26th Sunday of the Year — ‘Give Drink to the Thirsty’

God made the human person for himself. No other creature is an end for God but man. He made man for love.

Ghislaine Howard, “Give Drink to the Thirsty”
Ghislaine Howard, “Give Drink to the Thirsty” (photo: Ghislaine Howard)

One of the dangers of Biblical literalism is seizing one passage of Scripture and yanking it out of context to make a point. Take this Sunday’s Gospel.

“Anyone who is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:40).

Well, Jesus also said “Whoever is not with me is against me” (Matthew 12:30). 

So, is the other for Jesus or against Jesus?

Do we let people run with the Markan text and hawk a syncretistic approach to religion: “as long as we do good, does it matter if we say ‘Jesus’ or ‘Allah’ or ‘Buddha?’”

Or do we run with the Matthean text and advance a Feeneyite interpretation of extra Ecclesiam nulla salus — “outside the Church there is no salvation” even in baptism of desire?

Fortunately, good Catholic theology is rarely an “either/or.” Good Catholic Scriptural exegesis demands we consider a text in context, in how it fits with the overall “trajectory” of Scripture, with the primacy of the New Testament, and with the teaching of the Church. The Bible is, after all, the Church’s book, the book of the believing community confessing Jesus Christ, not a private preserve for “personal interpretation.”

So, it’s not as simple as “dueling verses.” There is no salvation apart from Jesus (John 14:6; Acts 4:12). Jesus has committed himself to his Church: that’s what we mean when we say the Church is the “sacrament” of Jesus, making his salvific work present here and now through the sacraments. Jesus gives us his assurance to be with and act through the Church “all days, until the end of the world” (Matthew 28:20). That much is guaranteed. How else God may work is … up to God.

God made the human person for himself. No other creature is an end for God but man. He made man for love.

The creation of man and woman is “very good.” All that God creates is “good” — the constant refrain of Genesis 1 teaches us that. 

That created, “in-built” goodness can’t be eradicated, even by sin. At least some of its effects remain. True, as a result of sin the human intellect is darkened, the will weakened, and the passions unintegrated. 

But humans still have an orientation for the good.

Consider the very structure of our minds and our language. When I ask somebody to pick between “A” and “B,” they pick “B,” and you ask, “why” the answer is going to be some variant of “because B is better.” In other words, we choose for what appears to be good. It might be good or it might not be (remember, our intellects are darkened and wills weakened by sin), but the choice is made because B appears to be better. Nobody says “I picked B because it was worse.” If they did, you’d think they were joking or crazy; what you would not think is that the statement should be taken seriously. 

In short, real or imagined, human beings are like compasses oriented toward the good.

I’ve always been amazed by the fact that even bad things progress along logical lines. Consider diseases. Few doctors would say, “You have cancer. I have no clue what will happen next.” The doctor may hold out treatments that may or may not work, but he knows that if the cancer is not stopped, it is going to progress this way towards stage II and that way towards stage III. There is a reason and logic even to physical evil.

Man may pervert his understanding of the good (how else does one explain how some call “rights” what most of humanity recognized as wrongs for most of its history?) but he still acts under the definition of good. And it’s because of that thirst for the true and the good that man is always called to conversion from what is not true and not good.

Consider today’s Gospel. Jesus’ Apostles are upset because “someone who is not one of us was driving out devils in your name and because he was not one of us we tried to stop him” (Mark 9:38).

Remember what we have heard for much of the past year in Mark’s Gospel. Jesus’ physical healings and exorcisms have been proofs of his divine mission to free man from the slavery of sin and Satan. They are not parlor tricks or displays of power for no purpose or just for improving Galilean public health. They are proofs of Jesus’ redemptive work to restore man. 

So, to have successfully freed another from the grip of evil necessarily implied two things: that someone believed in Jesus and his mission and intended to share that out of love and not self-aggrandizement. 

