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15th Sunday in ordinary time: Back to the roots

Today’s readings: Amos 7, 12-15; Ephesians 1, 3-14; Mark 6, 7-13.

The narrative in today’s first reading from the book of the prophet Amos is a key text to understand the nature of Christianity and to give a right interpretation to the commission Jesus in the gospel is giving to the disciples. We read about the clash between the priest Amaziah and the prophet Amos, which is the perennial clash between institution and the charisma in the Church.

The roles of the priest and the prophet can hardly co-exist in the life of the Church, because the priest is conservative by nature, needing to abide by the rules and rubrics of rituals, whereas the prophet by nature is always restless, almost disturbing the peace.

In a world that is restless and disturbing on various counts, there seems to be less space for ‘priests’, who through rituals make believe that everything is fine as long as we stick to religious practices and more space for prophets who are constantly searching, alert to new signs and as Elie Wiesel writes, “who see people as they are and ought to be”. This is how we are to interpret Mark’s gospel today when Jesus summons the Twelve and sends them, “giving them authority over the unclean spirits”. It is not a coincidence that Mark puts stress specifically on this aspect of the mission of the Twelve.

The instructions Jesus gives to the Apostles hardly make sense in our way of seeing things today. Apart from the specifics when Jesus mentions the staff, the bread, the haversack, the purses and sandals, the essentials of the commission are the disciples’ utter dependence on hospitality and the preclusion to impose their views by force.

Historically, we must admit that we abandoned all this and conceived our mission in radically different ways. At least this is how missionary Christianity evolved. For centuries, especially since the beginnings of the so-called Constantinian era, we aimed mainly at having a Christian society where the Church became more and more, in Pope Francis’ words, a self-referential Church. We saw our mission as mainly teaching doctrine and sacramentalising people; very distant indeed from the express gospel commission to proclaim, to heal and to exercise authority over unclean spirits. To top it all, the Scriptures all along were left in exile in the life of the Church and in the life of believers, and people could in no way experience the freshness of the Gospel or the prophecy of God’s word.

The story of Amos, a layman turned prophet, is telling for the history of proclamation both throughout the Old Testament as well as in Christianity. The priestly caste, before and after Christ, was always seen as being the depository of power in the Church. Preaching was always a monopoly of those with an ordained ministry and the concept of the ministry itself was restricted to those in orders.

In this framework that is only now being put to question, our theologies evolved alongside an extremely juridical understanding of Church life and of the Christian life itself. From the text of Amos, we read how Bethel, which literally means the ‘house of God’, needed “no more prophesying” because, after all, it was “the royal sanctuary, the national temple”. It is an extreme case, but one that continues to repeat itself to date, of a self-referential Church with no need at all to confront itself with the word of God.

In the gospel, Jesus summoning the Twelve “gave them authority”. The mission was not a transfer of power as very often we imagined it to be. The story of Amos and today’s gospel text make crystal clear the difference between power and authority. One can easily be a person occupying a position of power yet commanding no authority in whatever one says; just as much as one can command authority without occupying an office of power.

Power within the Church’s framework has always been an issue and still is. To have authority to lead and inspire does not automatically follow from ordination. This is a lesson the Church still has to learn, especially by going back to the roots, by trusting more the anointing of the Spirit in baptism and by letting go of the dynamics of ‘power’ that continue to make of it more a worldly institution than the community of Jesus Christ.

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