A Double Standard We Can Believe In – 9/23/12 – Mark 9:38-50

“Whoever is not against us is for us.”

How’s that for a novel thought?  Almost too simple to take at face value.

Jesus says it in response to the disciples after they come to him with the report that they had seen someone who hadn’t been a part of their group casting out demons.  They had tried to stop him.

What was especially troubling for the disciples was that this vigilante exorcist had been using Jesus’ name to perform his deeds of power.  Surely Jesus has a stake in protecting the usage of his name.  If you’re trying to start a movement, you can’t be letting others take your brand and slap it on their own product.  You lose control of things.  It could get out of hand in a hurry.

“Don’t stop him,” Jesus says.  “Whoever is not against us is for us.”

It’s a fairly loose approach from an otherwise rather demanding teacher.

I like the sentiment of Jesus’ response, but I have to say that the disciples have a pretty good point here.  What’s to stop someone from adopting the Christian name and using it for whatever?

According to a recent study on global Christianity, there are now about 41,000 Christian denominations worldwide, more than 1500 in the United States.  Those are some high numbers, hard to imagine really.  Impossible to keep tabs on all these different histories and streams and traditions.  Chances are you don’t agree with all the ways all of these groups are using the name of Jesus.

Maybe the disciples saw it coming.

This might seem like a modern phenomenon, or the dark side of the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, which is true in some ways, we just keep protesting and reforming, but from the very get go there were all sorts of different takes on what it meant to be a follower of Jesus.

One of the news items from the past week has been the story of the fragmentary text from what is believed to be an early gospel, perhaps originally written around the year 150.  What is especially newsworthy about the fragment is that it is the only ancient text where Jesus is quoted as referring to a wife.  It is quite brief and, almost comically, cuts off just when your ears are perking up.  It’s translated as saying, “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife… … (unknown length of dot, dot, dot) she will be able to be my disciple.’”

The scholar who wrote a paper on the fragment, Karen King, notes that this in no way proves anything about the historical Jesus being married,  but could indicate that some early communities, or this one early community, may have believed that he was.

This is one of many ancient documents come to light relatively recently and if there’s one thing they are teaching us, it’s that there were many different understandings of who Jesus was early on in the different churches of the ancient world.  Even the writings that we have in the New Testament start to show this clearly enough.

There is no need to be scandalized by any of this.    In the case of this fragment, we already know that women were an active part of Jesus’ closest disciples, so no big deal there.  And, although the wife thing seems unlikely, heterosexual marriage is so common and even expected across so many cultures that one might think it would be more scandalous to propose that Jesus was anything but that.

But this is a diversion.

Jesus’ name has been used in many ways.

But still Jesus’ response to the disciples is puzzling.  Just a little earlier he had seemed intent on not allowing Peter to misuse the name of Messiah – rebuking Peter for tossing out a term with so much freight without understanding how Jesus was undermining so much of what it might have meant to people.  Correctly naming, and not misnaming, seemed pretty important to Jesus at that time.  So why the shrug to this person who had perhaps never even met Jesus and his followers but is now using his name in a rather public way.

It’s hard to say.

But rather than cutting himself off from that person, or instituting some kind of rule where would-be followers would need to check into headquarters to get an exorcism license, Jesus comes back with “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able afterward to speak evil of me.  Whoever is not against us is for us.”

To further illustrate this minimalist kind of approach to common ground, Jesus continues by saying that “whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will be no means lose the reward.”  Forget the powerful, impressive exorcism.  If another person does something so small, so basically kind, so easy, as giving a cup of cold water to another, they will not lose the reward.  It’s noteworthy here that this is not the self-proclaimed Jesus-follower who is doing this good deed, but it is another doing the good deed to the one bearing the name of Christ.  It’s almost as if Jesus is saying that if anyone does anything kind to you, consider them on your team.  A part of the Jesus club whether they know it or not.  They’re not acting against you, so they’re for you.

I had an experience this past week that has some connection to being given a cup of cold water.  During her pregnancies Abbie has been remarkably gracious in not asking me to make any midnight runs for cravings of pickles or peanuts or any other kind of things.  But sometimes when I’m craving something, I can ask Abbie if that sounds good to her and then it justifies me going out and getting it.  So on Monday evening I was thinking about ice cream and asked Abbie if that sounded good to her, which it did, surprise, and I headed out to walk to UDF and get a carton.  On the way I met up with a friend from the neighborhood who is a regular at Community Meal.  We got to talking and I told him I was on my way to UDF to get some ice cream, and he said that he would come along and that he’d like to buy it for us.  I learned a while back that one of the most un-kind things one can do is to reject these kinds of gifts.  So we walked together to UDF, I picked out some chocolate ice cream, and he bought it with his food stamp card, patted me on the back, and told me to let Abbie know that this was a gift from him.  I loved him for it, and I loved the way that it put me in the position of the receiver rather than the giver, a much harder position to be in.  “For truly I tell you, whoever buys you a carton of ice cream will by no means lose the reward.”

There is a great freedom that can come from all of this.  It refocuses the whole journey.  Rather than keeping vigilance about who is using and misusing Jesus’ name, policing the borders of our group identity, we are encouraged to relax into an identity of gracious openness to those not dead set against us, and even allowing others to show us a new face of Christ.  How wonderfully freeing.

