There is a certain irony in John’s complaining to Jesus about the unauthorised exorcist who has been using Jesus’ name – and therefore Jesus’ power – to help people by casting out evil spirits.
Mark has related not long before this episode the incident where the father of an epileptic boy asks Jesus to cast out the spirit of dumbness from his son after Jesus’ disciples proved unable to do so. Jesus reacts with frustration, saying, “You faithless generation… how long must I put up with you?” In his reply to John, Jesus makes it clear that his power is not limited to the circle of his disciples. There is even a hint that John is not quite clear about where this authority lies, as he actually says that the person in question does not follow us, rather than does not follow you.
This wider vision extends to people who show kindness to disciples who bear the name of Jesus.
The final paragraph is an example of the exaggerated speech which is characteristic of some Middle Eastern societies. The idea of self-mutilation as a remedy for sin is not to be taken in any way literally, but the language serves to underline the seriousness of attending to our moral Christian discipleship, not just for our own sake, but because it can undermine other people’s following of Jesus.
Reading the signs of the times is a useful theme for today’s Gospel reflection. In these ecumenical days, we are more appreciative of the sincerity and values of other Christian bodies and of other religions: much of this progress comes from simply interacting with such people, getting to know them as individuals and seeing what we have in common, rather than what might divide us. Jesus’ words about the exorcist acting without official permission are a warning to those who would restrict Jesus’ influence to any privileged group.
The section on giving scandal is one which is of particular relevance, given the appalling revelations which have rocked the Church in recent years. It is clear that many people who have survived abuse have, understandably, lost their faith in God, Jesus and the Church, which is supposed to be “the sacrament of Christ’s presence in the world”. Those affected are not only those directly involved, but also those who are so bewildered or disgusted at this abuse of trust that they have abandoned the practice of the faith, if not their faith altogether.
We might remember that the Church is the whole people of God, not just the leaders. When the institution becomes more important than its reason for existing, then something has gone seriously wrong. Perhaps John’s complaint about the unauthorised exorcist might be a warning today about thinking that the Spirit can be limited (or contained) within the structures of the Church: Jesus’ teaching on dealing with the causes of scandal would go a long way to preventing future disasters.
- The expression “little ones” is Mark’s way of referring to people of simple faith.
- People in the Middle Eastern society of Jesus’ day often used exaggeration or hyperbole to emphasise the serious nature of what they were talking about.
- The “donkey’s millstone”, which is what the text actually says, is the upper stone which the donkey would turn by walking around: it would be heavy enough to ensure death by drowning.
Make sure that you are familiar with your parish’s safeguarding policy and requirements.