Today, however, was payback for me. I was put in the place of one having to mention some difficult news. It concerned Hell and sin and scandal. If you think telling me about a leaking roof provokes an ill feeling from me, try telling people about sin, scandal, and Hell! It's really not on the top ten chart of what most priests want to talk about it, but there it was, plain as day in the Gospel today. Now, truth to be told, some people LOVE when the priest talks about Hell! I never quite know how to react to such glee at the mention of eternal damnation. But, for most of us, thoughts of Hell provoke a more sobering response.
I presume that the people who tell me that the roof is leaking or that a light bulb is out or that the radiator is leaking do so because they want to help. I don't think that their intention is to provoke that ill-feeling that I get when I receive that news. They see that there is a way to fix the problem and the first step is to acknowledge the problem. Similarly, Jesus points out to us today that we should avoid sin and that we should avoid leading others to sin. In some ways, I suppose he is trying to provoke in all of us an ill-feeling so that we might acknowledge the problem and then do something to fix it. Sin and scandal are real problems, but Jesus is mentioning it so that we can fix it. Sin and scandal can indeed lead to Hell. But, Jesus came to rescue sinners. He's the solution.
As I read, prayed, and considered the Gospel today (Mark 9:38-48), it made me a little uncomfortable. He said that there may be things that I need to cut out of my life in order to follow him. I think today's Gospel ought to make everyone who hears it a little uncomfortable. It ought to give all of us that ill-feeling. Because all of us probably have things in our life that we know we should do away with in order not to be put in the proximate occasion of sin. If we cut these things out of our life, they would make us less susceptible to sin. For one person, it might be that she needs to quit the soccer league that meets on Sunday mornings. For another, it might mean that he needs to put a filter on his computer. For another person it might mean that he needs to stop spending time with a particular person. For all of these persons--and for every person--cutting things out of our life can be somewhat painful. But, the surgery is necessary if we are to be serious about avoiding sin in the future.
Additionally, the Lord speaks about not causing scandal. Occasionally I watch this show on television about guys who travel around the country buying all sorts of junk. In one episode, they found a guy who collects millstones. Although I've heard the millstone mentioned in the Gospel, I've never really given much thought to what one looks like. They're huge and heavy. It gave me a different perspective on the Lord's command that it would be better for one to have millstone tied around his neck and cast into the sea than to cause scandal to one of the least ones. We are all sinners. But, leading others into sin is serious indeed.
In today's Gospel, Jesus warns us about giving bad example to others. But, he also commended that we promote and encourage the good example of others wherever we see it. Today, at the 10:30 Mass in my parish, there had to be 600-700 people. There were tons of young college students from local parishes who were given rides by other parishioners. Looking out and seeing so many people was a great encouragement for me. The example of people following Christ is powerful indeed. Without knowing it, all of those people who got up on a rainy Sunday morning and came to Mass provided me with a great example and strengthened me in my own Christian life.
In the psalm today, we prayed, "From hidden faults acquit me." By mentioning sin, scandal, and Hell, the Gospel produces in us that sickly feeling that something is not quite perfect in us. Jesus' words perhaps caused us to recognize a fault that had before been hidden from our view. But the light of the Gospel has now shone on this darkness within us. The desired result is not simply to be left with feeling sad because of our weakness. The desired result is that this light of the Gospel will illumine our path and turn us away from darkness and lead us to the joy of heaven. Sin, scandal, Hell . . . they leave you feeling kind of downcast. It would be nice if they didn't exist. But just because we might not think about them, doesn't mean that they don't exist. It's better to know. But, it is only better to know because we also know that there is a way to avoid all three. That way is Jesus Christ and He loves us and He is our Savior. Talk of Hell is only worthwhile because there is a Heaven and if we follow our Lord, He will bring us safely there. The good news about Hell is that we don't have to go there!