The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 21), Year B.
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.” 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.”Mark 9:38-50
“Hell is other people.” That iconic line from Sartre’s play No Exit has been getting thrown around quite a bit lately. Now, this may come as a surprise to you, but as of late, people are pretty angry. While we have always found one reason or another to be angry with one another, lately it has become an unquenching fire. It is worm wriggling its way through public and private discourse into our hearts, gnawing away at our peace, and despite the occasional overtures of “We’re all in this together” it never seems to die. Indeed, hell is other people when we remember that most of our present troubles are entirely man-made. The ecological, justice, poverty, and public health crises that continue to plague us are our own creation. While these are certainly complex problems, we have solutions. Some of these solutions are technological, many are policy-based, and some require us to trust in our neighbor. The tragic irony of course is that we hold the tools to fix the world in our hands, but we can’t use them effectively. Because the solutions to complex problems require cooperation, and enough people resist to keep us stuck where we are, even when we know how to get somewhere better.
“Hell is other people.”
The frustration that we feel with one another is entirely justifiable. How long have we been stuck in this same rut, hearing the same problems year after year, with no expectation for meaningful change? And all because people just won’t get out of the way. It’s like being stuck in traffic on 81, where just because people have to merge, and everyone is trying to get ahead of one another instead of just working together doing the zipper merge, everything grinds to a halt. Stuck. No one gets where they’re going because people were being selfish instead of working together, and don’t even get me started on those sinners who drive on the shoulder of the road then try to merge back at the last moment. It is so frustrating because we know that it doesn’t have to be this way, but we feel powerless to fix it. After all, if we can’t even get people to cooperate on a highway, how can we expect people to cooperate to solve our most challenging problems?
This is where the anger creeps in. We see what the world is supposed to be, we know what God expects of us as individuals and society, we are disciples and followers of Jesus, and when we are disappointed by our family, friends, and society over and over again, we get angry. We begin to see people as obstacles, stumbling blocks in our way, but most dangerous of all, we start to believe that “Whoever is not with me is against me…”.
While it may not have been anger, it was certainly some level of offense that brought the disciple John to complain to Jesus about an unnamed exorcist casting out demons in Jesus’ name. They didn’t know who he was, why he was using Jesus’ name (other than it must have been working), but he wasn’t a disciple! He hadn’t given up all he had to follow Jesus like they had, how dare he reap the reward and wield the power without putting in the work like they had!
Imagine how shocked they must have been when Jesus told them “Do not stop him…Whoever is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:39-40).
Wait a minute, doesn’t Jesus say “Whoever is not with me is against me.”? Yes, your memory hasn’t failed you, at least not entirely, Jesus does say that, just not in this Gospel. This teaching “Whoever is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:40) can be just as surprising to us as it was to John in the moment. We are much more familiar with “Whoever is not with me is against me”, which Jesus says in Matthew (12:30) and Luke (11:23). How may sermons, rants, and diatribes have we had to sit through where this scripture is brought up? That anyone who is not of exactly the same mind as me is my enemy? The negative Matthew and Luke version is much more in line with our increasing frustration and unwillingness to work together. It’s easier, punchier, and more comfortable. When I can write anyone who disagrees with me off as my enemy, I don’t have to worry about the complex questions of identity, morality, and boundary-setting as I do when whoever isn’t against us is for us.
Of course, the irony is that these seemingly contradictory teachings are actually teaching the same thing. This is yet another example of how context is key in scripture. In Matthew and Luke, Jesus says “Whoever is not with me is against me” when He is accused of exorcising demons by working with demons. Jesus points out the absurdity of the claim famously by saying “a house divided against itself cannot stand” (Matthew 12:25). When He says, “Whoever is not with me is against me” He is referring to any who serve evil, demons and those who serve evil over God and their neighbor. In Mark, John interrupts Jesus’ teachings about seeing the value in those whom society sees no value, namely the little child who presumably is still sitting on Jesus’ lap. Jesus concluding that whoever welcomes the child welcomes Him and God prompts John to test Jesus’ teaching by bringing up the unnamed exorcist. Here Jesus is kind and practical. “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.” (Mark 9:39-40). The unnamed exorcist is not serving evil, rather providing a service for the good, exorcising demons. Though he may not yet fully understand or appreciate Jesus, he is “with” Jesus because he is serving the community. Jesus goes on to warn the disciples about being distracted from serving God and neighbor, about stumbling blocks they put in their own way.
But how does this solve our traffic problem? Once again we follow Jesus’ teachings: “…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.” You see, like many of our problems, we actually already have a solution for traffic. It’s just one that most of us don’t like because while it is good for the community, its inconvenient for all of us as individuals. Traffic is one example of Braess’ Paradox. We tend to think of traffic as too many cars on the road and everyone getting in each other’s way, so we assume that the way to fix it is to add more lanes and more roads. More room for everyone right? Wrong. The paradox is that adding more lanes and more roads makes traffic worse. The reason is that if there are more roads and more shortcuts, since everyone is looking out for themselves and trying to shorten their commute time as much as possible, more cars get funneled into the same roadways, resulting in traffic and longer commutes for everyone. Paradoxically, removing lanes and cutting off roadways reduced traffic. Because there were fewer shortcuts and less efficient routes for individuals, the cars would take more diverse routes leading to less traffic. Though each car had a less efficient route, their commutes were ultimately shorter because of reduced traffic. Better to cut off a road or two and have a longer trip in miles than to be thrown into traffic hell.
The truth is that hell is not other people, though it is of our own making. It’s too easy to blame others, feel hopeless, and stay angry, no matter how justified that anger is. At this point that anger has become a stumbling block, a millstone around our neck. Even when we have the best of intentions for the good of others that anger turns our focus back to ourselves and how we are right rather than solving the problem. Like cutting off roadways or limbs that cause us to sin, it’s time to cut the anger against our neighbor out from our midst. It’s time to stop thinking about what is best for us as individuals and start acting on what’s best for us as a whole. And yes, it will take sacrifices. As the kingdom of God comes and the humble are raised up while the proud are brought low, sacrifices will have to be made for the good of all. Those who have taken the most from the least will have to sacrifice the most to restore righteousness. Though our individual commutes will theoretically get longer, everyone will get where they need to be faster because we will be working together.
Sacrificing that anger is the first step. It’s the first step into putting the community as a whole before our own needs. It is a sacrifice, and I am sorry that it is being asked of us, because I know it comes from a place of righteousness and love. But it simply is no longer helpful in bringing back those who are lost. As disciples we are called to be patient with, and more importantly, love those who sin against us. We are called to not be overcome with evil but overcome evil with good. This is what it means to be sanctified, to make God’s Kingdom on Earth. It certainly feels like being salted with fire. Make no mistake, God is not asking you to suffer falsehoods and evil, we are after all, exorcising evil from our midst. But we must cast out evil while never forgetting that we are doing it out of love for one another. “Whoever is not against us is for us”.
We can never give in to thinking of people merely as obstacles to overcome, no matter how much they oppose God. It will take patience, and we will have to take the high road over and over again. We will be disappointed with our neighbors, and it will rightfully make us weary and angry. Do not keep that anger for yourself, or spread it among those who are with you, give it to God. Judgement and righteous anger ultimately belong to God, let Him bear that burden for you. If it helps, remember the proverb, “If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat…for you will heap coals of fire on their heads, and the LORD will reward you” (Proverbs 25:21-22). You are the salt of the earth doing God’s work, “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”