Monday, October 01, 2018 - Updated: 12:49 pm
As our days get shorter and our liturgical year draws to a close, our readings focus on judgment and the kingdom of God. We will all have much to answer for. Perhaps the greatest and saddest scandal of Christianity is our persistent failure to practice the teachings of Jesus Christ.
We are familiar with the adage “Practice makes perfect.” On the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “We are called to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). Each day we are called to embark on the marvelous adventure of living in God’s presence. Many times we stumble and fall short. Yet, if we pick ourselves up again, we will train our minds and fashion our hearts to live in God’s presence. Through this, the practice of Christ’s teachings will become second nature.
Jesus commands us to cut away whatever keeps us from the kingdom of God (Mark 9:38-48). The early church recognized these verses about self-maiming as hyperbole. Jesus was not telling anyone to cut off their hand, but was emphasizing how important our spiritual integrity is. He spoke metaphorically about the human body — hands to work, eyes to see and feet to walk — stressing that these aren’t nearly as important as our relationship with God. Jesus calls us to find our completeness in him. He warns us to sever any relationship with a person, place and thing that causes our downfall and spiritual demise.
The metaphorical nature of Jesus’ statements about mutilation is obvious when we consider his miracles. He healed the man with the shriveled hand (Mark 3:1-6) and restored the sight of the blind man (John 9:1-41). But he used extremely strong language for those who lead others astray through poor example. Woe to those who make children or weaker Christians stumble by leading them to sin. Such actions are so abominable, he says, that it would be better to lose a limb than to commit such an offense.
As Christians, we are either a stepping stone or stumbling block to another’s faith journey. The Greek word skandalon means stumbling block or obstacle. Originally, it meant a large rock or boulder in the middle of the road that would impede travel. Jesus never wants us to be a barrier that endangers or impedes other people’s path to holiness.
Scandals shock. Scandals arouse our indignation. Scandals make one numb. Scandals embarrass us through humiliation. And scandals expose human weakness. Jesus is calling us to be ever-vigilant; to guard our minds, hearts and wills so that evil does not seduce us.
We must be vigilant in guarding against selfishness. Self-absorption can cut us off from God, others and our own eternal souls. Jesus stresses that our behavior has a ripple effect, with consequences far beyond ourselves and our immediate concerns.
Jesus issues a grim warning against those who would lead astray any of the “little ones,” whether through neglect or abuse. “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” (Mark 9:42).
Jesus calls us to compassionate care of everyone. That is his M.O. (a slang term that comes from the Latin modus operandi). Therefore, compassionate care must be our M.O. as well. Jesus is always compassionate. He performed miracles of healing, not to display his power but because he was “moved with pity” for those who suffered.
Pope Francis helps us to understand Jesus’ call to compassion. He wrote, “Even the weakest and most vulnerable, the sick, the old, the unborn and the poor, are masterpieces of God’s creation, made in his own image, destined to live forever, and deserving of the utmost reverence and respect.”
This is what it means to practice the commands of Jesus. There are hundreds of ways to imitate his mercy and compassion, and they start with our response to the person in front of us.
Jesus says that even when we offer a cold cup of water in his name to someone who is thirsty, it is a sign of our eternal destiny. He reminds us that no service, however minimal, will go unnoticed or unrewarded. Mark Twain once said, “Kindness is a language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see.” And, in that, he spoke the Gospel truth.
Father Jones is a chaplain at UPMC Mercy.