During the last two years of the clergy sexual abuse scandal, commentators have frequently quoted a line from Sunday’s Gospel. "Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin," Jesus warns, "it would be better of him if a great millstone were put around his neck and he were thrown into the sea."

As we’ll see, one would have to stretch the meaning of this verse far beyond Mark’s intention to apply it to the present scandal.

There’s a parallel problem in both the communities for whom the first (Num 11: 25-29) and third readings (Mk 9: 38-43, 45, 47-48) were composed. It revolves around the exercise of leadership. Though writing almost 800 years apart, each writer has experienced leaders who believe their role is to mediate God’s presence in the life of their communities, instead of simply pointing out that presence.

Who’s in?

Joshua, in the Numbers reading, contends that Yahweh’s spirit of prophecy can enter only those individuals who were "in the gathering" when that spirit was bestowed. People like Eldad and Medad, who didn’t go through the "official rituals," should be stopped from exercising prophetic ministry.

Moses holds the opposite opinion. He doesn’t interpret the phenomenon as a threat to his authority. "Are you jealous for my sake?" he asks the man who will succeed him. "Would that all the people of Yahweh were prophets! Would that Yahweh might bestow His spirit on them all!"

In other words, Moses instructs Joshua that he’s never to cave into the temptation to limit the way God’s word is given to the community. Pro-phets don’t have to get the authority structure’s permission in order to prophesy. Yahweh’s spirit goes where Yahweh alone intends that spirit to go.

The Gospel runs along the same track. But, in this situation, the author deals with "driving out demons," not prophecy. When John boasts to Jesus that he and the others stopped someone who "does not follow us" from performing that ministry, he receives an unexpected re-sponse. "Do not prevent him!" Jesus commands. "There is no one who performs a mighty deed in my name who can at the same time speak ill of me. For whoever is not against us is for us."

Though some Scripture scholars question whether the historical Jesus actually said everything the evangelists claim He said, almost no one questions the above statement. One of the reasons they believe it’s authentic is because it runs counter to the practice of most late first-century Christian communities, which attempted to limited exorcism ministry to those officially commissioned by the Church.

Who’s out?

This reading is important for Mark, since the first miracle Jesus works in this Gospel is exorcising a demon; it sets the pattern for all Christian ministry: the eradication of evil from our daily lives. Even the exercise of that essential ministry can’t be restricted by the authority structure.

When we couple the above with the consensus of scholars that the Gospel term "little ones" normally refers not to children, but to ordinary Christians, then causing "these little ones who believe in me to sin" doesn’t refer to priests and bishops sexually abusing minors. (Besides, I know of no theologian who holds that the abused are sinning in the process of being abused.)

I can only refer to leaders who, by their attempts to limit God’s actions in the community, are inspiring those they influence to join them in this sinful restriction of God’s power.

Though all of us want to rid our world of the selfish evils to which James refers in the second reading (James 5: 1-6), Mark and the author of Numbers believes that the first step in this process is to stop restricting God’s power for good, which is already at work in our faith communities.

(9/25/03)