I spent some time reading Mark 9:38-41 and was confronted with the humor and sobriety that this story brings. Summary: The disciples found a person who was driving out demons in Jesus’ name who was not a part of the original twelve, set-apart, inner circle, chosen ones of Jesus. Jesus challenges His disciples for their actions and replies, “Whoever is not against us is for us.” (40)
Couple of interesting things to note:
1. One of Jesus’ inner circle, John, brings this complaint to Jesus. Commentators note that after each of the 3 times that Jesus predicts His death, He confronts each of the inner 3 Peter, James, and John. (Mark 8:32; 9:38; 10:35-37) So, one of the apex events of the life of Jesus was hard for His closest friends to embrace, interesting.
2. This story is placed near another narrative where Jesus’ disciples were unable to cure a boy from demonic possession. (Mark 9:14-29) What a humorous picture! The disciples are trying to stop someone who is not officially one of them from casting out demons in Jesus’ name, and at the same time, were not having an easy time doing this task themselves.
3. The critical component of the story is not who is officially recognized as Jesus’ commissioned followers, but the power that one finds in Jesus’ authority. The disciples had a narrow view of who was involved in the mission of Jesus. Jesus gave more latitude and generosity towards the mission of the kingdom of God.
4. I might be splitting hairs, but the order of Jesus’ epigrammatic statement in verse 40 is rich. Jesus could have said, “Whoever is for us is not against us”- connoting a more narrow membership. But Jesus starts from a wider vantage point first, “Whoever is not against us is for us.”
An image may help my thoughts here. I am a hockey fan and played hockey for many years. My favorite team is the Detroit RedWings. One of Detroit’s arch-rivals is the Colorado Avalanche. My disdain for the Avs is so strong that I wouldn’t even think about buying a Chevy Avalanche pickup truck because it is called an Avalanche.
However, I live in the Midwest where hockey is not popular. Finding hockey fans that enjoy the sport for more than the occasional fight is difficult. Therefore, my appreciation for any hockey fan is radically increased because of my context. I even have a couple of Avs fans as friends… distant friends, but friends nonetheless.
If I were to use Jesus’ statement in reverse (Whoever is not for us is against us) in my hockey image, then I would only have hockey friends who are RedWings fans, because I’m starting with those who are exactly like me in particular. If I use Jesus’ statement as it stands (Whoever is not against us is for us), I embrace all hockey fans as friends regardless of their particular team affinity. Besides, it is better to have fellow hockey fans as friends in a hockey-hostile environment, than to be against everyone.
In my 14 years of being a Christian I personally have not experienced such a hostile environment between Christians in internal debates. There have been arguments and heated exchanges in Christianity throughout its history. Maybe I am more aware of it today than I have been in the past years of my Christian faith. However, I see more energy to alienate other believers because they are not officially like “us”, than ever before. Jesus’ reaction towards His disciples should challenge us deeply here.
We have more in common with other Christians than we can imagine. The tenor of Christian thought globally is a bit wider than what we have been exposed to. Let’s embrace first and question second.