This Sunday’s readings teach us to be realists. Now, the word “realist” can be used in two almost opposite ways. Often by “realist” we mean “compromise.” A realist in this sense abandons his idealism because he thinks it’s too hard to live. The Gospel is “unrealistic” in this sense – or rather, the Gospel’s “realism” remembers above all that the God who made the world is the God who pours his love into our hearts. We never need to compromise our values – if they are truly God’s values, Gospel values – because the promise of the Gospel is that God gives us the strength to live out those values.
But in another sense, “realist” means we are focused more on the world “out there” than on the world “in here.” Realist spirituality cares about the “real world,” not just our feelings. That is the realism we learn this Sunday.
Our first reading plunges us into the theme. God has anointed Moses as leader, but now is sharing that leadership with the “seventy elders.” “Taking some of the spirit that was on Moses, the Lord bestowed it on the seventy elders; and as the spirit came to rest on them, they prophesied.”
Three quarters of this short reading are about Eldad and Medad, two of the seventy who were not there when the Spirit was shared, but who nonetheless receive the Spirit and themselves prophesy. When someone complains that these two are prophesying, Moses says, “Would that all the people of the Lord were prophets. Would that the Lord might bestow his spirit on them all!”
The main point is that God’s interior anointing bears fruit in exterior prophesy. What makes them leaders is the action they take, in the real world. God enables them to do that – but he enables them to do that: to act, in the real world.
Our Gospel begins with something parallel, the story of people driving out demons in Jesus’s name though they are not followers of the apostles. The Evangelists deal with this story differently, but here in Mark, Jesus’s comment is “Whoever is not against us is for us.” Like Moses’s prophetic elders, they are judged by their fruit. Their external action is good, whether or not they are obviously part of the club.
But Mark – the roaring lion, always insistent on making us see things together – add three more statements of Jesus that round out the theme. First, he speaks of, “anyone who gives you a cup of water because you belong to Christ.” Next, it is “whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin.” And finally it is, “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off.”
At first glance, this is a strange bunch of sayings to tie together. The one who drove out demons in the first story was not giving water to the apostles, and cutting off your hand has little connection to either one.
But the point in all four is objectivity, realism. Focus not on who is in the club, but on how they behave: casting out demons, caring for little ones, not scandalizing them, and not sinning
This does not exclude the importance of the internal. As in the first reading, elsewhere we could emphasize that it is precisely the Spirit of Christ that allows us to be good. This is not about some secular righteousness, in which Christ doesn’t matter. But here, at this moment, Mark is emphasizing that if our roots are in Christ, we ought to act like it, objectively, in the real world.
(He underlines his seriousness with three references to Gehenna, “where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.” The Lectionary reduces these three to one – but the seriousness is still apparent.)
The second reading is from that most objective, realist Letter of James. As always, the Epistle’s commentary enriches the theme.
First he emphasizes the objective weakness of worldliness: “your wealth has rotted away, your clothes have become moth-eaten, your gold and silver have corroded.” The Gospel is about our interior. But the exterior bears “testimony against you.” This world is passing away. Set not your heart on passing things.
But again he returns to economic justice is a key element of an objective spirituality. “The wages you withheld . . . are crying aloud.” Why do the poor matter? Because, whether the little children or the workers, they point us outside ourselves.
There is no place in Christianity for moral preening, congratulating ourselves for membership in the club when we don’t act the part. A tree is known by its fruit.
Are there places in your spiritual life where your interior gets too far separated from your exterior actions? Where do you need to get real?