John, characterised in the Gospel as one of the ‘sons of thunder’, said to Jesus:
Teacher, we saw someone who does not follow us driving out demons in Your name.
It is easy to imagine the situation: John, a disciple, a follower, a supporter, of Jesus, came across this fellow -- who was none of those things, at least, not openly – making use of the name of Jesus and performing miracles thereby. I don’t think John was, at that time, the sort of young man to spend time pondering on his own motives … perhaps he felt a certain measure of anger, annoyance, and -- not impossibly -- even a little envy and frustration, and all together these feelings, whatever their exact nature, seemed to provide ample justification for him -- young as he was -- to peremptorily tell the man to stop what he was doing:
and we tried to prevent him because he does not follow us.
Even though John himself did not spend time looking, introspectively, at all the various motives pushing him to act in such a way, nevertheless, we who are later and lesser disciples than the holy Apostle, and who are now seeking to learn from him how we might progress in the ways of Jesus and in obedience to His Spirit, should endeavour to penetrate those hidden causes more deeply in order to profit from what we may find.
As we start out we should first of all call to mind -- so as never to lose sight of it -- that John was an apostle in the making, and, though still a novice, to the extent that he might apparently come out with the first thing that entered his head:
we tried to prevent him because he does not follow us,
nevertheless, we might well find that such an apparently simply explanation of his own and of his brothers’ conduct will prove, ultimately, to be the best explanation. We may be able to profit from other insights but probably none we can provide or discover will go deeper than what just seemed to ‘burst out’ from John lips, for, by our very make-up, we human beings are moved most immediately by self-interest, and above all, by fear for self.
John probably felt that the mysterious miracle-worker was somehow a threat to his own and his fellow apostles’ standing. Notice his words: he did not say for example, ‘we tried to prevent him because he does not follow You’, or, ‘we tried to prevent him because he does not follow You together with us’; no, his words were:
we tried to prevent him because he does not follow us.
His meaning, intention, is clear enough, but his actual words do tell us something about his, their, feelings at that moment. John, together with his brother James, was an apostle, and if anyone was performing miracles in the name of Jesus in those circumstances it should have been them, being known as close disciples of Jesus, and indeed, two of the twelve specially chosen by the Lord!
We know that John and his brother – ‘sons of thunder’ remember – were inclined to favour striking gestures (Luke 9:51-54):
Jesus resolutely determined to journey to Jerusalem, and He sent messengers ahead of Him. On the way they entered a Samaritan village to prepare for His reception there, but they would not welcome Him because the destination of His journey was Jerusalem. When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, "Lord, do You want us to call down fire from heaven to consume them?"
They were also easily drawn into ‘apostolic’ disputes about personal standing:
An argument arose among the disciples about which of them was the greatest. Jesus, realized the intention of their hearts and took a child and placed it by His side and said to them, "Whoever receives this child in My name receives Me; and whoever receives Me receives the One who sent Me. For the one who is least among all of you is the one who is the greatest." (Luke 9:46-48)
And this penchant for extremes, this vain, yet very human, desire not only to protect but also to promote self, seems to have remained with the apostles almost to the very end, for even after the Last Supper we are told:
Jesus said: Behold, the hand of the one who is to betray Me is with Me on the table; for the Son of Man indeed goes as it has been determined, but woe to that man by whom He is betrayed!" And they began to debate among themselves, who among them would do such a deed. Then an argument broke out among them, about which of them should be regarded as the greatest. He said to them, "The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those in authority over them are addressed as 'Benefactors'; but among you it shall not be so. Rather, let the greatest among you be as the youngest, and the leader as the servant. (Luke 22:21-26)
Indeed, it would seem that this desire for precedence and greatness had been given James and John along with their mother’s milk, for St. Matthew (20:20-22) tells us that:
The mother of the sons of Zebedee approached Jesus with her sons and did Him homage, wishing to ask Him for something. He said to her, "What do you wish?" She answered Him, "Command that these two sons of mine sit, one at Your right and the other at Your left, in Your Kingdom."
