Windows On The Word
Not One Of Us
'He who is not with me is against me’. Mt 12.30
And Jesus went on to say: ‘He who does not gather with me scatters’. Mt 12.30. He seems to be saying: Draw lines in the sand. Know where you stand. Know what and who you are against. Identify the enemy. It is familiar language to those brought up to the strains of ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ and the like. We are called to daily combat. Call sin by its right name. Give the trumpet a certain sound. For ‘We fight against principalities and powers in high places’. It is deeply combative language. It is the language of battle. It is what we hear all the time.
However, there is a problem.
In another place in the gospels and on another occasion, Jesus says something which is close to being a flat contradiction of this. Or at least it points us in a very different direction. And we do not like the idea of Jesus contradicting himself.
In Mark 9.40 Jesus says ‘Whoever is not against us is for us’. These are welcoming words, generous and wide-embracing. He seems to be saying: Stop drawing easy lines in the sand. Don’t put up fences around God. Don’t be eager to see life as conflict. Stop making enemies for yourself. Don’t compete but rather co-operate. There are people out there who are not officially one of us but who are truly mine.
How do we reconcile these statements? And not in a theoretical way but as a guiding star for our lives.
Before we do that there is a short parenthesis to insert. These two texts show the dangers of approaching the Scriptures in a pick-and-mix way. It is too easy to surf the Bible looking for sentiments which happen to agree with our own. We have all done it. But we do violation to the Word when we do. Jesus seems on the one hand to be exclusive in his attitude and on the other very inclusive. How do we understand this tension?
Without going deep into complex analysis, we should note that the gospel of Mark was the first to be written and it is a fairly breathless account of the ministry and teachings of Jesus. It was written in a relatively simple context. The gospel of Matthew however was written some twenty years later and was intended to address early believers who were struggling with the question of the extent to which they should align with the old traditions or strike out in a new direction. And how should they relate to those who disagreed? It is a complex story of how the new ‘Way’ was to take shape.
When Jesus said ‘He who is not for me is against me’ he was in the middle of yet another dispute with the Pharisees. The issue on this occasion was the observance of the Sabbath, as it often was.
This was the litmus test of orthodoxy for the Pharisees. Jesus had been healing on the Sabbath and they were absolutely clear that this was ‘work’ and should not take place on the holy day. The Pharisees – or many of them, since they were not all hostile to Jesus – seemed to believe that their precious system of religious observance mattered more than people. They overlooked something very important: God did not make us to keep the Sabbath. He made the Sabbath to keep us.
The Pharisees accused him of healing a demon-possessed, blind, mute man by the power of Beelzebub, that is Satan. Jesus showed them by a simple process of logic that their claim was self-defeating. And so they did what many people do when they run out of reasons: they became angry, hatched their conspiracy theory, and began to entertain the idea of killing Jesus.
It is at this point in the situation that Jesus says ‘He who is not for me is against me’. Here was a clash of systems. There was the old discredited system where it seemed that the powerful religious leaders were blocking access to God for ordinary people in order to retain power and privilege. They were using their privileged position to oppress people whom they regarded as next to worthless. They had to be opposed if anything was to change. But more than that, the very authority of the Son of God was at stake. Jesus with these words was presenting a stark choice between the old and the new understanding of God.
The words ‘Whoever is not against us is for us’ were spoken by Jesus in a very different situation. Jesus had just descended from the mountain where three disciples had witnessed something truly extraordinary and deeply mysterious. In the Christian tradition we call it the Mount of Transfiguration. Peter, James and John had been chosen by Jesus to witness the appearance of Moses and Elijah, the supreme bearers of the old tradition, confirming the fact that Jesus was indeed God’s beloved son. Jesus for a moment became a dazzling figure in a way we simply cannot comprehend. In fact, the whole Christian church has struggled to know quite what to make of this episode with many different explanations and rites emerging. But that is a story for another time.
When Jesus and the trio re-joined the other disciples there was a swift transition from the sublime to the ridiculous. The remaining disciples were squabbling over who was the greatest, a row possibly created by the fact that nine of them had been excluded from the mountain party. Why Peter, James and John? Why not them as well…or instead? They were becoming overtaken by thoughts of rank and self-importance – just like the Pharisees. They had quickly forgotten, or not grasped, that Jesus had said that the first will be last. They had forgotten that he had said that anyone wanting to be great must be servant of all.
The argument focused on the fact that while they were waiting for the mountain party to return they had proved quite unable to cast out a demon or perform an act of healing. But somebody else had done so. They were very upset and told this man to stop because he was ‘not one of us’. They wanted to stop someone from doing good just because he was not on their ‘team’.
Jesus was understandably very upset at the pathetic behaviour of the disciples. It was at this point that He said ‘Whoever is not against us is for us’. He went further too. He said that anyone who performs a simple act of kindness – as simple as offering a cup of water – was ‘one of us’. In order to emphasize the point, he took a child on his lap. Children were regarded as sub-adult, potential human beings only. Jesus wanted to make the point that anyone who followed Him would have to change their views about human value and status radically.
The conclusions to be drawn from these two sayings of Jesus do not really need to be laboured.
1. We should pay attention to the context in which the words of Jesus appear in the gospels or we shall misunderstand their intent. That takes a little time and effort.
2. The friends of God are by no means all within the church. The enemies of God are by no means all outside the church. People’s actions, intentions, hopes and fears are profoundly complex and we should be slow to judge.
3. We should avoid seeing people as ‘not one of us’. This applies to any type of grouping to which we may belong. We should be slow to exclude others from our circles – and quick to welcome.
4. We need to ask the very practical questions: ‘What or who am I against?’ But more importantly, ‘What or who am I for?’ It is usually easier to pronounce yourself against something than for something else.
5. We should understand just what damage the desire for rank and recognition can do in any community or group.
6. The glory of God is so elusive that we usually settle for business-as-usual at the foot of the mountain.
I think that Irenaeus, one of the ancient church fathers, had it about right when he said: ‘The glory of God is man fully alive’. Nothing less than everything; fully open to those who are different from us.
That is a very tall order. But it is a goal worthy of our lives.
* Talk first given at Newbold Church.