by Father Mike Stubbs
Both within the political life of our nation and that of our church, polarization has reached an extreme.
Often, it seems to matter which group you belong to, more than what you believe about the issue at hand or what you plan to do about it. Affiliation means everything. Whose side are you on? We have become tribal.
That appears to have been the case also in the early church. That is why Jesus speaks as he does in Sunday’s Gospel reading, Mk 9:38-43, 45, 47-48.
The disciples, with John speaking on their behalf, complain to Jesus about an exorcist who has been driving out demons in Jesus’ name. It does not seem to matter to them whether this exorcist follows Jesus or not, or whether he has been successful in driving out demons. Rather, they try to stop him “because he does not follow us.”
In other words, “he does not belong to our group.” Notice, they say “follow us” — not Jesus.
St. Paul also appears to address this tendency toward cliquishness where he asks: “While there is jealousy and rivalry among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving in an ordinary human way? Whenever someone says, ‘I belong to Paul,’ and another, ‘I belong to Apollos,’ are you not merely human?” (1 Cor 3:3-4).
Often, as St. Paul has pointed out, the group will coalesce around a charismatic figure. It can become a personality cult. But for St. Paul, if the group will focus on any one person, it must be Jesus Christ. Only he can unify us.
The extreme divisions in our country and in our church have led to a toxic atmosphere, especially on social media. It has become a means to spread hate.
Slander, personal attacks and crude language have become rampant. These can contaminate the hearts and minds of others.
In that case, the second half of Sunday’s Gospel reading becomes terribly pertinent. Jesus warns us that leading others into sin results in awful consequences: “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 punishment by means of drowning may sound a bit bizarre to us, but evidently it was a form of capital punishment at the time of Christ.
Jesus is making the point that leading others into sin is so wrong that it merits the most extreme punishment possible.