Twenty Sixth Sunday – Year B

Usually we think of Moses as the man of the Law, the letter that kills, and not a man of the Spirit who gives life. But in today’s reading we discover that the Spirit is upon him and that he generously shares it with the seventy elders. These prophesied, in a regular way, outside the tent. But then two mavericks named Eldad and Medad carry the disturbance of prophecy inside the tent – seemingly not the done thing. It is as if the Spirit could not be controlled. Quite contrary to what we might expect, Moses, the man of Law, is delighted, and wishes that all God’s people would be prophets. Who would expect Moses to be a figure like Pope Francis? Perhaps the “Moses effect” is not a grim repressive legalism, after all, but an outburst of freedom, energy, and illumination.

Jesus shows the same unconcern about borders in today’s gospel. John is distressed that those ‘who don’t follow us’, (notice ‘us’ rather than Jesus!) are casting out demons in Jesus’ name. Jesus, however, dismisses this pettiness and focuses on the good that is done and rejoices in that. “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.” There is an inclusiveness in this statement that is based in the infinity of God’s goodness and love, and it is that openness and generosity that we are called to imitate.

It seems that this kind of generosity and openness was too much for the early church. Matthew’s gospel, written some 20 year after Mark, and in that short gap the words of Jesus were changed. Where Mark’s gospel says: ‘For whoever is not against us is for us’, Matthew reverses it to say: ‘He who is not with me is against me!’ (Mt 12:30) Many parents today are worried that their kids no longer go to church. From Matthew’s point of view they are no longer with us therefore they must be against us. But Mark is more inclusive – they are not necessarily against us therefore they are for us. Matthew’s church wanted a neat little world where people knew where they stood and if they were not with Jesus, then they must be against him. Matthew’s clarity is all too human; Mark’s statement could only come from someone who fully embraced the world with love.

Down through the ages, the church has been closer to Matthew than to Mark: we are very good at noting who does not belong, who should be excluded from communion, who is to be seen as a threat. Equally, we have been very good at dividing up the Body of Christ into exclusivist sections: clergy — lay; those with ‘authority’ and those who are supposed to be led. An inclusive love that sees each Christian, indeed each human, as someone called by God to participate in the growth of the kingdom seems utopian. Yet, it is just such a communion of love that we, as the church, are to model to faction-riven humanity.

Inclusiveness is a modern virtue. We have inclusive language – except sadly in the new translation of the mass. We pride ourselves on including every group and faction and letting every voice be heard. But how real is our inclusiveness? Exclusiveness seems to be another modern virtue. We like chic, exclusive restaurants and the commercial world keeps tempting us with exclusive hotels and holiday destinations – away from the riff-raff. There was a special viewing of the Boks match on the warship, HMS Lancaster in Cape Town yesterday. Only VIP’s were invited!

Pope Francis is not convinced of the depth of our inclusiveness. In the past week he has taken America by storm and right now seems to be about the most popular man on the planet. But that doesn’t mean he held back from harping on the need to take care of the poor, the marginalised and the migrants. He appealed to the heart reminding everyone that he was the son of migrants himself – as were most Americans – and that we must see all the excluded as real people who deserved to be loved and honoured, just as we all do.

On Friday evening he gave a stirring homily at mass in Madison Square Garden. It was both an ode to the city and a reminder to watch for glimpses of the presence of God among the poorest of the poor. His theme, that “God is living in our cities,” provided an apt conclusion to a day spent navigating New York’s complicated fabric of both the rich and the struggling. On the one hand he witnessed soaring columns of skyscrapers with penthouses that are home to many of the world’s wealthiest people. But he was only too well aware of the many struggling beneath these same skyscrapers. Here is a quotation from his homily.

“In big cities, beneath the roar of traffic, beneath the rapid pace of change, so many faces pass by unnoticed because they have no ‘right’ to be there, no right to be part of the city … They are the foreigners, the children who go without schooling, those deprived of medical insurance, the homeless, the forgotten elderly. These people stand at the edges of our great avenues, in our streets, in deafening anonymity.”

In line with today’s gospel Pope Francis is calling all of us to examine our behaviour. Does it reflect inclusive love: anyone who is not against us is with us; or, is it that all too human exclusivist vision: anyone who is not with us is against us? In that shift in perspective lies the difference between, on the one hand, mere religious observance, and on the other, true discipleship of Jesus.

Sunday, 27th September 2015

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