26th Sunday in Ordinary Time – September 30, 2018

There is one reserved parking space in our church parking lot; use of it belongs to those who win the privilege in an auction. The single reserved parking space is a holdover from the days when the parish did an annual fund raiser in order to be able to pay the mortgage for the building renovation. The days of the fund raiser are over, but I’ve kept the reserved parking space because it has become a minor tradition here.

The reserved parking space is like the single tree that God planted in the center of the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve were allowed to eat the fruit of every tree in the Garden except one. In a similar way, all of the parking spaces in the church lot are available for everyone’s use with the exception of the reserved space.

Strangely, that single reserved space seems to have some sort of gravitational pull that draws cars to itself. If I asked the drivers whose cars are parked there in violation of the reserved nature of the space, I’m sure all of them would have compelling reasons for being in the reserved space without permission. Perhaps, the automatic parking feature of the car took over and placed them in that space against their will. Perhaps, the driver had to swerve out of the way of the last surviving Dodo bird; the reserved parking space was their only alternative to the tragic extinction of an entire species. All of their reasons would be compelling, but none of them would be valid.

The same can be said of most of us; we have compelling reasons for our choices, but not all of our compelling reasons are valid reasons. I’m convinced that most people want to act responsibly. With the exception of a few outliers who flaunt law and social convention, most people want to do the right thing. Unfortunately, most of us disagree most of the time about what constitutes responsible behavior. As a consequence, conflicts ensue because of differences of opinion.

Catholicism puts the highest value on individual conscience. In the end, on the Last Day, all of us will answer for our lives. We are responsible for the choices we make in life and only for our own choices (no one else’s). Individual conscience has the highest value, but conscience is not infallible. The conflicts that arise between people are often the result of the inherent limits of conscience. Conscience often needs help to determine what is truly right, good, and responsible.

In ancient Israel and early Christianity, prophets offered Divine help to individual conscience. In today’s first reading, Moses scolded Joshua for trying to limit artificially the outpouring of the prophetic spirit on the People. Moses said, “Would that all the People of the Lord were prophets! Would that the Lord might bestow his spirit on them all!” (Nm. 11:29). His statement meant, “If only every person used God’s criteria for judging good and evil!”

The value of prophecy continued during Jesus’ lifetime and beyond. Their contemporaries considered both John the Baptizer and Jesus to be prophets. Jesus even spoke of himself as a prophet. He said, “A prophet is not without honor except in his native place and among his own kin and in his own house.” (Mk. 6:4) The strange sayings of Jesus in today’s Gospel reading are examples of prophetic proclamations.

In today’s reading, Jesus rebuked the Twelve for attempting to discourage an anonymous faith healer from using his name. He said, “If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. Better for you to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into Gehenna, where ‘their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched’.” (Mk. 9:47-48)

These sayings about excising body parts are intended to be understood metaphorically. The interpretive key that indicates the use of metaphor is the reference to Gehenna. Gehenna was a dry creek bed outside the walls of the city of Jerusalem; it was used as the city garbage dump. Like garbage dumps throughout the world, everyone nearby could smell the smoldering and rot of garbage. During Jesus’ lifetime, Gehenna was a commonly used metaphor to describe the life of someone who flaunted God’s law, social responsibility, or decent behavior. The use of this common metaphor points to the metaphorical meaning of the sayings about discarding anatomical parts.

The prophetic proclamations by Jesus are not instructions to maim oneself. Rather, they are instruction about how to find guidance for one’s conscience. It is easy enough to see sin and injustice in another person’s life. It’s easy to know when another person’s life stinks (like a garbage dump). Our own actions are more difficult to judge accurately because our judgments are ineluctably subjective. Jesus suggests using our subjectivity as an aid in judging between right and wrong. If it is easy to know when another person’s life is a mess, it should be easy to know when our choices make a mess in another person’s life. We cannot escape our subjectivity, but we can use it to make ourselves aware of our shared subjectivity with others.

Jesus says to look at how our choices affect others. If our hopes, goals, plans, desires, passions, or objectives become a stumbling block to our shared subjectivity with God and others, then those obstacles are to be amputated from our lives.

Perhaps, now we can see the reason that prophecy is so uncommon in the Church today. Listening to Jesus’s word requires that occasionally we abandon our plans and goals because they have become obstacles to our relationships with God and neighbor. Most of us would probably prefer to cut off a limb rather than give up our appetites and desires.

The common misunderstanding of the prophetic pronouncement in today’s Gospel is that God expects us to maim ourselves in punishment for our minor moral infractions. In actual fact, God is calling for something much more profound and transformative; God’s prophetic Word challenges us to “cut off” some of our self-concern in order to enter into the Kingdom of the One who shows mercy to all. If you are willing to listen to this prophetic pronouncement, you might have to make the difficult choice to abandon some of your self-concern and some of your exclusionary tendencies. The reason you would want to do so is both compelling and valid: it is an experience of using God’s criteria for judging between right and wrong.