WRITING about this Sunday’s Gospel, Hans Urs von Balthasar says that the first half “speaks of the permissible and tolerable”, whereas the second half “speaks of the unbearable” (Light of the Word).
In the first part, Jesus resists an excessively narrow view of who is a disciple. All who do “deeds of power” in his name are to be recognised as disciples and not condemned as imitators; for, Jesus says, no one who does such a deed “will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me”. This accolade is not reserved for those capable of dramatic miracles. Humble acts of hospitality (such as giving one of Jesus’s followers a cup of water) will be honoured and rewarded by God.
Just as Jesus tells his disciples that “whoever is not against us is for us”, so, in our Old Testament reading, Moses rebukes the jealousy of Joshua. God has chosen 70 elders to share the burden of leadership, and — while the others go with Moses to the tent of meeting — two remain in the camp and prophesy. The response of Moses, when Joshua urges him to stop them, is “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!”
As Balthasar observes, there is a lesson here for the institution of the Church. God’s order “does not always coincide with the Church’s order, even though he himself prescribes the ecclesial order that the Church has to follow. Nor dare the Church turn the Spirit’s freedoms into rules for her own privileges and tolerances.”
It is a lesson writ large in the Gospels, which emphasise both the “ecclesial order” (in Jesus’s choice of the Apostles, and the specific authority he confers on them), and the ways in which the Spirit transcends this structure (where it is often those around the Twelve who discern most clearly, and follow most closely, the way of Christ).
If the first part of the Gospel concerns the wideness of God’s mercy, the second part reminds us that this mercy is inextricably linked to his justice. In Balthasar’s words, the second half of our reading concerns the “unbearable”: the sins that harm “these little ones who believe in me”. Jesus’s warning must be read in the context of his declaration (in the verse preceding this passage) that, when his disciples welcome children, they are welcoming him.
Anne Richards explains Jesus’s stern words in this way: “Whoever hurts, ignores, or prevents children from having access to the loving Father God will feel the full force of the divine passion that finds children worthy of blessing.”
She suggests that the judgement here is an immediate and inevitable corollary of the sin: “If a child is pushed away from God then the effect on your own relationship with God is to put this vast distance between you and the Father, as you disappear, dragged down into the depths away from the light” (Children in the Bible: A fresh approach).
Our epistle commends the one who “brings back a sinner from wandering”. As Kelly Anderson explains, “The Greek verb translated as ‘bring back’ (epistrepho) refers to leading someone to conversion, the change of mentality and lifestyle that results from recognizing one’s error and returning to the way of truth” (Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture: James, 1, 2 and 3 John).
What is being commended is not a collusive embrace of the sinner in his or her state of sin: the truly loving act is to lead the sinner to repentance and conversion of life.
Truthfulness — the honest facing of our sins and their consequences for those around us — is the only path to genuine reconciliation. This is why James enjoins his readers “to confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another”.
Commenting on the second half of this verse, St Augustine refers us back to the mercy of Jesus: “If he who neither has, nor had, nor will have any sin prays for our sins, how much more ought we to pray for each other’s sins! And if he for whom we have nothing to forgive forgives us, how much more should we forgive one another, knowing that we cannot live on earth without sinning!”
God’s mercy and his justice are not competing attributes; as our Gospel shows, they both flow from his love for the least of his children.
Canon Ritchie is director of the Centre for Theology and Community, and Priest-in-Charge of St George-in-the-East, in London.