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Welcome and unwelcome

A storm-tossed sea would not be a good place to teach someone to swim. If we were looking for ideal conditions to learn to swim we would choose a calm pool and an expert teacher. Most certainly we would not want to be surrounded by good swimmers who taunt us and try to keep us from learning.


The setting in this Sunday’s Gospel passage reminds us there are some tough seas and rough oceans in which we have to survive as disciples of Jesus. First of all, if there are demons to be driven out, we can be sure that such creatures bring a degree of danger. The disciples of Jesus were tasked with driving out demons. Of course, they could only do so with the power Jesus shared with them. They are confused then when they discover someone else driving out demons, someone who is not of their group. While we do not know from the text who that someone was, we learn a consoling lesson from Jesus’ response. Rather than prevent the good from being done, Jesus welcomes it. He knows that if it is truly good it comes from him anyway. If a demon is vanquished, it is through the power that Jesus brings to this world.


“Anyone who gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ, amen, I say to you, will surely not lose his reward.” The great and powerful deed of driving out a demon by someone seen as an outsider is accepted by Jesus. As well, Jesus affirms that any kind deed, no matter how small, will be remembered and rewarded in his kingdom. No good deed goes unrewarded, one might say. We can learn a lot from this welcoming and gracious way of Jesus. Welcoming and remembering every good deed, no matter who does it, is part of letting God’s gradual building of His Kingdom be accomplished. The good deeds surrounding us are part of the peacefulness and calm we need to grow in our ability to navigate in the storms of life. We find God when he is active in and through the good deeds of anyone and everyone. We are, and they are, God’s children after all.


The second part of the Gospel passage shows us a different side of things. Here Jesus might be seen as a good father trying to teach his children to swim. The older kids (or the mean kids from down the street) are making conditions bad for teaching and learning. Jesus could not be clearer in his teaching that every sin matters and that our personal sins affect others. If another person strays from the moral life and chooses to do evil because of our sins or our negligence, we will be held responsible.


In an age when it is not polite or even permitted to say some actions are evil or wrong, this teaching of Jesus is easily overlooked by people. Nonetheless, his meaning is clear. “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.” This image used by Jesus is a graphic one. The idea of being thrown into the sea with a huge stone around one’s neck is a frightening one. In no time at all such a person would be at the bottom of the sea. Commentators on this passage mention that the Scriptures show sin itself being treated in this way, buried at the bottom of the sea. As well, we see the opposite of the earlier welcoming and gracious spirit Jesus used. There can be no room for and no welcome for the accepted sins in our lives. His imagery becomes even more graphic and provocative when he teaches that no sacrifice is too great if it means avoiding the unquenchable fire of Gehenna. “And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out.”


Today we have ample reasons to be as welcoming and gracious toward the good around us as we have to be decisive and determined in rooting out whatever evil is within us.


Fr. Zuberbueler is pastor of St. Anthony of Padua Church in Falls Church.


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2018