Do not forbid

July 30th, 2018

Mark 9:38-50

It started early, that ugly, erosive, and persistent blight on Christianity. You might have thought it would take a generation or two before this selfish idea began to show itself, but here it is before Christianity is hardly out of the starting gate. John said to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”

Perhaps we should not be too surprised. John and the other disciples came by it naturally. Their lives were marinated in exclusivism. They belonged to a religion and a culture whose main identity was that they were “God’s chosen people.” There is a certain legitimacy in the concept of “chosen-ness,” particularly when it has to do with fulfilling a divine purpose, but there is an inherent danger also. The idea can degenerate from “chosen” to “different” to “better than,” which is exactly what had happened in the religion as practiced and preached by the Scribes and Pharisees.

Perhaps John never thought about that slippery slope, but Jesus did. Jesus simply said, “Do not stop him.” Jesus adds to this simple command a profound lesson on the psychology of inclusiveness: “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.”

Those who have studied the Gospels will quickly recall an occasion upon which Jesus said just the opposite: “Whoever is not with me is against me” (Matthew 12:30; Luke 11:23). Two things may be said about these conflicting statements that may be helpful to those for whom it is an obstacle. The first is that Jesus frequently used paradox as a means of stating truth. This was usually an occasion in which the opposing statements were in juxtaposition (for example, see Mark 8:35). Although there is no juxtaposition of these opposites, the statements are paradoxical. The second thing that may be said of these reverse statements is that the settings in which they were given are clearly different. In Mark, the strange exorcist is insinuating himself into the movement and using Jesus’ name. He is joining the movement without giving previous notice. Jesus says the man is not against “us.” On the other occasion stated in Matthew and Luke, he is speaking of people (religious establishment) who are actively against him to the extent that they accuse him of getting his power from “Beelzebul.” Although explanations do not (and are not intended to) reconcile the opposites, they may give some insight as to how truth lies in and in between the two poles of paradox.

When seen in its larger context, there is some humor, if not irony, in the fact that the disciples are trying to prevent the alien exorcist from doing what they have just failed to do (Mark 9:18). The apostolic defensiveness suggests an element of embarrassment that an untrained and unauthorized stranger accomplishes what they have failed to accomplish. I have seen people from my own constituency genuinely converted and healed in unorthodox religious gatherings when nothing I could do seemed able to reach them. My rejoicing with them has almost always been tinged with a little bit of embarrassment. I have had to face up to the obvious fact that the power of God is not confined by the guidelines of practice in my denomination. To put an even finer point on this observation, I must confess that I have sometimes been surprised and a little professionally embarrassed when my successor in a local church has been able to effectively reach people who I had not been able to reach with my ministry. It happens! Get used to it. Learn to celebrate it.

The feeling expressed by John may not have been intended to promote a knee-jerk exclusiveness. He may well have felt a need to keep the kingdom message and practice uncorrupted by strange people and practices in order to maintain unity in the movement. Most institutionalized religious groups have a book of guidelines and order designed to regulate admission, practice, and interpretation. When does this become an impediment to the message? I do not know where the line is, but there is a line. Perhaps we should begin to look for the line when “the rulebook” becomes bigger than the Bible or when an inordinate percentage of the work force of a denomination is employed full-time as makers, interpreters, and enforcers of rules, regulations, and guidelines.

It is clear that “do not forbid him” must be taken as a warning not only against exclusiveness, but also against an overemphasis on apostolic authority. Jesus wanted any boundaries to be drawn to include as many people as possible. It is all too easy to develop misplaced loyalties in which the means is more important than the end, and the organization becomes the object of our loyalty above the gospel it was created to serve. The power of God is always breaking through the boundaries that have been built by religious groups who have lost their focus. The great reformers, such as Martin Luther and John Wesley, whose work has enriched and enabled the promulgation of the Christian faith, lived and labored on the edge of heresy. They were “forbidden,” but they went on their way, not counting the cost.

It was never intended that we build walls and close the circle in our practice and promotion of the Christian faith. Those who do the works of Jesus belong to him even if they do not belong to us. Remember the great hymn:

There’s a wideness in God’s mercy
like the wideness of the sea;
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
For the love of God is broader
than the measure of our mind
(“There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy,” The United Methodist Hymnal [Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 1989], 121)

We cannot fail to notice and make mention that this passage is set in the middle of Jesus’ teaching about the importance of children. In a time in which women and children were given little or no regard, Jesus gave them high regard. In the next chapter (Mark 10:13-16), the disciples tried to turn away the little children who were being brought to Jesus. In a profound statement of inclusiveness of children, Jesus said: “Forbid them not.” We often ignore and fail to see the potential of the children. Jesus never did.

Samuel Wesley was a devoted priest in the Church of England, in whose heart there burned a desire to see the church renewed and revived. One day he was studying and praying while his two small children, John and Charles, were playing on the stairway. Finally, he became so distracted by the noise that he rushed out of his study and cried out at them saying: “Go play elsewhere. I am trying to pray for a great revival to come upon the church, and your noise is disturbing me.” Little did old Samuel know that the great awakening for which he was praying was running up and down those stairs, in the persons of his own small children, John and Charles Wesley. Do not forbid the stranger who does the work of Jesus.

Do not forbid the children he loved and blessed. In both there is infinite potential. Do not forbid! Do not forbid! Do not forbid!

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