What Is Your Top Priority?

by Fr. Denis Lemieux

The Sunday Gospel for September 26th, 26th Sunday Ordinary Time Year B, Mark 9:38-48

Dear Readers:

I’ve started to think of my Restoration articles this year not so much as a sequence of independent articles on the Sunday Gospels, but as a sort of continuing series, like a very long letter from me to all of you, each article picking up where the previous one left off.

In our strange and troubled times, it seems like there is much to talk about, much happening to and among us that badly needs a gospel response.

This month my eyes were drawn to the 26th Sunday of the year, and the Gospel of Mark 9:38-48. This is the famous (infamous?) passage about cutting off your hand or foot or plucking out your eye, if they cause you to sin. Better to enter heaven maimed than go to hell intact.

Of the four possible September Sunday Gospels, why did this one catch my attention?

Well, it seems to me that in light of the complexity of our times, when there is so much pressure being brought to bear on all of us to take this or that course of action across a fairly wide spectrum of human affairs, it is pretty darned important to keep our priorities straight. And if this Gospel is about anything, it is about that.

The priority of priorities is our eternal destiny, and the choices we make each day that directly pertain to our ability to enter the kingdom of God at the end of our lives. Or, as the case may be, to not be able to do that.

Of course, Jesus is speaking figuratively in this Gospel. There is no part of our bodies that actually causes us to sin, and so he is not speaking of any kind of physical mutilation.

It is the desires of our hearts that can lead us astray, though, and deeply held beliefs about what is or is not needed for our happiness, and the profound fears that can beset us and cause us to stumble indeed, and not just stumble but rush headlong into calamitously bad mistakes.

I’m not thinking of any specific thing as I write this. I’m certainly not thinking about the pandemic and choices made around that. This is a broad pattern in human history, personal and communal.

It is when people are frightened, and when fear is coming from a deep belief that something they need or deeply want is under threat, that the most evil and monstrous crimes against humanity are committed, and when people on an individual level make the most disastrous personal choices that do in fact imperil their eternal salvation.

And so this Gospel, so stark, so threatening even, in its uncompromising tone and its call to violence committed against one’s own self, one’s own integrity of body, a notion so alien to our understanding and offensive to our sensibilities, is in fact, if we dig deeply into it, Good News indeed.

Our whole world is in the grip of self-preservation at all costs. And no, I am not talking about COVID and our response to it, although I suppose that might come into it.

I am talking about many things. I am talking about the quest for personal riches and financial security, at the price of reducing our brothers and sisters to levels of global destitution and starvation.

I am talking about the flight from suffering, the iron determination to remove anyone and anything from our lives that cause us distress, even at the price of death—abortion and euthanasia being the most drastic examples.

I am talking about our quick readiness to jettison the moral law as soon as it demands a cost from us—the cost of speaking a difficult truth to an unwelcome audience, the cost of some level of personal sacrifice of pleasure or easy security, the simple cost of not doing something we really want to do.

I am talking about many things, too many to enumerate in a short Restoration article. I am talking about any time fear for our own personal well-being becomes the driving force for our decisions, to the exclusion of the deeper considerations we should prioritize.

Ah, but that is the key point on which it all hinges. Is there a deeper consideration than our own immediate personal well-being? Is there anything at all for which it is worth being a bit “maimed,” so to speak, anything at all for the sake of which we can endure something less than an optimal quality of life, anything worth being a bit distressed over, suffer a bit on account of?

This is the great good news, if we answer in the affirmative to that question.

If we determine that living in the perfect will of the Father, living in the loving embrace of the Son, living in the communion of the Holy Spirit, is indeed worth paying not just some small price but any price, is in fact worth dying for (as so many martyrs have done down through the centuries), then we are liberated indeed, liberated from the most degrading slavery and bondage a human being can fall into, which is the craven need to preserve our life and well-being at all costs.

In the superb movie Of Gods and Men which depicts the life and death of the seven Trappist monks murdered in Algeria in 1996 and beatified in 2018 among other Algerian martyrs (Martyrs of Algeria, whose feast day is May 8), one of the monks says to the abbot, “I am not afraid to die. I am not afraid to live. I am a free man.”

Now that’s the spirit! Or rather, that is the Holy Spirit moving in a Christian heart, in the soul of a believer.

So here we are in the fall of 2021, in a world where we are beset (as perhaps we always are) by many “dangers, toils, and snares,” and wondering how on earth we are to get through them all unscathed.

It seems to me that these Algerian martyrs, Blessed Christian and his companions, are worthy patrons for us in this time.

They show us the gospel path of freedom in the midst of real physical and spiritual danger: to seek only God’s will, to care only to find the path of love and truth through any circumstance in which we find ourselves, and to have a ready willingness to suffer any loss to the point of death even, if only we remain in that communion of love which is eternal life beginning now in this world, dangers and all..