15th Sunday in Ordinary Time – July 12, 2015

There is a new reality television show that began its first season a few weeks ago. “Alone” features ten men who were selected to participate in a challenge to survive in the wilderness of northern Vancouver Island. The men were left in ten different locations, entirely isolated from one another and civilization. Each was allowed to bring only ten items of outdoors gear in addition to the clothes they were wearing. The participant who survives alone for the longest time will win a cash prize.

Thus far, a participant has quit in each of the first three episodes. After three days in the wilderness, the number has fallen from ten to seven. Surviving alone has turned out to be much more difficult than some of them imagined.

In today’s Gospel reading the Apostles were given a challenging task by Jesus; they were sent to widen the reach of his ministry of preaching and healing. They weren’t sent on their mission alone, as were the participants in the tv series “Alone,” but they were not allowed to take anything with them “but a walking stick – no food, no sack, no money in their belts.” (Mark 6:8) They were expected to survive solely on the hospitality of those to whom they were sent.

Mark’s Gospel displays a very ambivalent attitude toward the Twelve. For the most part, the Twelve Apostles are depicted as slow to understand Jesus (Mark 4:13), lacking in faith (Mark 4:40), and untrustworthy when Jesus needed them most. (Mark 14:41) Occasionally, however, Mark’s Gospel shows the better side of the Apostles. This Sunday’s reading, and next Sunday’s, are examples of such. When sent on this missionary journey, the Apostles showed themselves to be trustworthy and effective proclaimers of Jesus’ message.

Some Scripture commentators have speculated that Mark’s ambivalence about the Twelve was intended to be a warning to the successors of the Apostles who served Mark’s church community. According to this opinion, the many examples of the Apostles’ lack of faith, interspersed with the occasional missionary success of the Twelve, was intended to remind the leaders of Mark’s church community that they, too, would be judged on the basis of their trustworthiness and proficiency at proclaiming Jesus’ message. All of us would do well to keep that thought in mind.

Jesus had very clear expectations of the Twelve; on some occasions, the Twelve lived up to Jesus’ expectations, and at other times, they failed to do so. On the occasion in today’s Gospel reading they succeeded in fulfilling Jesus’ commission. It is valuable to note the criteria on which they were judged. The assessment of the Twelve’s mission says nothing about how they behaved, whether they were good house guests or not. Rather, it says that they exercised divine power to heal the afflicted. They weren’t judged on moral grounds, but on their faithfulness to Jesus’ words and actions.

A common measure of one’s religious fervor is one’s moral life. Each of us is familiar with the Church’s teaching about what to do and what not to do. Most Catholics, if asked what it means to be a Catholic, will respond with a familiar list of “do’s” and “don’ts.” Each of us is capable of listing our moral failings, and the moral failings of others. Please note, however, that it was on none of those criteria that the Apostles were judged.

The Gospel says that the Twelve “drove out many demons, and they anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.” (Mark 6:13) In our culture “driving out demons” is a reference to the occult, and “curing the sick” is a reference to medical intervention. In Jesus’ culture, and in the Gospels, deliverance from demons and afflictions, and the curing of illness had a meaning completely different from the ones we associate with these words. Deliverance and healing, in the Gospels, are descriptions of restoration to a normal life and normal relationships; they are descriptions of reconciliation.

The miracles that Jesus performed had the same meaning as his preaching, namely, that God had sent him to reconcile people to God and one another. On the occasion in today’s Gospel reading the Twelve were sent to extend the reach of that ministry of reconciliation. They were successful, and their success is the Gospel’s measure of faith in Jesus. That measure of faithfulness applies to both the Church’s leadership and to us.

We are sent, just as the Twelve were sent; we are sent to widen the effects of Jesus’ ministry of healing by inviting all people to normal, healthy relationships with God and one another. It is the common tendency to think of successful religious practice as being a matter of following a particular ethics, but the Gospel offers a completely different perspective on religion. In the Gospels, successful religious practice requires one to be a witness to the reconciliation preached and offered by Jesus.

What comes to your mind when you consider the Last Judgment? What are the criteria that you think God will use to judge you? What if Divine judgment on our lives will be based on none of the commonly assumed criteria? What if God’s judgment of our lives will be based on the same criteria used to evaluate the faithfulness of the Twelve? What would be the verdict on your life, if you were judged on your effectiveness at healing and reconciling? If we take seriously what the Gospel says, Judgment Day might turn out to be much different than we are accustomed to imagine.