For Him or Against Him?

By Steve Schlossberg

He that is not against us is for us. That’s what Jesus tells the disciples when they see this stranger, who is not one of them, and who is not with them, and who evidently has no association with Jesus, casting out demons. And when they see that stranger doing something that they figure only Jesus and those who are with him ought to be able to do, they try to stop him. And Jesus tells them to leave the man alone because, he says, He that is not against us is for us.

That’s what Jesus says in Mark’s Gospel; and it sounds a lot like something he says in Matthew’s gospel, only what Jesus says in Matthew’s Gospel is He who is not with me is against me (Matt. 12:30). Which is almost exactly the opposite thing. In Mark he says He that is not against us is with us; in Matthew he says He who is not with me is against me. And he says the opposite thing in Matthew’s Gospel, because in Matthew’s gospel the shoe is on the other foot.

In Mark’s Gospel, the disciples are upset because some stranger, who is not with them, is casting out demons. In Matthew’s Gospel, the Pharisees are upset because some stranger, who is not with them, is casting out demons; and the stranger in that case is Jesus. And when the Pharisees see Jesus casting out demons, they immediately conclude that he must be the Devil, because, they say, only the Devil himself could cast out demons. And Jesus answers them by saying that the Devil doesn’t cast out demons because the Devil is not an idiot, because if the Devil was to cast out demons he would be defeating his own purpose. The Devil’s whole purpose is to put human beings into bondage; and if the Devil were to begin releasing people from bondage, he would be like a thief plundering his own house.

And then Jesus suddenly says, He who is not with me is against me. When Jesus suddenly says that, he’s suddenly turning the tables on the Pharisees. He’s turning their accusation against him, against them. The Devil doesn’t cast out demons, Jesus says; God casts out demons. So here I am casting out demons; and there you are, not casting out demons. So whose side are you on?

He who is not with me is against me.

So you can see that the two phrases from the two gospels, though they each seem to be saying exactly the opposite thing, are really both saying one thing. Jesus is saying, Anyone who casts out demons is with me, and anyone who doesn’t is against me.

Now the whole idea of casting out demons, for many of us, is just weird and prescientific and superstitious, and we don’t usually talk about demons except figuratively, like for instance when we talk about an alcoholic wrestling with his demons. And there’s a sense in which the exorcisms in the gospel are meant to be figurative and symbolic. Every exorcism in the gospels, just like every healing in the gospels, just like every word of forgiveness spoken over every sinner in the gospels — they’re all represented in the gospels as actual events to be taken literally. But taken altogether, they represent something larger than themselves. They represent the kingdom of God breaking into the world, and breaking people out of captivity.

That’s what salvation means: in the Old Testament and the New, salvation is just another word for deliverance. It’s not just God speaking a word of forgiveness over us from on high, or writing our names in a book in heaven. It’s God breaking into the world, breaking in our houses, breaking into our hearts and breaking every chain that binds us. The chains of addiction, the chains of ambition, the chains of anger or envy, or lust or fear, and every other thing that puts us in bondage. That’s what God has done in Jesus Christ, and that’s what God is doing today — he is setting captive people free.

And when it comes to setting captive people free, anyone who is not with Jesus is against him.

Now we heard a little snippet from the Book of Esther in the first lesson this morning, which is as much of Esther as most of us ever get to hear, which is a shame, because it’s a great story. It’s a celebrated story in Judaism, because it’s a story of deliverance. The story is set in Persia during the Babylonian Exile, and it’s the story of a Jewish girl named Esther who, through a series of unlikely events, ends up getting chosen by the King of Persia to be his Queen, only he doesn’t know she’s Jewish. All he knows is that she’s beautiful, she’s graceful, and he loves her. And just when it looks as if everyone in the story is going to live happily ever after, the villain enters the story — this guy Hamaan, who hates the Jews, who plots to have the Jews eliminated, and who manipulates the witless king into signing the decree that will have all the Jews in Persia exterminated.

And when Esther’s uncle Mordechai learns of the decree, he visits Esther in the palace one night and pleads with her to intercede with the king for her people. And Esther responds to her uncle Mordechai like any normal person would under the circumstances. She hesitates to do it. Because under the circumstances of the story, she knows that interceding with the king for her people is not only going not going to save her people, it’s probably going cost her own life.

