The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 21B)
September 26, 2021
O God, who declarest thy almighty power chiefly in showing mercy and pity: Mercifully grant unto us such a measure of thy grace, that we, running to obtain thy promises, may be made partakers of thy heavenly treasure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29
James 4:7-12 (13-5:6)
Mark 9:38-43, 45, 47-48
Today’s gospel follows right on last week’s with Jesus’ saying, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.” If you receive someone preaching, teaching, healing, in Jesus’ name, you are receiving Jesus himself, and not only Jesus, but the very God of Israel. This is a theme that Jesus emphasises again and again, and that is picked up in all the other gospels. It is, perhaps, one of the most encouraging messages of the Gospel: if we are able to muster ourselves and dig in, engage with and do the work of the Kingdom of God, then we can be assured that not only are we doing the work Jesus has given us to do, but that Jesus is there with us, at our side, present into that moment. It affirms that our connection with Jesus, and through him with God, is both real and consequential.
Today’s lesson expands on this message and shows us more about who Jesus is and how we are bound in relationship with him. This episode begins with John announcing, “Teacher, we saw a man casting out demons in your name, and we forbade him, because he was not following us.” There are several interesting things going on here. The first is that John is clearly trying to ingratiate himself with Jesus, perhaps be singled out for special praise, by reporting how he and the others shut down another healer, unknown to them, who had been using Jesus name (probably as a sort of magical invocation) to “cast out demons.” The picture he paints is one of a charlatan using Jesus name in vain, using it improperly and without authorisation. Indeed, many commentators even refer to this person as the “strange exorcist.” John shows us through how he phrases his statement, that he thinks that the power of Jesus’ name, of healing in his name, is limited to a small privileged group of which he is a part. He seems to see that the man’s crucial fault was that “he was not following us,” rather than not following Jesus. In one stroke John accentuates the sense that access to this power is reserved only for an exclusive few and, at the same time, accords the font of authority to that group as a whole, and not to the person of Jesus alone.
John does not see where he has gone off the rails, and we can just imagine how shocked he was to hear Jesus say, “Do not forbid him; for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon after to speak evil of me. For he that is not against us is for us.” In fact, it shouldn’t have been that much of a surprise given what Jesus had just said about receiving the children in his name, and yet it seems to have been. Indeed, Jesus explanation that “whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ, will by no means lose his reward” precisely echoes what he said before. “Whoever gives you a cup of water,” whoever, not only those who “follow us,” not just the specifically chosen followers, but truly whosoever does these things, anyone, will be rewarded. Jesus certainly had Moses words from Numbers in mind: “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put his spirit upon them!”
Jesus refuses to limit his power to the little circle of the twelve. He will not confine the power to heal – and to teach, and preach, for that matter – in his name. The power of Jesus’ name transcends these few and that particular moment. It is open to, and inclusive of all who are willing to work with him now that the Kingdom of God has been inaugurated. Those who are not against him, those not actively seeking to counter his divine activity, and especially those coming forward and working in the name of Jesus, are to be enfolded in the community of the Kingdom, in the Body of Christ. In fact, the works of the Kingdom of God can be performed by all who have the same goals as Jesus, especially all those willing and able to see in the name of Jesus the authority and power to bring about the works of love.
Indeed it is Jesus’ name, his identity, his relationship to God, that matters. It is not, as John thinks given his complaint that the “strange exorcist” was not following “us,” about the power accorded to an exclusive few. Even though he had never met Jesus, even though the disciples had no idea who he was, the man casting out demons in the name of Jesus “will be no means lose his reward.” By working in Jesus’ name, he was receiving Jesus, and by receiving Jesus, he was receiving the God of Israel. There is no limit, Jesus tells us, to the reach of of the power of his name and to the connection with God that it brings.
While, given the use of the name of “Christ” in the text, the final form of this material may reflect the post-resurrection context of Mark’s audience and the perspective of a group who has experienced the resurrection, who really did understand Jesus’ identity as the Son of God, I do not think we can dismiss this story as a later fabrication. It seems that the truth that “no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon after to speak evil of me,” must be an authentic saying of Jesus. It demonstrates a determined sense of inclusivity that we associate with the one who ate with tax collectors and sinners, who interacted with people on the margins of society, who sought the least and the lost and included them in his ministry, in his great works. The connection established by anyone who serves in the name of Jesus with Jesus himself, and by extension with God, is available to anyone who is open to it.
Participation in the life of God, then, is not a remote or unobtainable goal. It is not something for the few or the specially chosen. It is open and available to anyone, any one of us here, now, who is prepared to engage in the works of the Kingdom of God in Jesus name.
Andrew Charles Blume✠
New York City
25 September 2021
© 2021 Andrew Charles Blume1.Saint Augustine,The City of God: Books XVII-XXII, trans. By Gerald G. Walsh, SJ and Daniel J. Honan, The Fathers of the Church (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press 1954), 228.