For Christians living in the prosperous West, today’s readings from Numbers and Mark may sometimes seem as distant as life on Mars. How often do people in the 21st century prophesy within our closest circle of worship, or cast out demons in the name of Jesus without appearing to be his followers?
One way to apply these readings is to suppose that, whatever a person’s religion, sincere belief is what matters most. As the contemporary English poet Steve Turner wrote in his satirical “Creed”: “We believe that all religions are basically the same, / at least the one that we read was. / They all believe in love and goodness. / They only differ on matters of / creation, sin, heaven, hell, God, and salvation.”
Affirming that everyone is redeemed simply by virtue of existing is an understandable impulse, but it fails to make sense of the Scriptures as a whole, or the tangible evil that confronts us day after day in news reports. From small town to megacity, this much is true: if everyone is serving God, some appear to do so with far less destructive results than others.
A very different temptation is one that few modern Christians may feel, since it is considered so rude in today’s Western culture: believing that one’s individual experience of God is the sine qua non of right doctrine and upright morality, or that the bulk of other people constitute, in Bob Dylan’s memorable lyric, “Nightclubs of the broken-hearted / stadiums of the damned” (“Trouble,” 1981).
Basic humility, and the Lord’s own words in the Gospel of Mark, lead Christians to see that we are not God, and that we need not take upon ourselves his work of separating chaff from wheat. We cannot know exhaustively what God is doing in any person’s life, or how close a person may be to a redemptive encounter with the risen Christ.
There is nothing impolite about asking after a person’s spiritual convictions, or sharing the good news of Christ. Nor is it uncharitable to warn loved ones and friends when a consistent sin places them on a path that could destroy them or others.
Let us not forget, though, that our job is merely to tell of what we know. The Holy Spirit does the converting.
Look It Up
Read Matthew 23:1-36 to gain a sense of Jesus’ righteous indignation toward Scribes and Pharisees.
Think About It
What do my assumptions about other people’s spiritual lives say about my understanding of God?