The first audience to receive the gospel of Mark were those in early Christian communities who were struggling in the midst of persecution, who were in conflict over Jewish-Gentile relations, and who were dealing with all of the growing pains of an infant church seeking identity and faithful witness. Christian groups disagreed with one another, contested each other’s claims, and even sought to censure one another, to decide who was “in” and who was “outside”.
It is within this context that Mark’s Jesus warns that finger-pointing and exclusion is not the path Jesus calls his disciples to follow. Even as the disciples point the finger outward to the other exorcist, Jesus returns the focus back to their- our- own behaviors, to the ways in which we speak and live the good news- or don’t- and the ways in which we place obstacles- or stumbling blocks- in the way of that good news.
Just before today’s reading, Jesus had asked the disciples what they had been arguing about. And they dodged the question, because they had been arguing about who was the greatest and who had the power and who was up in the latest popularity polls and who would get to wear the shiny crown. And though they often misunderstand their teacher and friend, they’re not so dense that they are unaware of how frustrated and disappointed Jesus would be by their conversation. So Jesus sat them down and told them that whoever wants to be first must be last and must be the servant of all. Then he put a little child in their midst and said that whoever welcomes a child welcomes him and whoever welcomes him fully welcomes God into life and heart. Translation? Spend less time jockeying for power and more time practicing hospitality, welcome, openness. End of sermon number one.
So, in behalf of the other disciples, John seems eager to change the subject, and he poses this question about a horrible outsider who is- gasp- casting out demons- and even claiming to do it in Jesus’ name! We just can’t have that, John is saying. We can’t have people changing the world for the better when they have no right, no permission to do so. The audacity! And Jesus tells John, who doesn’t seem to realize that they haven’t changed the subject at all, that they’re still talking about welcoming and including, Jesus tells him that it’s not his place to call dibs on righteousness or faithfulness or faith, for that matter; not his place to check papers and demand credentials to decide who is IN the “Jesus club” and who is outside. Whoever is not against us is for us, Jesus says. End of sermon number two.
But if we are being honest, truly, deeply honest, we must admit that we are so very prone to draw lines between those who are in and those who are out. Sometimes we do it by gender, sometimes by age or sexual orientation or ethnicity or income level. And sometimes we do it by religion- or what we call “religion”.
Years ago, Duane Priebe, Professor Emeritus at Wartburg Seminary, said these wise words: “Every time you draw a line between who’s in and who’s out, you’ll find Jesus on the other side.” And how hard that is to hear, isn’t it? After all, we all want Jesus on “our side”, don’t we? Only to discover that Jesus has a problem with sides; he doesn’t take sides- except against injustice and lack of compassion and exclusivity. And perhaps he has a problem with us picking sides, creating them, and defending them, mostly because we have a terrible track record for being wrong.
But back to our text. Just for good measure, Mark’s Jesus adds an even stronger punch…
In these verses, Jesus makes the message even harder to hear as he uses the images of body parts as the stumbling blocks. And, remember, these are not other people or things
We’ve all heard the cliché that any time we point a finger at someone else we have three fingers pointing back at ourselves. But that doesn’t seem to stop us from pointing away, does it, and Jesus knows that. So rather than dismiss these rather overstated verses, as we are wont to do, we should instead realize that perhaps the overstatement is there because most of the time the significance and impact of our own behavior gets lost on us, just as it did with those first disciples. And the issue here for Jesus does not seem to be one of taking actions in life that lead to eternal reward or punishment in a life to come. Instead, Jesus tells us, the Reign of God is so present, so accessible in the here and now that we need only to remove the stumbling blocks of our own making to realize and be part of that holy kingdom. Makes me wonder if sometimes zeal for the gospel isn’t really that at all but rather about our fear of those who are different from us…placing before them the stumbling block of making it hard to see in us the love of God in Christ.
The final verse in this section of Mark says, “Have salt in yourselves and be at peace with one another,” which I take to mean “Focus on how you live your own faith- and stop judging others!” Just think of what the Church would look like if we actually stopped drawing circles of exclusivity and rejoiced in and supported those people who are doing the things Jesus has called us to do, regardless of how we personally feel about that person’s race, age, gender, sexual preference, denomination, or political affiliation?
Perhaps we should take to heart these familiar lines written in the early 20th century by American poet, Edwin Markham:
He drew a circle that shut me out-
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle and took him in!
As I said before, most biblical scholars think that through this passage, Mark was most likely addressing some form of early inter-Christian disputes and was inviting those diverse followers of Jesus into a way of peace. But two thousand years later, after inquisitions and pogroms, after the Holocaust and Northern Ireland and the Balkans and the Rwandan genocide and 9/11 and the religious outrage and violence of recent days, if you’ve been following the news…after all this, can we not also imagine that Jesus is calling us to be at peace with those who look differently or live differently or even name God differently from us? Can we not imagine that Jesus would have us not only tolerate these “others” but seek and work for their welfare? Can we not imagine Jesus calling us to understand them, love them, and in all these ways, “Be at peace with one another.” And the peace of God which passes all human understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen