Today we should spend some time reflecting on one of the essential truths of our faith, and that is:
It’s not about me.
In fact, I hope you will memorize those four words and find yourself repeating them all through the coming week. If we are ever to get anything out of our relationship with God, we are going to have to wholeheartedly embrace the notion that it’s not about me.
Our first reading and the first part of our Gospel today each relate a similar story. Someone from the inside group notices that someone on the outside group is acting in the name of the teacher, and they are indignant about it. The teacher in each case replies that there is no need to be indignant because those who act in God’s name can hardly be against God.
In the first reading, it’s Joshua that is all bent out of shape. Eldad and Medad were missing from the meeting and, in his view, should not have received authorization to go out and prophesy in God’s name. But that’s exactly what is happening. So he complains to Moses, who is anything but indignant. “Would that all the people of the Lord were prophets,” he says. And he makes a good point here. What if every one of God’s people knew God well enough to prophesy in God’s name? What if all of us who claim to follow God could speak out for God’s concern for the needy, the marginalized and the dispossessed? The world would certainly be a much different place. Joshua’s concern was that the rules be followed. Moses’ concern was that God’s work be done. Moses makes it clear to Joshua that it’s not about him. It’s not about either of them, quite frankly, and God can bestow his spirit on anyone he wants.
In the Gospel, John is upset because they found that someone outside the group was casting out demons in Jesus’ name. The disciples even tried to prevent him because the man was not from their group. But Jesus does not share their concern. If demons are being cast out in Jesus’ name, what does it matter who is doing it? If people are being healed from the grasp of the evil one and brought back to the family of God, well then, praise God! Jesus even goes so far as to say that if people are bringing others back to God, which is the fundamental mission of Jesus in the first place, then they really are members of the group. Anyone who is not against us is for us. Anyone who heals a person in God’s name is accomplishing the mission, so praise God. As for John and the others, well, it’s not about them, is it?
In the second reading, St. James comes about this fundamental spiritual principle in a bit of a different way. He chastises those who hoarded wealth, and especially those who hoarded wealth and did not care for the poor. He speaks of clothes that are moth-eaten. Moths mostly get to eat clothes that are not worn. So those who hoarded clothes, just for the sake of having them, have deprived the poor of the opportunity to have something to wear and instead have given the moths food to eat. That kind of hoarding and callous disregard for the poor is scandalous. We should note here, though, that James was probably not speaking primarily about people in his own community. At that time, there were very few members of the Christian community who had any appreciable wealth, so mostly it was those outside the community who hoarded wealth and made life miserable for Christians. But he was clearly saying that if any Christian found himself or herself wealthy, that person must care for all the others, because even in wealth, it’s not about us.
This principle can be hard to hear and hard to live in this society. We are a people all about entitlement. In our society, it’s all about our rights. We have the right to all kinds of things, and we take those rights to the nth degree. We have a right to say whatever we want, regardless of what that does to others. We have a right to have whatever we want, regardless of the needs of others. We have a right to do whatever we want, regardless of how that affects the basic rights of others. When we do not get what we want, we yell and we complain and we file suit. Then we gossip, and we slander others, and we try to get everyone to be on our side. In our society, we have the right to do this. But in our faith, we do not. Our faith tells us that this kind of attitude and all these actions are deeply un-Christian and even seriously sinful. This kind of action can indeed be the kind of thing that can “cause one of these little ones … to sin” and it would certainly be better that we would be bound to a millstone and thrown into the sea than for us to perpetuate this kind of attitude and action. Brothers and sisters in Christ, we have to come to know that it’s not about us.
If the early Christians were not wealthy people, these days, the tables are a bit turned. There are many wealthy Christians, and these words are extremely poignant for us. As those who live in one of the wealthiest counties in the wealthiest nation on earth, we must be very careful that our riches are not hoarded and that we have a diligent concern for the poor. Those of you studying the prophets in CREEDS know that the prophets tell us that God had a special concern for the widow, the orphan and the resident alien, because all these people were the poor and the dispossessed of that time. It is now our task to be sure that we care for their modern equivalents, perhaps the single mother or battered wife, the abused child, and the homeless person. On this respect life Sunday, we are also called to care for those whose life is fragile, especially the unborn. We have to zealously defend all life, from conception to natural death, even if it’s difficult to speak out in those ways, because it’s not about us.
None of this is to say that wealth in itself is bad, or that we shouldn’t stand up for our basic rights. But we have to be constantly on guard against taking any of these things too seriously, or insisting on them so much so that we lose our relationship with God, which is the pearl of great price that should never be squandered. Today’s Gospel makes quite clear that whatever it is that has us so wrapped up in ourselves that we forget about God must be ruthlessly and immediately chopped off, lest we end up burning in Gehenna. Gehenna was an area just outside the city where the community would dump their garbage, and it was always burning. I’m sure it was none too fragrant. So Jesus calling it to mind here was probably something the people were very aware of. Later the fires of Gehenna came to be seen as an image of the fires of hell. Nobody wants to be left burning in Gehenna, or in the fires of hell, so it would be far better to go without something they had a right to, like a hand or a foot or an eye. Because, in our relationship with God, it’s not about us.
What are the things that we need to chop out of our lives? Maybe we don’t need to chop off a hand, but instead chop off some of the things those hands do. Maybe it’s a job that is not worthy of our vocation as Christians. Maybe it’s a sinful activity that we no longer should be engaged in. We probably don’t need to lop off a foot. But maybe we do need to cut out of our lives some of the places those feet take us. Whether they’re actual places or situations that provide occasions for sin, they must go. I’m not suggesting that you gouge out an eye. But maybe cut out some of the things that those eyes see. Whether it’s places on the internet we ought not go, or television shows or movies that we should not see, they have to go. Some people may find that they need to get rid of the computer or television, or put them in a more public spot. It may be hard to do without these things, but better that than being so wrapped up in our own needs that we forget about God. Because it’s not about us.
The readings today make it quite clear that if we are serious about our spiritual life, we have to get past ourselves. Whether it’s because we see people outside our group doing great things, or because we are wrapped up in a sense of entitlement, or because we can’t get past the “stuff” that we own or because we are tangled up in things or sinful patterns that have a hold on us, all these things keep us from God. And we were made for God, brothers and sisters in Christ, so we need to ruthlessly chop away whatever keeps us from him. The psalmist tells us that “the precepts of the Lord give joy to the heart.” That’s what we have to be focused on, because, when it comes right down to it, it’s not about us.