In some sense, this is a continuation of the Gospel from the last two Sundays. Two weeks ago, Peter got a rebuke for telling Jesus to do the Passion his way and not the Father’s way. Last week, the Apostles got a rebuke for fighting over position among themselves. 

The Apostles are bothered not because the man was exorcising but because “he was not one of us.” They acted as if they held the trademark on good.

That’s when Jesus tells them “anyone who is not against us is for us.” 

Not for “me.” For “us.”

Jesus is already speaking of a community of believers, i.e., a Church. That this exorcist “was not one of us” already points to the fact that, while there is a visible Christian community, i.e., a “Church,” those who share in it may not necessarily all (yet) be within her visible boundaries. That doesn’t make the Church any less important — but does give her the responsibility to reach out to one already somewhat inchoately associated with her.

God does not ask the dramatic when it comes to good. “If anyone gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ … he will certainly not lose his reward” (9:41).

The whole life-changing dialogue with the Samaritan Woman began with Jesus asking for some water.

Our spiritually genetic, in-built orientation to the good (the injuries of sin notwithstanding) constantly make us aware, somewhere in our hearts, sometime in the middle of the night, somewhere in the whisper of conscience we might try to stifle, that evil leaves the taste of ashes and we rightly want something better.

There is a line in Dickens’ “Christmas Carol” that is often overlooked and usually omitted in modern abridgements. When Marley laments his wasted life, he reveals something of human possibilities: “Not to know that any Christian spirit working kindly in its little sphere, whatever it may be, will find its mortal life too short for its vast means of usefulness [i.e., good — author].” How much good can we do?

A glass of water was Jesus’, a well-swept floor Thérèse of Lisieux’s way to heaven. 

Good, of course, needs connection to grace to be meritorious and there is no other “Way” than Jesus. Being a Christian is not just being a good social worker with holy water: like the exorcist in today’s Gospel, “his Name” has to figure in the equation.

(Jesus is more dramatic over what we should do to avoid evil: even a handicap from physical mutilation is not as bad as yielding to sin. And scandalizing others with one’s sin … well, drowning attached to a millstone is a preferable fate.)

Ghislaine Howard is a contemporary British artist. Her painting, “Give Drink to the Thirsty,” is part of her series on the seven corporal works of mercy. Those works address basic human needs: food, water, clothing, the presence of others’, corporal respect.  

This painting well illustrates the Gospel. It depicts but two figures: the giver and the receiver. One is a man, the other a woman, depicting the whole of humanity. The gesture is basic: a glass of water that he offers and of which she partakes. We can see it on macro- and micro-levels. In a world where access to clean water is increasingly a challenge, it speaks of all humanity. On a simple human plane, it speaks of the refreshing pleasure of an ice cold glass of water on a hot summer day. Perhaps they have been working hard together outdoors. Perhaps this was only a chance encounter.  

There is everything and yet nothing particularly religious about this painting. Those who know today’s Gospel see the former; those who do not see simply a gesture of giving and receiving a drink. Knowing the basic meaning of that gesture still evinces an awareness that, somewhere in that gesture, there is an act of Love (which is, after all, who God is: see 1 John 4:8).  

The canvas is otherwise blank, leaving the placement of the action open to the viewer’s imagination. But the dominance of deep blue — in the sky and in the clothing of the two people — as well as a whitish ground blending into that blue sky with clouds and light in it, suggests a heavenly realm in which this earthly act breaks beyond this world to receive a promised reward.

Oscar Wergeland, “Service in a German Village Church,” ca. 1880

This Sunday, I’ll Be Going to Church. Will You Join Me?

“The Sunday Eucharist is the foundation and confirmation of all Christian practice. For this reason the faithful are obliged to participate in the Eucharist on days of obligation, unless excused for a serious reason (for example, illness, the care of infants) or dispensed by their own pastor. Those who deliberately fail in this obligation commit a grave sin.” [CCC 2181]