By Deacon Buck Close
The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 30, 2018
“Whoever is not against us is for us.”
When the apostle John sees someone who is not of their group casting out demons in the name of Jesus, he is annoyed and reports to Jesus as much. He goes further and says that they had tried to stop the man from doing so. Jesus’ response to John is a lesson to all of us. But first, a bit of background.
In Jesus time, no one doubted that evil spirits caused both physical and mental illness. Exorcising such spirits was a worthwhile thing and Jesus was not the first or last person who seemed to have the power to do so. We cannot explain this scientifically but it was a fact of life in the first century and before. One of the ways of exorcising spirits was to command them in the name of a more powerful spirit. In this case the exorcist’s choice was to use Jesus’ name to cast out the evil spirit. You will notice that John doesn’t accuse the stranger of malpractice. Apparently his exorcisms were successful. John accuses the man of using Jesus’ name despite the fact that he wasn’t from what John called “our group”! So John’s outrage was really based on someone appropriating the good name of Jesus who wasn’t one of them. The stranger was doing good through using Jesus name without permission but, in John’s view, he should be stopped.
Jesus reaction to John’s plea is a lesson in tolerance. First he points out that the man who is using his name to cast out demons cannot then turn around and speak evil of him. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery more or less. Then Jesus says something very familiar to all of us – the sentence with which I began – “he who is not against us is for us.” This is more than a clever quip like saying “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” The real lesson here seems to be deeper than that. It seems to be a lesson about how we accept others who may not be part of our group, church, nationality, etc.
First, people have a right to think or believe what they will and we Christians have a duty to respect that freedom that others have just as we do. And there are two reasons why it is so important to respect that right. First, there is more than one way to God. The world is round and one can get to precisely the same point by starting out in opposite directions. It is a fearful thing for any individual or church to claim a monopoly on salvation. Second, truth is much larger and more complex than any one individual or church’s concept of it. So the basis of tolerance is the recognition of the magnitude and complexity of truth
Perhaps we need to remember that we can only judge any belief or doctrine by the kind of people it produces. Forget the doctrines and details, look at the people and what they do.
Let me give you an example of how challenging it is to be tolerant in the way Jesus taught. The example I am going to use is Mormonism. For non-Mormons – like me or maybe you – the Mormon church and the Book of Mormon seem rather strange. Frankly I think of polygamy and racism and secrecy and all sorts of bizarre rituals that I cannot understand when I think of Mormonism. In 2012, when Mitt Romney was running for President, the whole country was considering what it might mean to have a Mormon elected president. And most people seemed to be as wary as I was about that.
Well, when I look at my attitude about Mormonism, I realize that I am doing exactly what Jesus warned against. I am being put off by the parts of Mormonism that are different from my branch of Christianity. I am searching for the bizarre and sensational and letting those elements color my thinking about the entire whole. I am not looking at the kind of people that Mormonism produces and letting that teach me about Mormonism. Mormonism, despite all the misinformation we hear, cannot be construed as being “against” the gospel of Jesus Christ. They believe in a further revelation that we do not recognize – one that happened in this country in the 19th century in upstate NY. It sounds bizarre to us but who are we to say that that revelation is invalid? And how are we to explain why it is invalid? And why should we ignore that the Mormon way produces good, God-fearing men and women just like our way does?
Speaking personally, the more I learn about the message of Jesus Christ, the more I realize that he doesn’t want me to be the judge of others. His job for me – and for you I think – is not judging. It is-very clearly- working to learn to love our neighbor. And that is so difficult a job that it doesn’t leave time for judging others. Therefore tolerance of other paths and other people is the option we much choose. Jesus refused to respond to John’s complaint by resorting to a “them versus us” model. He told John, in essence, to relax. One of the wonderful things about being tolerant is that it enables us to relax. Judging others isn’t relaxing. If we really work at loving others as Jesus did, then many of those people who we think of as “them” will magically turn into people we think of as “us.” Amen.