Ten or twelve years ago I was drinking tea in the chaplaincy lounge with Sister Virginia, the Senior Chaplain at RMIT University, Melbourne, when a serious evangelical woman turned to her and said, “I just want to save this campus for Jesus.” Sr Virginia continued pouring tea and said, “Jesus can take care of himself.” For an instant I wondered if she were being rude, and then I was struck by the depth of her faith, how large her Jesus was, how much he loved the world, and I wanted to live there too. But I admit there were two ways to take that statement.
I think there are two kinds of people: those who divide everything into two parts and those who don’t. I do. Sometimes I do because it helps me to see all the other options and choices, right or wrong, good or bad, yes or no. But I often find that God’s real world seems to resist my tendency to find black and white answers by making me realise, again and again, that we live, by the Grace of God, in a very colourful cosmos, But today’s Gospel is still very easy to divide into two parts.
Part one comes when the disciples ask Jesus about someone else who is casting out demons in His name because he is not in their inside group, and it seems to me that the deeper question they’re asking is “Who can we keep out, disregard, or regard as a potential enemy?” And here their question is much like the lawyer in Luke’s Gospel who, wanting to know what he has to do to earn eternal life, asks: “Who is my neighbour?”
Just like the lawyer these disciples learn that a neighbour is anyone who does neighbouring acts, here in the name of Jesus, whether healing people, saving those lost on the road, or sharing a cool cup of water, is offering a blessing, an opening for God’s grace, a birthday where the kingdom of Christ’s can be celebrated.
Jesus seems to be saying that He can be seen and He can be served, can be magnified and manifest, in people and places we might very well overlook as outsiders, in people and places who don’t look like us. because they just might still believe in and (more importantly) belong to the God we are trying to follow.
And this means I can relax our grip, stop the list-making, cease judging so stridently, because God can call out in those we might want to cast out! So Jesus seems to say, “Don’t judge others so rigidly.”
But then He goes on to say if we “go against’ or provide obstacles against these little ones. “it would be better… if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.[and it gets worse here!] If your hand causes you to stumble (King James says ‘offends you’), cut it off; And if your foot offends, causes you to stumble, cut it off. And if your eye offends, 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.”
So Gentle Jesus meek and mild just went out the door and we seem to see an entirely different voice and view: not a hopeful “yes” but a stern “no;” not a tender look at the stranger who might be a friend we haven’t met yet, but a suspicious and angry look in the mirror at the betrayer who might just hang out in our skin and bones and lives. And are we’re back to the two piles, two ways of thinking: almost two versions of God? Today’s Gospel leaves me with that question.
An Anglican (Episcopal) priest in the US, Father David R. Henson, writing on the webpage Patheos, offers this interesting answer - and I quote at length:
It seems the disciples have clearly missed the point again, so Jesus offers them two exaggerated and hyperbolic scenarios for understanding what the life of faith is really all about…. Now, we understand we aren’t supposed to take these saying literally. They are obviously exaggerations, both the cup of cold water and the self-mutilation. …But I do think Jesus is saying something profoundly important about the way we understand faith.
Notice how ridiculously high the bar is when faith is centered in the avoidance of punishment and sin… You’ll have to cut off parts of your body, pluck out your eyes, and disfigure yourself. Essentially, Jesus is saying if you want a perfect life, the only way you will be able to do that is to incapacitate yourself completely, …Seeking perfection will cost you everything, in other words.
Now, notice on the other hand how ridiculously low the bar is when faith is centered in acts of generosity. One cup of cold water. That’s it. One cup is enough for an eternal reward… the way of perfection and punishment with its impossibly high standards or the way of generosity and reward with its comically low standards…. One cuts and divides, maims and kills. The other cleanses and revives, refreshes and gives life.
And I keep thinking about what I call the Silver Rule - it’s close to the Golden Rule but different: what if we just do unto ourselves as we would do - in our best moments - to others? What if if we stop judging, as Paul puts it, another persons servant? What if we just stop judging ourselves, or even judging God?
My mother once told me that her best friend’s brother always told her that he “never went anywhere he couldn’t take Jesus.” I was in my early twenties and a new convert to Christianity, trying hard to combine the worst of Anglo-Catholic piety and the serious solemnity of an evangelical. But it was also the sixties and exciting things were happening and I wanted to explore life. But the Jesus I knew then was pretty stained glass, tended to say thee and thou and would have crossed himself at tense moments in his life. And I wanted to follow Jesus, but I wanted to exlore! So I remember praying, “God, I hate to leave you behind, but I’ll be back later”.. and I walked away from my understanding of God, sort of like the people who used to sow their wild oats on Saturday night and pray for crop failure on Sunday morning, but I found to my surprise that out there beyond my judgements and fears was this same God, but bigger than I knew, waiting for me in the world which I had feared was outside Gods grace.
Jesus can take care of himself, but he can take care of you and me and the stranger too. I can relax into that when I realise that the eyes which offend me - sometimes my neighbours but so often my own eyes - are the eyes through which God sees me; when I recall that the mind which makes all these distinctions is still called, as Paul puts it, to share the mind of Christ, and when I remember that at every Eucharist we proclaim that we are the body of Christ. How can I be offended by that? How can I look at my neighbour or the stranger or myself with anything less than a growing and tolerant love? How can I not try to share and give myself and any neighbour my life to share with love as best I can?
In the name of Christ.