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Strangers who are friends

Mk 9:38-43, 45, 47-48

A polarized world

We live in a world that is increasingly polarized. We listen to and read the news according to our political positions. It is a way of life that breeds ignorance. We try so hard to reduce reality to an “us versus them mentality.” This structure seems to be a carryover from Communist thought, which places the oppressor and the oppressed in permanent opposition. “Freeman and slave, patrician and plebian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large or in the common ruin of the contending classes.” (Karl Marx, Communist Manifesto) Much evil in the world has come about because people have not questioned this affirmation by Marx.

A different outlook

Jesus proposes an entirely different way of seeing the world. Whoever is not against us is with us. The disciples get bent out of shape because somebody else is working miracles. The evil of jealousy has taken over their hearts. We can be jealous too. The assumption of jealousy and envy and the Gospel of material well-being are staples of a Communist mindset. The poor must envy the rich, as material well-being is the only way to be happy in this world. But Marx was wrong. Jesus denied the premise that material well-being was the most significant sign of happiness.

Discoveries from those who suffer the most

So many people who have gone on a religious or even a humanitarian mission trip to a developing country come back amazed at how little material wealth matters for people's happiness. Now, of course, material poverty poses some real problems. It can make healthcare and education more challenging to acquire. Sometimes, it might even be impossible. Nevertheless, it is not the ultimate criterion of happiness.

Sickness can seem like the worst of fates. To lose one’s physical strength and ability to carry on with ordinary life can be a cross that appears too heavy to bear. Nevertheless, it is encouraging to see how many people who suffer significant sickness can find the meaning of suffering in their lives. Their example and testimony help the rest of us to be grateful for the gift of health.

Polar opposites in the mind of Jesus

In today’s Gospel, Jesus does speak of opposition, though it is not between the powerful and the weak. It is an opposition that exists inside each one of us. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn famously affirmed in the Gulag Archipelago, “the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart.” He knew the Soviet manifestation of Communist theory and suffered at the hands of his captors. Nevertheless, he recognized his captors as fellow human beings and recognized in himself the capacity to be just as cruel.

Much reflection on polar opposites was made by Romano Guardini, a philosopher who profoundly influenced Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis. “The key idea of opposites is not a closed system, but an opening of the eyes and an interior orientation towards the living being.” (Guardini, L’opposizione polare. Saggio per una filosofia del concreto vivente) By recognizing the authentic differences, we can comprehend better the unity and connectedness of everything. “Everything is connected. Concern for the environment thus needs to be joined to a sincere love for our fellow human beings and an unwavering commitment to resolving the problems of society.” (Pope Francis, Laudato Si, 91)

The human condition

This is part of the human condition. Jesus reveals to us the heart of mankind. One of Pope John Paul II’s favorite quotes from the Second Vatican Council comes in the Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes. “Only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light.” (Gaudium et Spes, 22) In today’s Gospel, Jesus points out how we can allow temptation to take over in our life. He exhorts us to cut evil out of our lives, not to give it also called the time of day. It is better to walk crippled in Heaven than to have your whole body in Hell. Jesus minces no words. He wants us to follow him radically.

While we are called to radical adherence to the truth, we are called also to not reduce our vision of the world into friends and enemies. Jesus, who would be ultimately sacrificed on the cross to pay our debt of sin, did not see others as enemies. He saw them as people he wanted to save.

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