Text Study for Mark 9:38-50 (Pt. 5); September 26, 2021

The “In Crowd”

“For the one who is not over against us is for us” (Mark 9:40, my translation). If Jesus followers seek to exclude someone from our community, the burden of proof is on us – the excluders. That seems to be the plain sense of this verse and of the verses surrounding it. Unfortunately, we who follow Jesus tend to exercise the reverse of this statement – whoever is not for us is against us.

Before I get too far down the line, we need to acknowledge that Jesus says precisely that – “The one who is not with me is over against me, and the one who does not gather together with me disperses” (Matthew 12:30, my translation). It hasn’t happened often in my ministry, but on a few occasions an alert parishioner has caught these diametrically opposed statements and asked about them. Those have been precious ministry moments.

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So, Beloved Preacher, which is it? Does Jesus call us to welcome all comers unless there are compelling reasons to do otherwise? Or does Jesus call us to screen out the interlopers for flaws and only to let in the Chosen Few? Matthew’s account, after all, is the one that reminds us that the way to Life is narrow (Matthew 7), and that many are called but few are chosen (Matthew 22).

Yes, there are differences in these gospel accounts because there are differences in the audiences and issues addressed. In the Markan composition, Jesus is speaking about an outsider who is doing the work of God’s Kin(g)dom apart from the “normal channels.” Good for him, Jesus says. Keep up the good work.

In Matthew 12, the context is the Beelzebul controversy. The “sides” here are not insiders and outsiders doing the same blessed work. Instead, the “sides” are the “Kingdom” of Satan versus the Kin(g)dom of God. Those accuse Jesus of casting out Satan by the power of Satan are aligning themselves with Satan, Jesus declares. That continuing alignment is the one sin which cannot be forgiven since it is the ongoing choice to align oneself against God and to ally oneself to the Enemy.

In addition, the words in Matthew’s account are addressed to the powerful, the positioned, the privileged, and the propertied. In this case, they are represented by the Pharisees. Here the Pharisees seek to adjudicate whether Jesus himself is “in” or “out.” The case Jesus makes here is that he is the One who will do the adjudicating, thank you very much.

The vocabulary used in these accounts matters as well. In Matthew, the phrase “with me” has the sense of “being in company with” or “on the same side as.” That language fits well with the battle lines being drawn in the context. The verb that the NRSV translates as “gather” is the Greek word, “sunago,” which means to gather together or assemble. It is the root of the word we know as “synagogue.”

Matthew’s verse has an underlying Hebrew parallelism which results in a “rhyming” of ideas. “The one who is not with me” is paired with “The one who is not gathering together with me.” In the same way, “is over against me” is paired with “scatters.” Again, Matthew’s statement has to do with real alliance and identification with Jesus, not merely doing the same work. The result of opposition to this alliance and identification is to be “scattered.” Scattering is a code word for what happens to the people of God when they rebel (such as the time leading up to the Babylonian Exile).

There are, therefore, good textual reasons for drawing a fairly strong distinction between the two statements in question. They aren’t contradictions except in a woodenly literal sense. Instead, each is appropriate (at least in literary terms) to its setting and does not impact the use of the other.

That discussion seeks to answer the question of the (hypothetical) alert and curious parishioner. But it can help us with more than that. The power of the statement has something to do with who is being addressed and how. In Matthew, it is the representatives of the religious and political establishment who are seeking to exclude Jesus rather than to “gather with” him. He is only welcome on their terms, and he won’t agree to those terms.

In the Markan composition, it is the disciples who are acting as the representatives of an “establishment.” They are operating in the same way as the Pharisees in Matthew 12. John and the other disciples assume that anyone who is not “with” them in the most literal of senses is over against them and must be regulated. That may be all well and good for the powers of the establishment, Jesus replies, but it shall not be so among us.

If Jesus followers seek to exclude someone from our community, the burden of proof is on us – the excluders. That is particularly the case when we are acting as the administrators of the established order. When we church people function in that way, we are on very shaky ground in terms of the Markan composition. If an “outsider” is working toward outcomes similar to ours – especially when it comes to hope and healing – that “outsider” is to be commended, not condemned.