Finally, remember how the apostles were very sensitive about what people expected of them:
A man came to Jesus, knelt down before Him, and said, “Lord, have pity on my son who is a lunatic and suffers severely; often he falls into fire and often into water. I brought him to Your disciples, but they could not cure him." Jesus said in reply, “Bring the boy here to Me.” Jesus rebuked him and the demon came out of him; and from that hour the boy was cured. Then the disciples approached Jesus in private and said, "Why could we not drive it out?" (Matthew 17:15-19)
And there, People of God, we come to the kernel of the matter. John, and all the other apostles were, in their student days so to speak, very solicitous about their own image.
Take now the example of Moses, as we heard in the first reading:
A young man quickly told Moses, "Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp." Joshua, son of Nun, who from his youth had been Moses' aide said, "Moses my lord, stop them!" But Moses answered him, "Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the people of the LORD were prophets! Would that the LORD might bestow His Spirit on them all!"
Or again, call to mind the words of St. Paul, who, chained up in Rome, discovered the depths of human spitefulness:
Some proclaim Christ from envy and rivalry, out of selfish ambition; not sincerely but intending to increase my suffering in my imprisonment. What does it matter? Just this, that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true; and in that I rejoice. Yes, and I will continue to rejoice. (Philippians 1:15-18)
Both Moses and Paul were dead to self and therefore fully alive to their Lord and God; John and James with their fellow Apostles, on the other hand, were, at that time, very young and inexperienced, and far too concerned about their own image: about what they could be seen to be doing for the Lord, or about what impression they were giving the people.
Jesus was most understanding and simply told them:
Do not prevent him. There is no one who performs a mighty deed in My name who can at the same time speak ill of Me. For whoever is not against us is for us.
We can now discover something of what Jesus’ words involved, something the Apostles would themselves later come to appreciate, namely, that the calling, the vocation, of an apostle, does not, in the final assessment, require the performance of miracles, he is judged by one supreme and yet simple criterion, that of his one-ness with Jesus:
He who is not against us is for us.
The miracle worker had received a gift from God, a great gift indeed and one that gave glory to Jesus in Whose Name miracles were being performed. However, the incomparably greater gift is that of being, and becoming ever more and more, personally one with Jesus. The miracle worker is not against us; he is, indeed, for us, on our side; yet, for all that, the miracle-man, is not included in those two words, ‘us’ and ‘our’, and that makes all the difference.
That key to apostleship, -- one-ness with Jesus -- was, at that time, not sufficiently appreciated by the apostles, especially John; they were beginning to live it, but not yet fully recognizing it they could not as yet live it to the full; later they would, and thereby would become models, guides, and protectors for Mother Church the whole world over and throughout all ages.
One-ness with Jesus is a reciprocal relationship in which love, originating in Jesus (‘You did not call Me, I called you’), demands love in return; one-ness with Jesus is a relationship in which love is given with the supreme object of provoking, calling forth, a return of personal love and total commitment. The gift of miracle-working provokes, of itself and at the best, gratitude.
In our materialistic Western society there is so much emphasis placed on doing things for Jesus; doing things – in His Name – for people; trying to present Him and His message in a popular light. These can be acceptable, even laudable, aims, but nothing short of the spontaneous flowering of a total and loving commitment to the Person of Jesus Himself will be of enduring worth. Such love for Jesus, such one-ness with Him -- alone-ness with Him alone -- has no need for anything other to justify it, being itself the pearl of great price, the supreme adornment and fulfilment of human possibilities, and the treasure hidden in the field of Christian life and doctrine which is the Church called to become the beautiful Spouse of Christ.
John’s youthful honesty and sincere love of Jesus have led us to realise a most beautiful truth of Catholic Christian life: let us endeavour to follow him yet more carefully and humbly to the maturity of his unique relationship of one-ness with Jesus:
The disciple whom Jesus loved and who leaned on His breast at the Supper. (John 21:20)