The gospel reading for tomorrow is Mark 9:38-50
John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”
But Jesus said, “Do not stop him;
for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us.
For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.
“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me,
it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.
If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off;
it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire.
And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell.
And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell,
where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.“For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”
For me, this week, the opening part of the gospel passage has really been knocking, especially:
'we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.'
In yet another of those instances when you have read a passage over the years a number of times, a new chink of light appears. I find myself asking the question: 'hang on, what on earth is going on here?'
The disciples come upon a person who is doing something good in Jesus' name... and their instant reaction is to be very cross indeed.
Who is this person? Not one of us.
And because this person is not following them, not in their little group, they try to stop him from doing what he'd been doing... which was doing good in Jesus' name.
They stop him rather than encourage him;
they stop him rather than finding him an encouragement - being delighted that others outwith their group are actually getting it:
Jesus' message to love God and to love neighbour, in word and deed.
Again, what on earth is going on here?
Having been raised on a diet of Westerns when growing up, the image coming to mind is that iconic picture of covered wagons drawing themselves in a circle when under attack: drawing the circle small and defending the group.
But the gospel passage is not about being attacked.
It is about someone outside the group seeing, or having heard about, what Jesus has done, and going out and trying to do likewise.
A person outwith the group who appears to be thinking that what Jesus has been doing is a Jolly Good Thing.
Perhaps an alternate take on the disciples' attitude could be that they were concerned the person casting out demons - or dealing with mental health issues, or whatever this situation was about - is trying to set himself up as a messiah figure.
But this comes unstuck: the person would be invoking his own name.
Here again, whoever this person was who happened to be going about doing good, the disciples state that it was done in Jesus' name.
And so, perhaps at the heart of the problem, is identity and belonging... and a little matter of the pride of exclusivity:
we are the group that follow Jesus.
The gospel passages over the last couple of weeks have featured:
disputes and jostling for best place in the Jesus gang,
reminders about leadership not being about greatness but about humility and service,
calls to the disciples about looking after the ones who are on the edges, whose voices go unheard, who are invisible.
And here, in this passage, the disciples have gone out to do deeds in Jesus' name and have found someone else doing the same.
Is there a fear about loss of privilege?
If any old random can do deeds in Jesus' name, will the disciples lose their place in the queue?
In stopping the unknown man from doing deeds in Jesus' name, the disciples exhibit behaviour that we, in the church, have also had a tendency towards historically. From the time of the disciples and continuing down through the ages we have effectively circled our wagons, we've fenced the table and actively put stumbling blocks in front of those who may have been inclined to do good. On occasion, like the disciples, we have been quite caught up in the 'they don't belong', 'they're not in our group', so much so that we have been utterly blind to everything else, including the good that has been done by those who are not in our gang.
Perhaps especially the good: are we tacitly asserting that folk who are not like us are not really capable of being and doing good?
So some questions I am musing on:
How do we - how do I - stop folk from following?
What stumbling blocks do we/ I put in the way of others?
I find it interesting, and hadn't quite picked up on it before [slow to learn, that's me] that the disciples are not even focused upon the fact that whoever this person happens to be, they are doing good things: in and of itself, that is a thing to be praised. So, how do we, how do I, actively be an encourager not a discourager? How do we, how do I, see the good and praise that, rather than being worried about losing a place in the queue?
And further, to be awed and inspired rather than sniffy...
Instead of stopping, or discouraging folk, what ways can we find to encourage folk to be all that they can be and more?
What are our/my motivations for following Jesus and doing deeds in his name? It is better to reflect on that perhaps, than use the distraction technique of pointing to others... a little self-examination perhaps brings the perspective of humility.
And does the pointing of fingers and getting huffy about who is doing what get in the way of our own active service to our neighbour? Does spending time arguing about our own place in the queue stop us from giving someone that real or metaphorical glass of water?
How do we break that very human trait of wanting to draw the wagons around in a circle and not let folk in?
And, following, how do we learn to draw the circle in a way that expresses the wide love of God? And includes, like the cartoon at the top of the post expresses so beautifully, everybody?
Meanwhile, on a practical 'giving a cup of water' front, might I recommend the work of Wateraid...!