the ones who are really against Jesus?
Jesus’s enemies might have been thought to be the Roman authorities, and indeed they are the ones to try him and put him to death. Moreover, Jesus struggled with Satan in the desert and set about despoiling his house by exorcising devils. He was opposed by the Sadducees who saw him as a threat to their religious and political position. He was opposed too by the Pharisees whose religiosity he lambasted.
And yet, in today’s Gospel Jesus singles out none of these as those who are against him. Instead he speaks against those who cause little ones who believe in him to sin, those who ‘scandalise’ believers. These, it seems, are those who are really against him, not an external enemy even, but someone within – any disciple could become a scandal to another believer.
We are used to thinking of a scandal as some disgraceful happening, but here ‘to give scandal’ means to behave in such a way that you encourage others to sin. In our second reading St James speaks of the rich who oppress the poor and don’t pay their wages. Now that is already a heinous crime, but imagine if those rich people are also Christians! When other Christians see their behaviour, they may feel justified in sinning themselves. And so the sin of the rich would be not just oppression but scandal too.
Who is opposing God, who is opposing Christ, in our world today? There are many who are against him, including those who campaign against religion and faith. But perhaps those who are really against God are those Christians who have ended up making themselves an ‘enemy within’, a scandal or a stumbling-block to the faith of others.
Is that us? Are we a stumbling block to others by our failure to live Christian lives in church and out of church? Have we given scandal by a lack of reverence for Christ in others? Have we given scandal by a lack of reverence for Christ in the Eucharist? Do we fail to show proper regard for the Church as the Body of Christ?
Jesus tells us that it would be better for those who give scandal to be drowned at the bottom of the sea, just as the Egyptians, the enemies of God’s people, were drowned. There is, however, an alternative. In baptism the old Adam in all of us was drowned away. When the grace of our baptism is renewed, at Mass, in confession, or by any growth in charity, we drown away the enemy of God in us. Whenever we repent by God’s grace and turn back to him and do penance, we cut off some unspiritual part of ourselves and throw it away. Let us never be scandals to others, but instead the prophets and disciples our Lord wants.