And when Esther hesitates to do it, Mordechai tells her this: Think not that in the King’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silence at such a time as this, deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?

Can you hear what Mordechai is saying? He’s saying, She who is not with us is against us.

Well you’ve already heard how the story ends: Mordechai persuades Esther, Esther intercedes for her people; the people are saved; the villain is put to death and everybody goes on to live happily ever after — except of course for the villain. It really is a great story, well worth reading, and well worth reading to our children. It’s romantic, it’s funny, in some parts it’s even frivolous, and it reads like a fairy tale. Nevertheless, for all its fun and frolic, the Book of Esther sets forth one drop-dead serious theological truth, and you can hear it in what Mordechai tells Esther. If you keep silence at such a time as this, deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s house will perish.

Can you hear what Mordechai is saying? He’s saying that the Jews don’t need Esther; and he’s saying that God doesn’t need Esther. And he’s saying that God doesn’t need us. God doesn’t need us to be with him, or for him, in order to do his will and deliver his people. With us or without us, God is going to deliver his people. He prefers to do it with us, he plans to do it with us, just as he planned to do it with and through Esther. But had Esther been too afraid to risk her life, or her marriage, or her position in the palace—well that would have been a tragedy.

But it wouldn’t have been a Jewish tragedy. It just would have been Esther’s personal tragedy. Had Esther failed to play the part God had prepared for her in delivering his people, deliverance would have risen from another quarter; God would have raised up another.

The real drama in the Book of Esther is not whether the Jewish people will be saved. The real drama in the Book of Esther is whether Esther will be saved. The whole drama of salvation is not whether God is going to save his people and redeem the world. The whole drama of salvation is whether the people whom God is planning to use in his plan will ever agree to participate in his plan. And if we don’t agree to participate in his plan — well, to put it bluntly, it doesn’t make a lot of difference to God. With us or without us, he is going to execute his plan.

God doesn’t need us to be faithful. The world doesn’t even need us to be faithful. We need us to be faithful. Any alcoholic in recovery will tell you: his recovery depends in part in his helping other alcoholics in their recovery; and that his own demons are cast out as he helps others wrestle with theirs. And that’s a spiritual truth which is true to the gospel. We are forgiven as we forgive others, and we are delivered as we participate in the deliverance of others.

And believe it or not, we have been put in the positions we find ourselves in today for a purpose, according to a plan, for a time such as this. The positions we find ourselves in at work, and in our schools, or in our neighborhood, or in this parish, and maybe in our pews — even if we blundered into the positions we find ourselves in today, even if we sat in the wrong pew by accident today, even if we never planned on being in the position we’re in today, even if we resent the position we’re in today — God has a plan for us in the positions we’re in today, and it’s to participate in the deliverance of others.

That’s true for each of us; and that’s true for this parish. When it comes to missions and outreach and evangelism, reaching out to the lonely, welcoming the strangers who are not with us, helping wounded people wrestle with their demons and advocating for those in our society who are oppressed — if we’re not with Jesus, we’re against him. If we are not part of the solution, then we are part of the problem. If we are not extending the kingdom of light, then we are co-conspirators with the Prince of Darkness. There was no neutral ground in first-century Israel, and there’s no neutral ground today. We’re not with Jesus, simply by not being against him — if all we mean by not being against him is peaceably sitting in our pews and trying not to get in anyone’s way. The stranger of whom Jesus said, He who is not against us is for us wasn’t just sitting on his hands and staying out of Jesus’ way. He was out in the world, casting out demons in Jesus’ name.

Setting people free. We have all been called, and we have all been empowered, to share the truth, to shed the light, and to show the love that sets people free. And if that’s not what we’re about then what are we about? If that’s not what all this is about, then all this is just getting in the way. Which would be a tragedy — for us.

What is all this about? Setting people free in Jesus’ name.

The Rev. Steve Schlossberg is rector of St. Matthew’s Church, Richmond, Virginia.

Countdown to GC80 Opening Gavel

Advertisements

Online Archives

Search