But, true to form, Jesus then shifts focus in a rather dramatic way.  The second part of the teaching would be comical if weren’t so graphic and downright troubling.  Jesus names three different highly valued functional parts of the body, the hand, the foot, the eye, and says that if any one of these cause you to stumble, to cut it off.  Part of what I find funny about this picture is where it says, “If your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off” – as if that would make not stumbling so much easier.  The NRSV heading calls this teaching “temptations to sin,” but I’m thinking it should be called the “amputation proclamation.”

Appearing right after the previous teaching in the way that it does, these two sets of sayings suggest that we are to judge others by the most generous, gracious standards that we can muster – don’t cut them off from relationship, consider them on your team.  And we are to judge ourselves by the most stringent standards we can muster – cut off whatever is hindering you.  Have an exaggerated generosity and graciousness toward those outside your group.  But have an exaggerated vigilance toward yourself.

Jesus is apparently encouraging his followers to have a double standard, in a reverse, upside down, kind of way.

No matter how one spins it, this is a difficult passage.  Along with the amputation proclamation it also says, “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.”  This is just downright scary.  The mention of the fires and the worm of hell throughout the teaching doesn’t make it all that much more user-friendly.

If anyone ever tells you that they believe in the literal words of the Bible, this is a good passage to keep in mind for a gentle conversation about how committed they really want to be to that.  And if they happen to have all their eyes and hands and feet fully intact, then they’ve already conceded a significant part of the argument.

It’s strong, provocative, hyperbolic language, no doubt intended to get the attention of the listener.

And it’s almost as if we are being pushed to think – well, since we know Jesus isn’t literally asking us to cut off our hand or foot or eye, or to be drowned, what does he mean?  What might we hold as being so valuable, indispensible really, but which, if we really examined it, is an obstacle, a stumbling block to reaching full humanity.  What are we supposed to cut out of our lives, and with what degree of carefulness should we approach “these little ones” that Jesus cared so much about?

Those who have worked with any of the 12 step programs that deal with addictions know well that one of the steps, step four, calls on the person to “Make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.”  Step five states, “Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.”  And step six sounds a whole lot like preparations for an amputation: “Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.”

As we seek to listen for what kinds of connections these strong words of Jesus might have for us, I suggest that the area of addiction is one place where we in the 21st century may especially be prone to stumble.

One of the better insights I’ve heard about our present vulnerability to addiction comes from  Deirdre Barrett, assistant clinical professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School.  She talks about how contemporary humans have “mismatched instincts in a world of supernormal stimuli.”  She comes from an evolutionary perspective and talks about how all of the instincts and impulses that have served us well in past – our desires for food and sex and entertainment and these kinds of good things that have helped us live healthy, enjoyable lives – in our technological age all of these things are now available to us in highly concentrated doses – supernormal stimuli.  We have gotten really good at putting into concentrated form those things that are not only basic to survival, but also which our brains are programmed to enjoy and take pleasure it.  So sugars and alcohol and drugs and sex and entertainment which were accessible to our ancestors in small doses are now available to us as supernormal stimuli, pretty much 24-7, and, not surprisingly they are highly addictive.  Mismatched instincts.

Usually there is so much guilt associated with addictions that that can be paralyzing in itself.  One of the liberating things about this historical approach is that rather than reject the impulses as evil or signs that one in completely sinful, one can accept them as part of what makes us human.  One can even be grateful that they are part of what has enabled us to live well as a species up to this point.  And then we can be more conscious about knowing our vulnerability of indulging in all these good things in ways that overwhelm our ability to stay healthy, or to keep the kinds of priorities in life that we wish.  It’s a problem that we in the modern world have to deal with more mindfully than ever before.

It’s also the case that when we encounter things in concentrated form, we have the ability to build up a tolerance toward them in a way that does not harm us.  And what is toxic for one person, might be tolerable and healthy for another.

And so, in the spirit of Jesus’ teaching about keeping an internal vigilance about what is causing us to stumble, we can allow ourselves to be conscious of all this, to take fearless moral inventory of ourselves, and, if necessary, to cut off that which is an obstacle in our relationships.

If any kind of addiction is controlling your life, cut it off, or, at least, help the supernormal stimuli take its proper place as a normal stimuli in less concentrated form.

How does one go about amputating a bad habit?  Probably with as much care as one would go about amputating an arm; seeking the help of a caring well-trained person, surrounding yourself with the support of loved ones, allowing plenty of time for recovery, expecting that it will take a while to adjust to life without the part.

All of this might be more and more a matter of survival rather than just a nice idea or a religious/moral ideal.  Live with a double standard.  Have an exaggerated generosity and graciousness toward those outside your group.  But have an exaggerated vigilance toward yourself.

The passage ends with Jesus talking about salt.  “Salt is good.  But if it loses its saltiness, how can you season it?  Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”  Salt in the ancient world was a preservative, a seasoning, and used for medicinal purposes.  Salt is good.  Have salt in yourselves.  Add delicious flavor to this world.  Be a healing presence.  If you lose your saltiness, you’ve lost a lot.  Your identity is not dependent on policing the borders of your group, but taking care to have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.