James 1:12-18; Mark 8:14-21
We may as well answer the question Jesus asked the disciples at the end of the gospel passage: Do you still not understand (Mark 8:21)? No, they do not understand at all. The question is, why? So far in Mark’s gospel they have heard him teach, seen him heal, witness him expelling demons, raising a girl from the dead, and feeding thousands with a few loaves. Who or what kept them from seeing him as the Christ? And more to the point, who or what does the same thing to us?
It certainly isn’t God. As the first reading reminds us, God tempts no one (James 1:15). Here, James echoes the ancient truth revealed through the prophet Habakkuk that God cannot even look upon evil (Habakkuk 1:13). Rather, the reading goes on to say, evil comes from within each person who is lured and enticed by his desire (James 1:14). Let us briefly consider three different kinds of enticement.
First, we entice ourselves to sin by failing to guard against temptation. Just as a person struggling with alcoholism would be foolish to hang around liquor stores so anyone who struggles with a certain sin is foolish to put themselves in situations where they are tempted to it. This is called the near occasion of evil and is what we promise to avoid every time we say the Act of Contrition.
Second, we entice others to sin by becoming an occasion of evil ourselves. Some do this by dressing immodestly, others by gossiping. We rationalize such behavior in true Adam-and-Eve fashion by blaming the victims – “They shouldn’t look at me that way,” or “I only told the truth” – but deep down we know that we are far from innocent.
Finally, we are enticed to sin by the dark angels whose master goes by many names: the father of lies (John 8:44), the tempter (Matthew 4:3), the devil (Matthew 4:1). By whatever name he sows confusion, preys on our weakness, encourages selfishness. The wise listen to Christ who urges us to fear the demons for they can destroy us body and soul (Matthew 10:28); the prudent avoid them, and the persevering cling to God with the assurance of St. Paul that no one and nothing can ever separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:38-39).
Earlier in Mark, Jesus defined two kinds of people. The “insiders,” or those to whom the mysteries of the Kingdom had been revealed; and the “outsiders,” who did not. Of the outsiders he said, they may look and see but not perceive, and hear and listen but not understand, in order that they may not be converted and be forgiven (Mark 4:12). The irony is that the disciples, who should be the definitive insiders, act more like outsiders than the real outsiders! For example in today’s gospel the disciples, who just witnessed Jesus feeding four thousand people now have the chance to share a quiet boat ride with him. What a shame that this perfect opportunity to unpack all they have seen is wasted on worrying about how little bread they brought along!
Still, Mark’s purpose is not to make us wonder at their behavior but to evaluate our own. Are we insiders or outsiders? Some of us witness Christ feeding a multitude every day, and every day share time with him in the Church, the barque of Peter. Are we focused on our own loaf of bread – be it the next place we have to go, the people we have to see, or things we have to do – or on the Living Bread that is Christ? We see the many wonderful people he gives us – our families, friends, each other; do perceive Christ living within them? We hear his word in the Scriptures; do we understand his voice speaking through all those crying for help? At the Mass he gives us himself Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity in the Holy Eucharist; are our hearts hardened or are they being converted through the forgiveness of sins in Confession, that we may partake most fully in the infinite grace he offers?
We conclude where we began, in the letter of James. Consider how the passage begins: Blessed is he who perseveres in temptation, for when he has been proven he will receive the crown of life that he promised to those who love him (James 1:12). Let us pray for perseverance, that gift of the Holy Spirit that empowers us to remain in the state of grace until the end of our lives; may we like the Saints see and perceive, hear and understand, that our hearts be converted, our many sins forgiven, and our focus on the things above.