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Anyone who is not for us is pretty confused

August 16, 2010

In Matthew 12 we find Jesus in a pretty familiar situation. Dogged by the Pharisees and accused of being in league with the devil he fires back. Halfway through a blistering speech he proclaims, “Whoever is not with me is against me!” Those are, to put it mildly, fighting words. And pretty confusing words, too, when one considers that in Mark 9:40 Jesus says, “The one who is not against us is for us.” In fact, this pair is a favorite of a certain brand of atheist website, which triumphantly proclaims that this shows that the Bible is hopelessly contradictory. I suppose we’re expected to think that those who originally placed the four gospels together had not noticed these verses.

In fact, the supposed contradiction is fairly easy to resolve, providing one knows how to read the Bible. This is harder than it should be, in large part because there’s a lot of pressure to read the Bible the wrong way. In this case the wrong way is pretty simple: read Jesus’ words as if they are directed at you. Instead, both verses are spoken in contexts and are really about those contexts. Were this anything but the Bible we would have no problem recognizing this. However, we’re so trained to think of the Bible as something that speaks to us (which it certainly does) and not as something that records other people speaking to each other that we automatically aim both verses at ourselves, resulting in confusion. When Jesus says, “Anyone who is not against us is for us,” he is speaking about an incident in which the disciples have tried to prevent a neutral party from driving out demons in Jesus’ name. It’s pretty clear, given what Jesus says about this, that Jesus wants the disciples to realize that someone who is invoking Jesus’ name to drive out demons is on Jesus’ side. This is mostly what, “Anyone who is not against us is for us,” means. The people who have listened to us and are giving us the time of day, the ones who didn’t listen and respond with frothing hatred, they’re on our side. Similarly, when Jesus says, “Whoever is not with me is against me,” it is in the middle of an all-out verbal brawl. We can disagree about this, but I’m pretty sure Jesus yelled this line. There were probably hand gestures, too. Jesus is coming down hard on people throughout this section of Matthew, and for a good reason: they’ve seen him freeing people from the power of Satan, and they’ve claimed that he does so because he’s in league with the devil. This is crazy talk and for anyone to sit by and nod while this sort of thing is said is a damning indictment of their character. Anyone who hasn’t stood up and sided with Jesus against this is in league with the scribes and Pharisees, who have taken a stand against Jesus.

However, I did not write this essay simply to clear up what should be some minor confusion about these verses. I wrote it because both verses leave no middle ground. Both verses implicitly assume that once someone has encountered Jesus they have reacted to him strongly enough to have left anything that could be called neutrality. This theme isn’t restricted to these verses, either. It’s a major theme in John, although I can hardly go through the entire gospel of John to demonstrate this. John 3:19 sums it up fairly nicely though. Jesus has come into the world and now we know what people are really about, because having seen Jesus they rejected him. John 9 also comes close to making this theme explicit (although John is, overall, a gospel for careful readers) when, in the close of the chapter, Jesus explains that the Pharisees are condemned because they claim to see. Apparently if the Pharisees had been blind (clueless) they would have been innocent. Instead, they say that they know what is going on. Jesus’ response makes a lot of sense: if someone was confused they could reject Jesus’ works by accident, but if they aren’t confused then their rejection is a deliberate act for which they are fully accountable. Again, Jesus provokes a reaction, and that reaction judges the reactor, for good or ill.

Implicit within this idea is that Jesus is the thing which divides the world in two. It is not uncommon for religions to divide the world into their adherents and those who do not adhere. The way some fundamentalist Muslims do this has attracted a lot of attention these days, but the phenomenon is so widespread that it extends to non-theistic religions. Hard-core communists divide the world into communists and capitalists. Many atheists will be insulted to be included in this list, since they divide the world into atheists and religious people. The fact that Christianity does this is no surprise. Frankly, when we discuss religion (unless we restrict the term to its more meaningless outgrowths) we are discussing the nature of reality and so it’s not surprising that people tend to see this in binary terms. Even those who claim to divide the world into many equal fractions along religious lines rarely mean this. What they actually mean is that they divide the world in two: those who understand that all religions are on the same footing and those who don’t.

