One of the biggest news stories right now is Pope Francis’ visit to the United States. He actually made history as the first Pope ever to address a joint session Congress. As you can probably imagine, the world of social media has been abuzz with chatter related to all things Roman Catholic. Many people, Protestant and Catholic alike, were thrilled with the Pope’s message of care and compassion for the vulnerable. Others, however, not so much. The usual trope abounded: the Pope is the Antichrist; Roman Catholics are going to hell; etc. While I’m not Roman Catholic (I don’t like labels, but I would describe myself as a moderately conservative protestant evangelical), I was troubled by a lot of the anti-Catholic rhetoric. You can imagine (perhaps) my excitement, then, when I saw that the lectionary reading for this Sunday included Mark 9:38-41.
John said to him [Jesus], “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 mighty work in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. For the one who is not against us is for us. For truly, I say to you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ will by no means lose his reward.
This passage is a clear reminder that narrow-minded religious exclusivism has been around for a very long time. John and the other disciples saw someone who wasn’t part of their crowd casting out demons in the name of Jesus and, instead of rejoicing that more people were joining the mission, they tried to put a stop to it. “Who do you think you are, using the name of Jesus like that? You don’t have that kind of authorization. You don’t have the right credentials. You’re not one of us.” I wonder how often we do that in our own ways. “They don’t believe everything we believe. They don’t have the right doctrine. They don’t have the right education. They don’t have the right credentials.” Narrow-minded exclusivism is a clear indication that we have lost sight of the greater mission.
When we consider this story’s placement within the broader context, the irony of the disciples’ attitudes becomes even more apparent. Immediately preceding this story, in Mark 9:33-37, the disciples had been debating among themselves who was the greatest. Jesus instructed them that the one who wants to be first should become the servant of all and that an attitude of welcoming and hospitality in his name would be regarded as welcoming God himself. John, completely missing the point and almost as if he had not been listening to a word Jesus said, proudly declared that they had tried to stop someone else from ministering in his name.
More ironic still is the fact that Mark 9:14-29 is a story about how the disciples themselves had been unable to cast a demon out of a child. Could it be that the disciples’ sanctimonious elitism was really just a mask for their own envy and insecurity? Could it be that they were upset that some stranger had been able to do what they, “the chosen ones,” had not been able to do? Could it be that we criticize other churches or denominations or people because they have been effective where we have been ineffective?
As usual, Jesus’ response is so perfect. In my minds eye I picture him as a patient parent, gently correcting his children who just never seem to quite get it.
Do not stop him, for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. For the one who is not against us is for us. For truly, I say to you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ will by no means lose his reward.