For almost nine grueling hours on Thursday a culture of power, privilege and entitlement was on full display in an attempt to negate a story of personal trauma and vulnerability. It left many of us exhausted, spent and deeply concerned and disappointed that our community life in America has come to this.
Overlooked in all the analysis and commentary is one simple fact and resource: from beginning to end The Bible has much to say that may be helpful to navigating our way back to what we once called The Common Good. The Common Good used to call us to be as concerned, if not more so, for those who are most vulnerable in our communities and our country than for our own self-interest.
On the road to Jerusalem where he faces a violent execution at the hands of those who wield power, privilege and entitlement on behalf of the Roman Empire inside the ancient walls of its client state Israel – the center of both Israelite ritual worship and governance – Jesus has now twice told his closest followers that once they get there he “is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” In the meantime, on the way to his crucifixion he demonstrates the central importance of healing, caring for and serving the most vulnerable he encounters along the way. The way of living as God would have us live with each other in God’s creation.
His disciples, often portrayed as a stand-in for all of us, simply do not get it. In Mark 9: 38-50, a somewhat enigmatic little passage, John says to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” One can almost feel Jesus heave a deep sigh as he says that, “Whoever is not against us is for us.” This is a mild chastisement for his band of followers who evidently think that the power, privilege to cast out demons is exclusively reserved for Jesus and themselves. We are your privileged insiders, John is saying, so we will put a stop to it! To which Jesus replies, in a series of typically mystical and hyperbolic middle eastern quips, “This is not about insiders and outsiders. There are no boundaries to serving the most vulnerable and the common good. Let him be.” That is, rejoice and accept that there is good work that goes on outside of our little circle of friends.
Jesus warns, “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea,” the word for stumbling block is skandalon, from which we get the word “scandal.” It literally means to place an obstacle in someone’s way that causes them to fall. Yet, Jesus often extends this to mean not meeting someone’s immediate needs. It is a scandal to suggest stopping someone who is also doing our work of healing.
I have long been convinced that when the Jesus in the gospels speaks of “little ones,” and “children,” these phrases are stand-ins for the “am ha aretz” of the Old Testament, roughly translated “the poorest of the poor,” and for the repeated commands to attend to the needs of “widows, orphans and resident aliens.”
In the case of the person casting out demons in his name which is a scandal to John, Jesus retorts that not to cast out those demons is the real scandal. To attempt to put a stop to someone doing God’s work of repairing and healing a broken world just because that person is not an “insider” or one of us is the real scandal. This is not about consolidating power, privilege and entitlement, John, it is about extending the Rule of God’s will to any and all who are in need; who are vulnerable; who are routinely ignored by those in charge.
Then comes the difficult words of self-mutilation: “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; …And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; …And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.” These are hard words as we used to say in seminary. I believe the sense is that those who use their power, privilege and entitlement as a stumbling block for those more vulnerable do more damage to themselves than to the others. The one causing the scandal emerges more damaged than the ones affected by it. Though not to be taken in the most literal sense, his words do hint at removing people from power, privilege and entitlement for the overall health of the whole community, or The Common Good. That is, self-sacrifice on behalf of others is what strengthens and maintains the integrity and health of the community.
There will always need to be a surrendering of power, privilege and entitlement to adequately attend to the needs of “the little ones” and thereby heal and repair the brokenness of the community and The Common Good.
Finally, Jesus speaks of salt and fire: “For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” These are the most mysterious words in all of Mark’s gospel. Salt preserves, seasons and is used as a purifying agent. Fire purifies as well, and tempers and strengthens things like steel. The community needs both to survive. To endure the hardships and scandalons that lie ahead and sometimes seem to surround us on all sides. Brendan Byrne, in his commentary A Costly Freedom [The Liturgical Press, Collegville,MN: 2008] sums it up this way: “if you maintain that quality of life, with all the sacrifice it entails, you will, despite all, live in peace with one another; there will be no “scandalizing” of the little ones.” [p 156]
This text from Mark happens to be appointed to challenge us this week. This week in which we were able to witness the damage that is done when power, privilege and entitlement attempts to assert itself against the most vulnerable amongst us – which must include the one-in-three women in our society who have experienced sexual assault at least once in their lives. To include them amongst the “little ones” is not at all to demean or lessen their stature among us. Rather, it is to include them along with those for whom God and God’s community are to value the most, care for the most, which in Biblical terms means to love the most. The text declares that there is good that happens outside the community and scandal that lies within.
So-called organized religion too often has sheltered and participated in the culture of power, privilege and entitlement. It has often been the scandal. Yet, we are called to be those people who are willing to sacrifice our self-interest to support and care for all those for whom the God of the Bible has a particular and deep concern: the little ones, widows, orphans, resident aliens, and all those who have suffered from the myriad demons that surround us on all sides, especially within the corridors of power, privilege and entitlement. We are here for you. Today and forever.