The important thing is that we cannot divide the world in two over silly matters. When I say that religion is about the nature of reality it should automatically follow that I do not think Christianity is a matter of a few doctrinal statements. Reality does not boil down to the Nicene Creed, however much I respect that Creed and the Council that created it. We can see this by referring again to the Bible. When people react to Jesus, judging themselves as I’ve called it, they react because Jesus represents something important. For Jesus to be a polarizing figure he must be saying something that gets people worked up.

The simple fact is that few of us get worked up about the matters we often worry about most in evangelism. When was the last time your blood really got pumping about Trinitarianism? A few of you will be able to answer that, but a few of you would be able to answer that sentence if I substituted the words “wheat bread” for “Trinitarianism”. Certainly we wouldn’t be likely to crucify someone over these issues.

I don’t mean to imply by saying this that these issues are unimportant. They’re quite important, but they’re important because they’re tied to other issues that are obviously important. It would be important to astrophysicists if the sun shone a different color, not because the color of the sun is vitally important but because the fusion of hydrogen nuclei produces a very specific color spectra and if the sun wasn’t producing that spectra then we’d have to completely revise our ideas about how the sun works. In a similar way many of the technical details of belief that we argue about are on the surface, left over from much deeper conflicts about issues of real importance. But what are those issues?

If we’re going to claim that Christianity rightly divides the world into the things of Christ and the other things then we should be prepared to show why that division makes sense. And it makes sense for a very simple reason: everything good is Christ’s. Christ is the end of sin. When we focus on something like the parable of the sheep and the goats we tend to focus on the juridical aspect, the part where the righteous are sorted from the wicked and the wicked are punished. However, it is not sufficient merely to punish sin. If you break my leg throwing you in prison does not heal my leg or retroactively remove the pain. Sin causes death, not in a “God punishes us for sin by killing us” sense, but in the sense that sin is evil, and evil looks like the destruction of other people, body and soul. Peace on earth starts with being nice to our irritating co-worker, which is why all our Christmas wishing does so little good. But return to the parable: what happens to the sheep? Sin has been punished, but in Paradise it is also healed. The fullness of the Kingdom of God brings about a fullness of human life. All things that redeem are God’s.

There are a number of ways to approach this statement, and it’s one that is woven into a lot of my essays. However, I would like to tackle it in what I feel is its most important directly-lived aspect. It means that God is not interested simply in giving us a complicated set of laws. God does not simply hand out arbitrary commands. In fact, anyone with half a brain could deduce some of God’s commands from observable evidence. What does God think about murder? Murder is far from redemptive, and there’s your answer. More importantly, though, we live in an age where we create, or think we’ve created, very new moral situations. I don’t actually think most of them are new in any serious way, but it would be hard to find direct Biblical advice on some of our more technological dilemmas. However, we could keep this rule in mind and as we strive to know the character of God in the Bible also strive to see what in the world redeems and builds up and what destroys and cuts down. We are certainly limited in our ability to see the ramifications of everything we do but we are not completely blind. The Bible may have nothing to say about World of Warcraft addiction, but it’s none too difficult to see that God intends more for us than that, and that our growing into the people of God involves more than leveling up in computer games.

In fact, the area of things that are not extremely good or harmful is one where the rule “all things that redeem are God’s” becomes extremely useful. There are many actions whose redemptive or destructive consequences vary based on the situation. Should you eat another cookie? I don’t know. But if you tell me that you struggle to control your eating habits and worry about your weight then that looks like a destructive cookie If, on the other hand, you’ve had a terrible day and need something nice to help you find an emotionally level spot before you deal with anyone else then perhaps that cookie is God’s redeeming gift. This might appear to be silly and not worth anyone’s time or effort. But, as I said before, peace on earth starts with being nice to our irritating co-worker. The small habits are the seeds of bigger ones, and the small evils never stay small. There is, as Matthew 12 and Mark 9 point out, no real middle ground. Everything points us one way or the other. The only real question is which way.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Eric permalink
    November 5, 2010 1:43 pm

    Note: as of 11/5/10 this post has been edited. “Sin has punished, but in Paradise it is also healed” has been modified to “Sin has been punished, but in Paradise it is also healed” because, frankly, the first one didn’t make any sense and I don’t know how I missed that in my first pass. This is a minor point but I feel that you should know that I went back and fixed this for grammatical reasons and not to try and hide some heretical opinion.


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