Not Against Us: A Reflection on the Lectionary Readings for 23 September 2012

Revised Common Lectionary Page for 23 September 2012 (17th Sunday after Pentecost, Year B)

Proverbs 31:10-31 and Psalm 1  •  Wisdom of Solomon 1:16-2:1, 12-22 or Jeremiah 11:18-20 andPsalm 54  • James 3:13 – 4:3, 7-8a  • Mark 9:30-37

As is my wont, I’ll be preaching Mark 9:30-50 this week, combining two weeks’ gospel readings for one sermon.  (I’m preaching Psalm 19 next week.)

One reason Mark is my favorite gospel (those of you who read my Bible posts know that I do play favorites) is that its rapid-fire style brings stories that I’ve learned in isolation into relationship with each other.  That certainly holds for Mark 9, where two of the famous child-episodes actually frame an episode about exorcism, and all three comment on the struggle among Jesus’s disciples to figure out the worthlessness of “greatness” in the Kingdom.

Working from the center outward, the name of Jesus is really what’s at stake when the disciples complain about the rogue exorcist.  Somebody has been casting out demons in the name of Jesus, perhaps using that name as a ritual key for an exorcism (though this seems somewhat unlikely, given Acts 19), perhaps having heard from Jesus during his travels and simply moved to take on the work that Jesus is doing.  Either way, the disciples, who seem to think that they’ve been given power to do so exclusive of the rest of Israel, balk at the idea that someone not following them (note the pronoun) might have such power.  Jesus meets this objection with a warning not to discount the unexpected movement of the gospel: “whoever is not against us is for us.”

(As an aside, Jesus speaks what seems to be an opposite statement in Matthew 12, reversing the “for” and “against” that Mark and Luke relate and saying “who is not with me is against me” (Matthew 12:30).  Though such reversals are always worth noting, worth noting as well is the fact that Matthew’s version of the saying appears in an entirely different moment in the narrative, one in which people are accusing Jesus of conspiring with demons.  Context is everything.)

What Mark helps me to see that “in my name” arises not primarily as a question of exorcism but of hospitality, and hospitality comes up as a contrast to the arrogance of power.  What marks the Kingdom, in other words, is not the endless dispute (that’s a little Aristotle humor for you) over prominence in an upside-down kingdom but the welcoming-in that becomes the core of the Kingdom of God.  To sit high above the masses, able to dictate who’s allowed in and who’s forbidden passage, is the stuff of the earthly city: the City of God always welcomes, always rejoices when someone does a mighty work in the name of the King, always shows hospitality because the stranger might in fact belong to Christ.  To receive a child in the name of Jesus, to cast out oppressive powers in the name of Jesus, to do any such work in the name of Jesus is to place a sign in the world, a sign that something better is coming, not a mighty cedar but a mustard bush, not a wall that keeps the pure away from the unclean but a table for feasting, one which first invited the friends of the feast-master but then, after but not only because of the rejection of those friends, invites the blind and the lame, whoever the servants of that master can find along the ways of life.  Hospitality is at the core, and the invitation never stops.

Thus the exhortation to stay salty in 9:50 is neither an invitation to Hauerwasian fits of cussing (though those can be fun) nor a call for arrogant separatism (as if walling off one’s city is anything but the height of “worldliness”) but a reminder that to bring a distinctive “taste” to the world, to become salt and not lose one’s saltiness, one must remember hospitality.  Hospitality governs even exorcism, and whoever would teach the little ones to hate hospitality should be cut off.  After all, better to cut off those who lead the weak into sin than to see the whole body burn.

May we always be salt, always welcome the stranger, always rejoice at any sign from God.

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