Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Whoever is nor against us is for us


A Sunday School teacher was describing how Lot’s wife looked back and turned into a pillar of salt when a boy interrupted, “My Mom looked back once while she was driving,” he declared triumphantly, “and she turned into a telephone pole!”[1]

Jesus has been described as the most tolerant person who ever lived. His words are striking: “Whoever is not against us is for us.”[2] Biblical scholars regard this as an authentic teaching of Jesus because his disciples preserved it even though its openness would have assuredly made them uncomfortable.[3]

The disciples’ discomfort is understandable. Humans share an innate proclivity to belong to well-defined groups such as a family, clan, nation state, sports team, or religious body. It’s unsurprising that the Church gradually shifted away from the openness so clearly expressed in the gospel, constricting “into a rigid, restrictive and exclusive system of belief.” Every question had only one right answer.[4] Commitment to doctrinal conformity was a primary catalyst for eastern and western Christianity splitting and for innumerable efforts to root out heretics: Gnostics and Manicheans in Christianity’s early years, the Inquisition’s persecution of Cathars and other dissidents, and burning Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, author of the first Book of Common Prayer at the stake as a heretic.

In the reading,[5] the disciples complain to Jesus that someone else had cast out a demon in his name. Jesus did not soothe their angst. Instead, he responded with an unexpectedly inclusive vision of Christian community and identity: “Whoever is not against us is for us” and “whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.”

Jesus scandalized his contemporaries by eating with Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots, and, most notoriously, the dirty, non-religiously-observants peasants. One contemporary echo of this “deed of power” that welcomed everyone to the table is rejecting contemporary social polarizations, for example, by numbering both Republicans and Democrats among your friends

Jesus outrageously heeded not only the pleas of Jews but also of non-Jews for healing. A contemporary echo of this “deed of power” is learning to see God at work throughout the cosmos, lovingly healing, guiding, and empowering Episcopalians, non-Anglican Christians, non-Christians, and the non-religious.

Jesus shocked people by respecting and valuing women, treating them as humans rather than as chattel, talking to them and befriending them. A contemporary echo of this “deed of power” is the Church removing gender and gender orientation as barriers to ordination and/or marriage. Another echo is to stop treating anyone, especially women, as sex objects instead of as humans. Every individual incarnates God’s image and is worthy of respect and dignity.

Jesus sent his disciples into the world with only the clothes on their backs, confident that the persons to whom the disciples ministered would generously support the disciples out of gratitude for the acceptance, love, and spiritual gifts received from the disciples. An echo of this “deed of power” is discarding our traditional reliance upon fear to motivate people to commit, at least superficially, to Christianity and then using guilt to manipulate believers to give of their time, talent, and treasure to the Church. The Church will truly thrive only if it faithfully lives into Jesus’ teachings, helping people connect with God.

The human Jesus surely enjoyed his triumphant entry into Jerusalem. But Jesus recognized the fallacy of trusting his desires for the future, praying to God not my will but yours be done. He trusted God’s leading. An echo of this “deed of power” is our looking inward and seeing that we are works in progress. We may be less honest, less humble, less just, and less courageous than we think. Our most cherished theological and political beliefs may be wrong. Our self-image as a person who honors the dignity and worth of all may clash with deeply held prejudices of which we may be only dimly aware. Listening to the stories of women, members of the LBGQT community, and the marginalized underscores our need for humility and seeing ourselves as works in progress.

The notion that salt might lose its saltiness can easily puzzle us. First century Palestine was a poor area. People often obtained their salt from Syria, buying a cheap, chemically unstable form of salt that when exposed to rain and sun, or stored in a damp house, lost its saltiness. Jesus commends the more expensive, chemically stable salt, a metaphor for people who by their values and examples consistently heed his teachings.[6]

In an old eastern fable, a man possessed a magic ring set with a wonderful opal. Whoever wore the ring became so sweet and true in character that everyone loved him. The ring was always passed down from father to son, and always did its work. Then the ring came to a father with three sons whom he loved equally. What was he to do when the time came to pass on the ring?

The father had two identical copies of the original ring made. On his deathbed, he called each of his sons to him in turn, told each he loved them, and to each, without telling the others, gave a ring.

When the three sons discovered that each had a ring, a great dispute arose as to which was the true ring that could do so much for its owner. They took the case to a wise judge. He examined the rings and then spoke. "I cannot tell which is the magic ring," he said, "but you yourselves can prove it."

"We?" asked the sons in astonishment.

"Yes," said the judge, "for if the true ring gives sweetness of character to the man who wears it, then I and all the other people in the city will know the man who possesses the true ring by the goodness of his life. So, go your ways, and be kind, be truthful, be brave, be just in your dealings, and he who does these things will be the owner of the true ring."[7]

May we be good salt performing deeds of power, quick to offer a cup of water to the thirsty, quick to embrace neighbors near and far, ever mindful of Jesus’ words, “Whoever is not against us is for us.” Amen.



[1] Source unknown.
[2] Mark 9:41.
[3] Cf. Edward J. Mally, “The Gospel According to Mark,” §59, The Jerome Biblical Commentary, ed. Raymond E. Brown, et. al. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1968).
[4] Steven Croft, Ian Mobsby and Stephanie Spellers, Ancient Faith, Future Mission: Fresh Expressions in the Sacramental Tradition (New York: Seabury, 2010), Kindle Loc. 249-52.
[5] Mark 9:38-50.
[6] The New Westminster Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Henry Snyder Gehman (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1970), pp. 819-820.
[7] William Barclay, Daily Study Bible: Mark (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1978), Vol. 2, p. 12.

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