September 17, 2019

Heaven’s Welcome Mat

Some years ago a priest author named Father Andre Papineau wrote a series of books in which he retold many of the Gospel stories in modern language, inventing extra dialogue and adding dramatic effects. This is part of what he wrote about this passage (9:38-48) from Mark’s Gospel:

[Four of the disciples had gathered in a public park because they’d heard rumors of unauthorized persons casting out demons by using the Name of their Master, Jesus, and they intended to put a stop to this outrage. They were talking about possibly getting special, embroidered T-shirts to identify themselves as part of the “in-group” of Christ’s followers when] Tom shouted, “Look over there! Is that who I think it is?” The disciples turned their attention to a little white-haired lady addressing a small crowd about one- hundred feet from where the disciples were sitting. Dressed in a clean, white robe and standing on a wooden crate, she had placed her hands on the head of a man considerably taller than herself. “That’s one of them, all right,” Jude waved his hand excitedly. “Let’s go!” The four disciples hurried over to the gathering and stood off to the side as the woman continued praying over the man in front of her. “Out, I say. Go out of him in Jesus’ Name—” That was the signal they had been waiting for. “Stop! Stop!” Jude yelled. “You can’t do that!” “I can’t do what?” the woman puzzled. “You can’t use Jesus’ Name to get rid of someone’s demons!” “Why can’t I?” The four disciples lost no time hurling reasons why she couldn’t. “You have no credentials! Nor the right formula! And you’re placing your hands improperly!” . . . You don’t belong to the club! You’re not one of the boys!” Jude concluded triumphantly. “Yeah! She’s not of our company,” the [others] applauded Jude. [The woman responded,] “No, I don’t belong to your club. And I’m certainly not one of the boys. But from what I know about Jesus, He doesn’t care about club membership and rules the way you do. I’m sure He wouldn’t mind my using His good Name to help a needy person.” [“Yeah! Right on!” people in the small group shouted and applauded,] and as they did the little woman resumed her work.

The disciples were incensed as they stormed off to the little house where Jesus was staying for a day. “Boy! Wait ‘til Jesus hears about this,” [John] warned. . . . The four marched into the living room and startled Jesus, Who was resting on the sofa. “Jesus, we know You’re going to be really upset, but we have some bad news,” Bart said gravely. . . “We saw a woman using Your Name to expel a demon! Of course we tried to stop her because she doesn’t belong to the company, but—” “The company?” Jesus [sat up and] scratched His head. He had no idea what company Bart was talking about. “I mean she’s not one of us, you know,” Bart explained. “Oh, oh,” Jesus nodded. “Our ‘company.’ Hmmmm. Well, that’s OK!” Jesus waved a hand and stretched out once more on the sofa. “What?” the others exclaimed in unison. “I said, ‘That’s OK!’ Why stop anyone who wants to do good in My Name? That’s great! The more the merrier. Look, anyone who isn’t against us belongs to our, er, ‘company’ as you put it. I don’t care whether that person hangs around with us or not. What’s in the heart is what counts with Me.” The disciples stood there silently [and reflected on this gentle rebuke]; they looked sheepishlyat Jesus and one another. “Jesus,” Tom said softly, “I think we owe someone an apology. Right fellas?” “Right,” they answered feebly. “Who are we talking about?” [asked] Jesus [with] an impish grin on His face. “Just someone. Bye, Jesus. We’ll be back.” And the four disciples slipped out and returned to the park. They wanted a certain person to know they had made room for more company (Biblical Blues, pp. 54-57). This updated retelling of a Gospel story makes a very simple but important point: true followers of Jesus must respect other people and value the good things they do.

It’s a common desire to want to belong to the “in group” or exclusive club, and to feel privileged or even superior to others, but we are forewarned that this all-too-human approach will not help us enter into Heaven. Moses had to warn his assistant Joshua not to be jealous of the two elders who began prophesying even though they hadn’t been with the others, and Jesus offered a similar admonition to His disciples, in effect saying that He welcomes the efforts of anyone trying to do good. There’s no room for jealousy among His followers; rather, we should instead focus our attention on our own need for repentance and on rooting out sin and evil from our own lives. It’s in this context that St. James warns the rich of God’s coming judgment—and “rich” in this context means anyone whose power, possessions, or status tempt them to act as if they’re superior to others. It’s very easy to set up a double standard, or to assume in our smugness that we can get away with certain things because we—unlike other people—have God’s favor. Nothing holy or helpful can ever come of this type of pride and self-righteousness.

Yes, it’s true that everyone will be judged immediately after death, and that those who’ve closed their hearts to God’s grace will be lost for all eternity. We must continually remind ourselves, however, that we can’t look into anyone’s heart, and—even more importantly—that Jesus looks for every possible opportunity and excuse to bestow His mercy upon sinners: even the most wicked persons, and even as the very last instant of their lives. The Lord is infinitely happier blessing His people than judging them, and this must be our outlook, too. In practical terms, this means giving other people the benefit of the doubt, forgiving those who hurt or offend us, sincerely praying for the conversion of sinners (both sinners in general and particular persons we know), giving an example of compassion and acceptance, and making others feel welcome and valued in Christ’s Name—both here in church and in the chance encounters of daily life.

The famous little poem by Edgar Guest says it well: “He drew a circle that shut me out—heretic, rebel, a thing to flout. But love and I had the wit to win: we drew a circle that took him in.” With Jesus, it’s never a case of “us versus them”; rather, everyone is invited to be part of His Kingdom, and to play a role in helping bring it about. One of the best ways of making sure we ourselves will be ready for the Kingdom is by putting out Heaven’s “welcome mat” every chance we get.

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Written by
Fr Joseph Esper

REVEREND JOSEPH M. ESPER is a priest of the Archdiocese of Detroit and pastor of Immaculate Conception parish in Anchorville, Michigan. He received his Master of Divinity degree from St. John's Provincial Seminary in Plymouth, Michigan. Through the years, Father Joe has lectured at Marian conferences, appeared on EWTN, spoken on Catholic radio, and written more than a dozen articles for This Rock, The Priest, Homiletic and Pastoral Review, and other publications. He is also the author of numerous books, including Saintly Solutions, More Saintly Solutions, After the Darkness, Lessons from the Lives of the Saints, and Why Is God Punishing Me? In addition to Amazon, many of his most recent books are available through Queenship Publishing.

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Written by Fr Joseph Esper
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