The language in the Markan composition has another striking feature. The one who is not over against us is “huper” us (to quote the Greek). The Greek preposition often has the meaning of “for the sake of” or “on behalf of.” There is the sense that the one who is not over against us is actually favorably disposed toward us and is acting for our benefit or improvement. I find that interesting.

One of my favorite podcasts is the Mindscape podcast with Dr. Sean Carroll. You can find links to the podcast at Carroll’s web page, https://www.preposterousuniverse.com/podcast/. Carroll is a theoretical physicist, cosmologist, investigator of complex systems, and amateur philosopher. He is bright, curious, entertaining, and relentlessly in pursuit of the Truth – whatever that ultimately means. The breadth of topics on the podcast is marvelous, and Carroll’s grasp of a variety of subjects is impressive.

It would be fair to say that Carroll is no adherent to a religion. He is a philosophical atheist, a naturalist and materialist, a determinist (at least in the way that quantum mechanics allows determinism), a many-worlds cosmologist, and an eternalist when it comes to an understanding of the nature of time. While he does not go out of his way to hammer religions, he does not shy away from the opportunities when they present themselves.

I imagine that many people of faith would find Carroll irritating and offensive on these occasions. I do not. While we do not share the same perspectives on metaphysics and ontology, I value his work and his views. I find that Carroll is “for” me and other religious folks because he is pursuing the Truth. Whether he accepts the description or not, I believe Carroll is working for the benefit of all who seek to know the essential nature of Reality.

And I think that if Dr. Carroll met me and discovered that I needed a cup of water, he would provide that as well.

When I think of Sean Carroll, I am reminded of the story of Emeth in C. S. Lewis’ final Narnia volume, The Last Battle. Emeth (whose name is the Hebrew word for “truth”) was on the opposing side, that of the Calormenes. The last battle is concluded, and the forces of Aslan have triumphed. Now they are entering the true Narnia, the deep Reality behind all reality.

As they enter, they discover Emeth reclining against a tree in a state of bemusement. Emeth fully expected, once he realized how things turned out, that he would be punished and likely destroyed. As Aslan approached, he awaited his fate. He confessed that he was on the “wrong” side and was glad to at least know the Truth.

Aslan bends down and touches Emeth on the forehead. “Son, thou art welcome,” the Lion growls. Aslan then explains that because Emeth has been devoted to the Truth, even in a vain cause, “I take to me the services which thou hast done to [the Enemy].” The Great Lion is not limited by our human perceptions of who is “in” and who is “out.” We do not determine the bounds of God’s Truth, nor can we be sure we know precisely who is “over against” Jesus and who is “for the sake of” Jesus.

Carroll might find this patronizing or even offensive. I certainly intend neither. Instead, our text demands great humility on the part of Jesus followers. What we think we know is not all there is to know. What we think is Real is surely not all that is Real. The Truth sought by science – even when resolutely opposed to the existence and working of God – is still a Truth being sought. As Luther might remind us, the First Commandment is still in effect. God is God, and I am not.

And that’s the Good News.

No one who earnestly seeks the Truth can remain unaffected by that seeking. When Dr. Carroll shares with me a cup of the water of Truth in his work, I am enriched. And he is drawn (from my perspective), like it or not, more deeply into the Truth that I would call God. While the Church deserves all the recrimination we receive in the atheist discussion groups I sometimes haunt, the pursuit of the Truth often brings the very same people closer to Jesus.

That means something. For example, it means that we must be very careful in how we respond – lest we create trip hazards for these earnest Truth seekers. How much better the world would be if we faith folks could see someone like Carroll more often as a Friend of the Truth than as an Enemy of the Church.

References and Resources

Kiel, Micah D. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-26-2/commentary-on-mark-938-50-4.

Jones, Robert P. White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity. Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

Du Mez, Kristin Kobes. Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation. Liveright. Kindle Edition.

Lev, Uri Mayer-Chissick Efraim. “’A covenant of salt’: Salt as a major food preservative in the historical Land of Israel.” Food and History, Vol. 5, No. 2 (2007), pp. 9-39. 10.1484/J.FOOD.1.100220.

Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard L. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels Kindle Edition.

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