My Way or the Way?

Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem, and the disciples are trying to keep up. Jesus is on the way to the cross, and the disciples don’t know how to follow. Jesus speaks of being rejected, condemned, and executed in the city, and the disciples are discussing who is the greatest. They are still with him, in close physical proximity, but it’s like he’s already as alone as he’ll be on the cross. Yet he keeps teaching.

He takes a little child and puts it among them, and taking it in his arms, he says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

He keeps teaching. He continues to surprise and confuse us with his words about welcoming the great God of heaven and earth in the little ones. I wonder if Jesus was still holding the child in his arms when one of the disciples said, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” 

Jesus wants to draw our attention to the little ones; he teaches us to welcome God by welcoming those too little to reach even the bottom step of the status ladder; and he’s not just talking, he’s holding one of them in his arms. Show and tell. Teaching by example. But the disciples are distracted. They are concerned about what others are doing in his name.

“Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”

Yes, you heard that right. Someone is doing powerful, liberating work in the community, and they are watching with suspicion and even trying to intervene, because that someone is not part of their group, their tribe, their denomination. How dare he claim to do anything in the name of Jesus?

I like to think that Jesus is still holding the child during this scene. I like to think that he is smiling at the irony of it all: the disciples’ objecting to others doing powerful stuff, when only moments ago they were unable to do anything when a father asked them to help his son who was being tormented by a demon. Instead of celebrating the great works of healing that are being done outside their circle, they act as if they were the exclusive copyright holders on Jesus’ name.

I was listening to Krista Tippett’s conversation with Jim Daly, the new president of Focus on the Family.[1] Focus on the Family is a very conservative Christian organization, and some have referred to it as a “Religious Right powerhouse.” Focus on the Family headquarters are in Colorado Springs, and the city is also home to the Independent, a proudly liberal weekly newspaper. Jim Daly described the paper’s publisher, John Weiss, as “a Berkeley-Harvard guy [who] worked on Henry Waxman’s campaign [and] would be self-described as a pretty strong liberal.”

Jim Daly and John Weiss. Two guys that hardly see eye to eye on anything. Jim Daly was talking with Krista Tippett about the recent work Focus on the Family had been doing on foster care issues in Colorado:

We had 850 kids in the foster care system available for adoption. If you know church history, that is one of the things the early church engaged. We were known for taking care of the orphan, and it’s in part what the early church was built upon. And so for us in this country, with all that we have, particularly the Christian community, to be able to engage that, so over a couple of years, we were able to get that number down from 850 kids waiting to about 300. That was the most progress that had been made on that issue in the state for a long time.

That’s when John Weiss of the Independent wanted to meet with Jim Daly, and when they did meet, he said, “I didn’t know anything that good would come out of Focus.” Later he wrote to his readers,

Here’s something you need to know. The Independent is involved in a community-based partnership with Focus. No, Hell has not frozen over. Here is what happened. Our publisher, John Weiss, realized that there was at least one issue on which Focus and the Indy can agree. We want all kids to grow up in a loving home.

Now some will call this welcome political compromise, others the work of the Holy Spirit, and again others clever PR. I have no desire to give it a name. I want to say, “Thank you!” and “May we have some more, please?” I see two leaders in two very different camps who for a moment aren’t guarding the tribal fences but paying attention to the little one Jesus is holding in his arms. “Whoever is not against us is for us,” says Jesus.

At the council of Carthage, in the year 400 A.D., one of the delegates, Pusillus of Lamasba said, “I believe that there is no saving baptism except in the Catholic Church. Whatsoever is apart from the Catholic Church is a pretense.” And Augustine replied, “But there may be something Catholic outside the Catholic Church, just as the name of Christ could exist outside the congregation of Christ, in which name he who did not follow with the disciples was casting out devils.”[2]

Disciples of Jesus must learn to recognize the works of Jesus on the other side of the fence. There may be something Catholic outside the Catholic Church. There may be something Christian outside the Christian Church. We must not allow ourselves the ancient comforts of tribalism. We must keep our eyes on Jesus, and he happens to hold up a little child urging us to welcome her.

Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem, and we are trying to keep up. Jesus is on the way to the cross, and we don’t know how to follow. Jesus speaks of his suffering, death, and resurrection in the city, and we’d rather have any other conversation.

Mark is holding up the gospel mirror, and what we see reflected is not flattering. Our eyes are not on the one who is going ahead of us, and our attention span is quickly shrinking to twitter length. Our feet are not pointed in the direction Jesus is going, and our paths follow the fences around our turf. Our hands could be holding the little one he urges us to welcome, but we are very busy. Mark is playing a short clip, “Disciples of Jesus” and we watch ourselves stumbling over our attitudes, our priorities, our distractions, ourselves.

I imagine that this is the moment when Jesus tells the child to go outside and play with the others. You see, the gospel reading for this day has another nine verses, and they are rated “R” for violence. Jesus says,

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.

Drowning, cutting, tearing, and everyone salted with fire - terrifying words, shocking and disturbing. It’s like the gentle Jesus who loves the little children has suddenly turned into a fire-spewing preacher. He frightens me and I don’t know how he manages to end his speech with a word about peace.

I remember men and women who have been cut off from their communities for allegedly causing others to stumble. I remember heretics who were cut off and burnt at the stake lest they cause the body of Christ to stumble. I remember dissenters who were cut off and disappeared lest they cause any more disturbance in the body politic. It’s not that violently simple. The source of our stumbling is not something that can be removed with a sharp enough knife.

It’s not your foot that’s causing you to walk off the path, and you know that. It’s not somebody’s hand that’s causing them to lash out and hurt their spouse or child, and you know that. It’s not my eye that’s causing me to see only what I want to see; it’s my delight in shiny things; it’s my curiosity so easily aroused by new things; it’s my desire to live life fully and completely; it’s all good, actually. Except that my delight, my curiosity, my desire and the paths they lead me on are so completely self-centered.

I wonder if Jesus is using this terrifying, violent language to break through the fog of our self-absorption and remind us how much is at stake. This path of self-absorption, this path of status-obsession, this path, he says, can only end in hell, and I believe him. But I don’t believe that hell is a place of God’s making. Hell is what happens to life when we have it our way.

Jesus calls us to a different way. Jesus calls us to go with him on the way to Jerusalem. He calls us to go with him on the way to the city where all are at home and at peace. He calls us with such love, such passion. He calls us this very moment. Shall we go?


[2] See Placher, Mark, p. 136