The dominant theme in today’s Gospel text is about doing the works of God. And when it comes to the works of God everyone takes a side. Jesus says, “Whoever is not against us is for us.” There is no place for neutrality. We are either doing the works of God or we are working against the works of God. This saying of Jesus is uttered in a context where someone, who does not know Jesus and is not a disciple of Jesus, is nevertheless, casting out demons in the name of Jesus.
Now, the work of “casting out demons” has rich, symbolic meaning in the Gospel stories. This is the work of liberation. It is the work of delivering individuals and communities from the demonic – that is, from anything that is oppressive, demeaning, and life-diminishing. