Jesus, as remembered by Mark’s gospel, seems to delight in scandalising us by who is included and valued by God. (Revised Common Lectionary Numbers 11:4-6,24-29; Psalm 19:7-14; James 5:12-20; and Mark 9:38-50.)
The last Sunday of September is set aside by many in the church to mark Social Justice Sunday – and even if you are not formally celebrating Social Justice Sunday that is one lense through which to explore the inclusive tendency of Jesus. And in this light our readings this week are wonderful and challenging. As I have spent the week reflecting on them I am struck by the thought that social justice is not something that we the righteous and modesty well off are called to do to others less fortunate, but rather that justice, mercy and healing is a way of being that we are called to as the people of God, as disciples of the Christ, as citizens of the kingdom of God. Social justice is a principle rather than a political policy; social justice is a call to the fullness of life for all rather than a hand out for the left out; and that social justice is one of the overarching ways of realizing the kingdom of heaven here on earth now rather than a chore we add to the long list of good works we feel obliged to do.
Let us briefly look at our readings. In the book of Numbers we have the wonderful, humorous and powerful story of the response of God to the complaints of Moses and the people. I love the candour of the people of God in the Hebrew Bible – having been saved from slavery the people complain about the food and Moses complains about having to respond to the needs of the people. God’s response is to share the spirit among seventy of them – to share the leadership and the responsibility to do something about their needs among the community! The letter of James likewise reminds us that we are to share the burden of caring among ourselves – that we are equipped and able to be each other’s help.
And so we come to the gospel reading which begins with John’s concern that someone - other than the close knit group of disciples travelling with Jesus - had been seen casting out demons. The response of Jesus is simple and powerful. “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.”
“Whoever is not against us is for us.” Often in society and in the church we behave and feel as though the opposite were true – that anyone who is not with us must be against us and therefore an enemy of ours, and we often seem to assume that an enemy of ours is an enemy of God’s.
I have been reflecting that this attitude of “us versus them” is part of what makes social justice an impossible goal – something we do occasionally rather than a way of being God’s people.
We live in an age here is the West in which people have never been wealthier or safer from a statistical sense. And yet that is not how we feel. Many individuals don’t get to share in the wealth and those of us who have a modest amount of wealth (much greater than our parents and grandparents at the same stage of life) feel anxious that we are about to lose it all. Despite being statistically safer than ever before we do not feel it. We tend to feel vulnerable as we watch the evening news in horror at individual acts of violence and imagine that all of us are about to experience violent home intrusion or abduction. We live in a multicultural and multi-faith country in which we live mostly in peace. And yet we tend not to feel it. I do not want to suggest that there is not real poverty, violence and division in our society – that some are not for-us and indeed some are against-us. But I do want to explore with you what it might mean to consider the words of Jesus that those who are not against us are for us: that most differences are not scary but simply difference; that much of the enmity we feel is more to do with simple lack of knowledge and relationship rather than reality based threat; and that much of the feeling of being under siege or the fears we experience in response to multiculturalism and change is a fear generalised from a handful of real threats to our security to everyone of another culture or religion. Whilst I do not want to tell others what to think about specific political issues I do want to share my sense of being challenged by the words of Jesus to be less quick to see difference as competition or threat and to be more generous and gracious in my response to others.
We all have different trigger points. Some of us are disturbed by the political persuasion of our neighbours. Some are disturbed by the religion of our neighbours. Some are disturbed by the sexual preferences of our neighbours. It’s different for all of us. But most of us have some issue that we struggle to get past. The teaching of Jesus does not simply challenge us to stop automatically seeing the other as enemy he quickly directs our attention to how we need be focused on what we do that is a stumbling block to others, that limits the freedom, abundance and mercy in which others might live. We are not simply to ignore or even tolerate – we are to include!
None of us here are likely to consciously do anything that would harm a little one, a child for example, and yet in an interconnected world the question is a little more complex. An ethic of social justice requires that we try to live in all aspects of our life – our personal relationships, our purchases, our investments, our donations, our care of the land – with an awareness that all of God’s peoples are precious, that all of God’s creatures are part of God’s vision for us, and that we have all been given some of the spirit so that we might care for one another and respond to each other’s needs.
As always it seems that Jesus teaches an expansion of our minds and a breaking open of our hearts. So if our brains hurt from trying to even work out what a more inclusive and just life would look like then we have probably heard the gospel. If our hearts ache from being stretched then we are probably allowing Jesus into our hearts. Life is no doubt easier when we only think about us and Jesus, our personal relationship, my personal salvation. But the gospel is the good news for all and that means our hearts and minds are to become empty and full, open to all and inclusive beyond all the neat and tidy rules we have made up. This is not easy but it is rich, it is life giving, and it the only way to follow Jesus in daily life.
Even so, come Lord Jesus Christ and break open our hearts and minds.