Today’s Gospel consists of several bits and pieces which don’t really come together to form a pattern or make up a story, as so often happens in the Gospel readings at Mass. So I read back a few verses and had no need to look far to find that Our Lord had once again withdrawn from the public arena of the synagogue and the market place and retired to the privacy of home in Capernaum.
There he continued the private tuition he was giving the twelve disciples. Little did they realize at the time, but only months separated them from the first feast of Pentecost when, inspired by the Holy Spirit, they would launch what we know today as the Catholic Church. Our Lord knew it, of course, and was also aware of how much the disciples still had to learn.
If you cast your minds back to last Sunday’s Gospel, you will remember that on the way back from Galilee to Capernaum the disciples had been talking among themselves as they walked, and an argument started about which of them was the greatest. Our Lord asked them about this and got an embarrassing silence for an answer. He told them, if you want to be first you have to be prepared to be last, and if you want to be the master you must be ready to act as a servant. “Whoever welcomes a little child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me, welcomes not me but the one who sent me. Whoever gives a cup of water to someone in need will not lose his reward. Anyone who is not against us is for us, but if anyone causes someone else to sin he will be punished just as the kind person will be rewarded.” And, last of all, in most vivid and realistic language Our Lord tells them that no sacrifice or effort is too great to achieve the happiness of heaven. This is the substance of Our Lord’s teaching to the disciples – and of course to us today.
So what is the lesson for us in today’s gospel? Well, the first word that comes to mind is ‘tolerance’. You will remember that John pounced on a man for using the name of the Lord in his efforts to drive out evil spirits. John was angry because the man didn’t belong to the group of apostles chosen by Our Lord, and so he reckoned he had no right to use the name of Jesus. But Our Lord said, “Don’t stop him, he is hardly likely to cause something good to happen in my name one minute and speak evil about it in the next.”
The lesson of tolerance is one most of us need to learn and keep on learning, especially in this day and age. The French writer Voltaire summed it up perfectly when he said about one of his opponents: “I hate what you say, but I would die for your right to say it.” I’ve always found that a good way to help others have their say is to train yourself to listen. Like John in the Gospel, we are sometimes too quick to pounce and think we know it all.
The second lesson that strikes me is that even the slightest act of kindness, a cup of cold water given to a poor man at the door is still kindness and it will be rewarded. Some people are more naturally kind than others but I think it’s very clear that we should all be at least ready to help. It’s too easy to say that it’s none of my business, or make the excuse that it doesn’t pay to interfere. If the answer to the question – would Jesus Christ have helped? – is yes, then help we must. That rule of thumb can be applied everywhere – at home, work, school and church. And we are presented with an opportunity to put this lesson into practice today. Bishop Egan has called for a Day of Prayer for Migrant Refugees. We’re all aware of the growing crisis as an increasing number of people leave their own homes and their own countries in order to find refuge and security in Europe. The politicians haven’t yet figured out what to do and how to address this growing crisis, there’s been lots of talk but very little positive action. Bishop Egan is right when he says that we feel helpless as we contemplate the gravity of the situation. The first step when faced with any crisis is to pray and to ask God’s help and guidance, and I’m sure we have all been doing that a lot over the past months. We should pray that the Holy Spirit will guide the politicians to figure something out quickly and have a care for the poor people rather than be concerned with their own national borders and how their voters will react if they show compassion to the refugees. As ordinary citizens we must be ready to help in any way we can. Yes, first by praying, and then by offering what financial and material help we can when the time comes. We can’t just sit on the fence as this dreadful drama unfolds before our very eyes. Christians have always been among the first to offer the helping hand. May we not be found wanting as this present need unfolds.
Our third lesson today is how happy things come from good example and awful things from bad. To sin yourself is bad enough but to teach others to sin is infinitely worse. Our Lord could scarcely find words strong enough to express what he felt about that, and he ended up by saying that it would have been better if such a person had never been born. You could well say that to help puts you on the way to eternal reward, but to cause the weak or the young to sin puts you on the way to eternal punishment. We can’t begin to estimate the value of good example or assess the harm done by bad example. May we always give good example to those around us.
In addition to praying today for migrant refugees we also thank God for the harvest; we thank God for all that we have received through his goodness, especially the fruits of the earth. But let us also express our solidarity with those who are less fortunate than ourselves. May we help them with our material support but also work to achieve fairness in the economic and political structures of our world, so that all people may have the opportunity to make progress and increase their standard of living through their own efforts.