Us vs Them
Strong language in today’s gospel. To me, Jesus sounds angry. In fact this is the angriest that I have ever experienced Jesus. Angrier than when he entered the temple and overturned the tables. Angrier than any of his heated exchanges with the scribes and Pharisees. Angrier than when he told Peter to “get behind me Satan” in our gospel two weeks ago.
What is going on here? Why the strong language? Why the anger?
It’s a challenging gospel. The first time I read it, it seemed disjointed. John’s question about an exorcist. Giving a cup of water. Stumbling blocks and millstones. Drowning. Cutting off limbs. Going to hell.
And then I remembered that the whole time that Jesus is speaking, he has that little child in his arms, and piece by piece it started to come together for me.
“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”
God cares about those who vulnerable and powerless. God hears their cry. We’ve seen it over and over in our scriptures. The cry of Hagar and the infant Ishmael. The cry of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt. The cry of Hannah, barren and distressed. The cry of the exiles in Babylon. The cry of the psalmist. The cry of mothers whose children have been slaughtered by King Herod. God hears their cry, God cares for the vulnerable and powerless, and God responds.
Jesus needs his disciples to know that this is who God is, this is what God is like. And so he takes a child in his arms and says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.
God cares about the little child. But John doesn’t seem to. He’s concerned with other matters. He says to Jesus “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him.” Maybe this is part of his campaign to be the greatest of the disciples. But with John’s intervention, it all starts to unravel.
“Do not stop him!” Jesus explodes.
I hear an angry voice here, and it escalates, despite the child that Jesus still holds in his arms.
Do not stop him because no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able to speak evil of me.
Do not stop him, because whoever is not against us is for us.
Do not stop him, because whoever gives you a cup of water because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.
The strongest words are yet to come. But before we go on, we need to talk about hell. The word that Jesus uses here and elsewhere, that we translate as “hell”, is the word Gehenna. Gehenna is a real place, it is the deep valley on the southwest side of the city of Jerusalem. In Jesus’ day it was the place where Jerusalem dumped and burned its garbage. But Gehenna has an even more sinister history. The prophet Jeremiah writes of Gehenna as the place where people came to “burn their sons and daughters in the fire”. Gehenna is where children were sacrificed.
Now hear Jesus words, and picture that little child still in his arms:
“If any of you offends against one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better if a great millstone were hung around your necks and you were thrown into the sea.
If your hand causes you to offend against one of these little ones, cut it off. It is better for you to live maimed than to go to the place of child sacrifice.
If your foot causes you to offend against one of these little ones, cut it off. It is better for you to live lame than to sacrifice a little child such as this one.
If your eye causes you to offend against one of these little ones, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to burn a little child in the fire.”
This is righteous anger. Would that we had heard words like this from the Pope when the child abuse in the Catholic church was exposed.
Today’s gospel tells us that there is nothing that makes God angrier than the abuse and oppression of those who are vulnerable and powerless. God cares for those who are vulnerable and powerless, exemplified by the little child that Jesus holds in his arms. God cares for the outsider, the excluded, and the marginalized. She welcomes them in her arms. And when they are oppressed there is wrath.
The gospel today began with the welcoming of a little child. What is it that John said that triggered such anger, why did Jesus take such a sudden turn?
Jesus said, “whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”
John said, “We saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”
I think that’s one of the most tragic, heart-breaking lines in all of scripture. “We tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” So destructive. But so human.
Demon-possession, however we understand it, is a terrible thing. Jesus’ very first public act in the gospel of Mark is to cast a demon out of a man he encounters in the synagogue in Capernaum, thereby healing him, relieving his suffering and restoring him to health in body, mind and spirit. John and the other disciples have seen someone doing the very same thing in Jesus’ name, but instead of welcoming him, they tried to stop him.
Why? Because he was not following us. He was not one of us. He was one of them.
Imagine a little child that is suffering. Now imagine there is someone who tries to help, someone who acts in Jesus name and can relieve that suffering. Is it right to stop him, to allow the child to suffer, because he is not one of us?
John seems to think so. And history shows that he is not the only one.
We humans have a real propensity for us vs them thinking. We do it all the time. Tribalism, racism, nationalism, it shows up in all sorts of forms. It certainly has been and continues to be part of church history. The problem is, as soon as we think of someone as one of them and not one of us, we start to see them differently. We start to treat them differently. Instead of caring for them, instead of valuing people, all people, as created in the image of God, as God’s children, we divide people into us and them, and we care more about us than them. Indeed, we often marginalize and vilify them in order to feel better about us.
And when that sort of thinking gets embedded into our personal prejudices and blind spots, when it gets embedded into our social, political, economic and legal systems, it leads to injustice and oppression. Because Africans were not us, they were enslaved. Because indigenous people were not us we took their land. Because gays are not us, they are excluded. Because women are not us, they are harassed and assaulted. And whenever there is us vs them thinking, whenever there is injustice and oppression, the ones who suffer the most, the ones who are most likely to be the victims, are the vulnerable and the powerless. Like the little child that Jesus holds in his arms.
Maybe that’s why John’s us vs them thinking makes Jesus angry. Because God really cares for the vulnerable and the powerless, so much so that in Jesus, God actually became one of the vulnerable and powerless, and suffered first-hand the consequences of human prejudice and oppression.
God cares. May we also care for those who are vulnerable and powerless, and be at peace with one another.
Homily: Yr B P27, Sept 30 2018, St. Albans
Readings: Esther 7.1-10, 9-20-22; Ps 124; James 5.13-20; Mark 9.38-50
Image by Kyle Tsui, Creative Commons