• Num 11:25-29
• Ps 19:8, 10, 12-13, 14
• Jas 5:1-6
• Mk 9:38-43, 45, 47-48
What do demons, sin, death, and damnation have in common? An obvious (and correct) answer is that all of them are, put bluntly, bad. They have a certain, even close, relationship to one another. Another answer is that each is a topic usually avoided in conversations around the water cooler and over morning coffee. In fact, they are sometimes given short shrift in homilies and sermons.
But today’s Gospel prominently mentions all four. Needless to say, it is a challenging and difficult reading. Yet it is the sort of passage too often ignored or downplayed, resulting in a skewed understanding of both the mission and message of Christ.
Jesus and his disciples took the existence of demons for granted; they also took them seriously. The discussion in Mark 9 about driving out demons is just one of about seventy references to demons in the New Testament. What is unusual, however, is the context: the disciples were complaining because someone who “does not follow us,” they told Jesus, was performing exorcisms. Jesus reminds them that such a deed can only be performed in his name, and such faith could not come from a foe. Since men can only be for or against him, the benefit of any doubt should go to those who exhibit love for and faith in Christ. In the words of St. Gregory of Nyssa, “None of those seeking to be saved will be lacking in this ability,” since salvation is a free gift from God.
That expansive explanation of how good done in the name of Christ should be acknowledged is followed by some of the strongest language in the Gospels about avoiding sin. Two terms stand out: scandal and Gehenna. “If your hand causes you to sin”—literally, scandalizes you, “cut it off.” Scandal, the Catechism explains, “is an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil.” Those who give scandal by words or actions can destroy spiritual life. “Scandal is a grave offense if by deed or omission another is deliberately led into a grave offense” (par. 2284). It is, G. K. Chesterton summarized nicely, “the tripping up of somebody else when he is trying to be good.”
Momentary physical pain cannot be compared to the eternal spiritual torment awaiting those who continue unrepentant in their sins. Gehenna symbolized such torment. It was a steep ravine southwest of Jerusalem where, many centuries before Christ, some Israelites had sacrificed “their sons and daughters to Molech” (Jer. 32:35), a pagan god long associated with such horrors. Gehenna was desecrated eventually by the righteous King Josiah (2 Kngs. 23:10), and became a smoldering garbage dump filled with trash and animal carcasses. Needless to say, it offered a powerful image of an eternal hell filled with undying worms and unquenchable fire.
Speaking of hell is never fashionable or enjoyable. St. John Chrysostom said of this passage: “Ordained as we have been to the ministry of the word, we must cause our hearers discomfort when it is necessary for them to hear. We do this not arbitrarily but under command.”
One of the great sins of our time is the deliberate and self-serving destruction of human life, especially what Pope John Paul II described as “the scandal of abortion.” Such a grave scandal exists because men—even those living in Western democracies—have “lost the ability to make decisions aimed at the common good” (Centesimus annus, 47). Pope Benedict XVI, in his encyclical on social doctrine, wrote, “To desire the common good and strive towards it is a requirement of justice and charity” (Caritas in veritate, 7).
Justice requires every man be held responsible for his sins; it rightly asks each pay for his moral deficits. Yet we are unable. As today’s reading from the Epistle of James makes clear, wealth cannot save us. Nor can power or fame. Salvation from demons, sin, death, and damnation is found only in the name of Jesus Christ, the author of life (Acts 3:15).
(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the September 27, 2009, edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)