Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time (September 30, 2018)

Today, the connection between the first reading and the Gospel jumps out at us. In the first reading, before the Jews entered the Promised Land, God directs Moses to choose seventy elders as helpers and bring them to the tent where the Ark of the Covenant was kept. Two, Eldad and Medad, had been chosen, but were absent for the tent blessing, yet they still received the gift of prophecy and Moses approved them. Joshua, Moses’ assistant, expresses the same sentiment, as Jesus’ disciples will later: resentment.

Coincidently, that is the reason why the elders were sometimes numbered as seventy, sometimes as seventy-two and also why the same number of Jesus’ disciples is disputed.

In Jesus’ day, our Gospel passage begins with the issue of how authority is mediated in the Christian community. His disciples are resentful because another, not in the company of Jesus, also has the gift of healing. They are upset because that exorcist does not belong, is an outsider, a threat to their turf, their self-importance. Their issue shows their faulty attitude and sense of competitiveness. It raises the question: why are the disciples not delighted that more were cured, and that the exorcist exorcised in Jesus’ name; that is, through Jesus’ power? It was only shortly before that the disciples themselves were unable to cast out an evil spirit; now they are jealous of an “outsider” who can.

That raises a deeper question. We recognize the basic fight to survive in each of us. When drowning or other dire situation faces us, we fight for our lives – and rightly so. Recognizing the needs of others to physically survive triggers the gut-compassion that is the stuff of heroes. On the other hand, we also recognize a dangerous, competitive spirit that is also a knee-jerk reaction. Sadly, we are so defensive of our egos.

Our effort to attain the consciousness of Jesus impacts the competitive spirit that defends egos:

  • A basic value in Christianity is cooperation, not competition. Growth in love is associated with cooperation, not with competition. We need to recognize this.
  • Our loving relationship with God is the paramount value and trumps all other values; we need to live this reality.
  • We are called to improve ourselves in the physical, emotional, and intellectual realms. Competition enhances all three, but winning is not everything. Sportsmanship – a subset of love of neighbor – tempers competitive athletics. That is sanity.
Today, we hear Jesus scold the disciples for competitiveness and exclusiveness. The disciples see themselves as superior, an in-group. They seem to feel somehow cheated because an outsider can heal in Jesus’ name. Somehow we tend to be exclusive when Jesus calls us to be like himself, inclusive. We remember the words of John’s Gospel [17]. Jesus prayer for unity: “I pray father that all may be one. As you are in me and I in you …”

We all recognize and accept that no one of us is perfect. That is an understatement. We also need to accept the fact that each of us is innately unique and, yes, great. But not perfect. That realization is a wonderful, life-giving truth.

We all have graces and gifts from God. These are not to be hoarded and reveled in as personal possessions, but shared. When we appreciate that this is also true of everyone else, we have neither need nor desire to exclude anyone or to feel superior. It is a perversity within our hearts to be exclusive, to feel somehow superior. Smugness is not virtuous.

Our search, our quest is to become increasingly conscious of what gifts we have been given, what we will do with them, and who we are becoming. On the flip side, unhealthy and foolish envy at what we lack is both counter-productive and unchristian.

The place of competition is to help, not hurt us. Cooperation is an end; competition, only a means. Appreciation of a diminished role of competition is certainly a hard-won victory in my personal evolution. It is surely not what the world taught us years ago.

Let us not forget the principle Jesus lays down for us in today’s Gospel: “He who is not against you is for you.” Our Gospel diminishes the number of those “against” us.

The cooperative life is good!