Today’s Gospel reading is most often interpreted as a lesson about inclusiveness. The disciples wanted to exclude a stranger from using Jesus’ name to perform exorcisms, but Jesus was unwilling to exclude him. He said, “whoever is not against us is for us.” (Mk. 9:40)
The first reading was chosen to emphasize this lesson about inclusiveness by illustrating God’s inclusiveness. Moses had chosen seventy-two men to share his burden of leadership. Two of them, it seems, were lacking in punctuality if not in responsibility. God poured out God’s Spirit even on the laggards. Again, the common interpretation is one about inclusiveness.
Inclusiveness is a significant social value in western culture, but it was not so in Jesus’ time. The actions in these two readings that appear to us to be about inclusiveness were, in fact, about something quite different.
In Hebrew religion, one’s actions were the proper subject of morality; one’s thoughts were of little or no moral importance. In the first reading, two of the newly appointed leaders failed to show up on time. They were probably distracted by the need to collect manna or read the day’s cuneiform mail. They missed the appointed time to receive God’s Spirit but, because they had agreed to help Moses with the burdens of leadership, they were included in the outpouring of prophetic gifts. In the Gospel reading, a stranger was curing people by invoking Jesus’ name. His motivation is open to question, but his actions benefited those cured; his actions also brought wider attention to the name of Jesus. Both incidents are examples of the priority that Hebrew morality put on action over intention.
Our difficulty in understanding the nature of these two events owes to a particular prejudice in Catholicism. Morality in the Catholic Church accords a very high importance to intention, sometimes to the detriment of the importance of action.
All of us have heard the phrase “bad thoughts.” When we received catechesis for our First Confession, we were taught the moral evil ascribed to “bad thoughts.” As a child, I was always curious about what constituted a “bad thought.” Was it the desire to use “irregardless” in a sentence, regardless of the fact that “irregardless” isn’t a legitimate word in English? Perhaps, a bad thought is the notion that it’s acceptable to end a sentence with a preposition. In my adult years, I came to understand bad thoughts are what lead people to cheer for out-of-State sports teams.
Clearly, there is moral content to thoughts and intentions. Our actions are the result of what we think, choose, and value; therefore, what we think, choose, and value have moral import. Actions, however, are at least as morally significant as intentions. While there are “bad thoughts,” there are also “bad actions,” and we should never lose sight of the effect that our actions have on other people.
If you think uncharitable thoughts about someone, that’s petty and childish. On the other hand, if you do something uncharitable to that person, that’s reprehensible (ir)regardless of the person’s prior behavior. I would never recommend that anyone consider ending a sentence with a preposition, but I would add that speaking harsh words is a much greater offence.
There is a faculty of the human psyche called the “observing ego.” Observing ego is that mental filter that allows one to refrain from saying or doing everything that occurs in one’s mind. For example, if you have a really annoying relative, your observing ego is that thing that prevents you from saying aloud that you consider the relative to have been shortchanged in the distribution of the family’s better quality genetic material.
The observing ego is always alert to the difference between what one thinks and what is appropriate, but the observing ego often needs help and guidance. Jesus’ teaching offers help and guidance to conscience, an important part of which is the observing ego. The next time you want to tell someone that he or she has the manners of a subway rat, Jesus’ teaching provides a good reason to refrain from speaking. It is not always possible to avoid such thoughts; it is, however, always possible to avoid acting on such thoughts. It is always possible to act for Jesus rather than acting against Jesus. (Mk. 9:40)
One’s thoughts have moral weight, but one’s actions have greater moral weight. Those whose actions are not against Jesus are the ones who have made a conscious choice to be for Jesus. Faithful disciples always behave in ways that proclaim a commitment to imitate Jesus’ forgiveness and charity. That commitment might not always be apparent in one’s thoughts, but it should always be visible in one’s actions.