There is a background to every story. The Jewish culture into which Jesus was born and which was the background of many of his hearers was a very exclusive culture. The Jews were God’s chosen people, all other peoples were pagan, unclean and fit only for fuel for the fires of hell. It is very hard to live with a chosen people. The style of communication often consisted of over-speak or hyperbole rather than literalism. They used cartoon language to get their point across strongly. The point of the story is not lessened by this impossible hyperbole but rather strengthened.
In the context of Old Testament exclusiveness, Christ’s teaching about openness, tolerance, and jealousy must have seemed so strange and so radical. The God of the Old Testament was often spoken of as a jealous God, tolerating no rivals, yet the first reading has Moses teaching the people not to be jealous or exclusive but to rejoice in the gifts and in the spirit that is given to themselves and given to others. Christ also teaches his apostles not to freeze others out. He teaches them to accept that anyone who is well disposed, even if they are not part of the in-group, is appreciated by God. God cannot be caught and confined by any group or by any way of doing things.
Instead of cutting out others and being intolerant of those not belonging, Jesus teaches his apostles that the thing to cut out and to be mercilessly intolerant of is sin. Not only do we exclude ourselves by sin but we may also be responsible for the setting adrift of others by our own bad example and lack of standards. Bad behaviour and bad example have consequences for ourselves and for others. We are our brothers’ keepers.
Christ wishes us, however, to concentrate on our own failings and to exclude and excise whatever stands between us and God, however painful that may be. To attain this pruning and excision of what causes us to sin can be a lifetime’s work. It is not easy either to identify that which causes us to sin, or to change the patterns of many years. As the psalmist wisely says, ‘Who can detect all his errors; from hidden faults acquit me.’ We are not to presume virtue but to work towards purity, wisdom, blamelessness and freedom from grave sin. Some of the things which may help us in this work of the spirit are:
A daily examen of conscience to make us aware and conscious of our faults and failings and to take away our presumption.
A retraining and a restraining of our habitual ways so that we frustrate the needs and desires which lead us into sin.
A constant appreciation of and practice of the values of the gospel to motivate us and sustain us, to lead us onward and upward towards the promised land like the pillar of fire or the cloud in the desert.
Living a reflective life, a life marked by simplicity and justice after the teaching of Saint James.
By excluding what is sinful, by rejoicing in others who are well disposed and in their different gifts, and by practice of virtue and with God’s grace, we may hope to avoid the great exclusion from God and from others which we call hell, and be thought worthy to be rewarded within that great togetherness which we call the communion of saints.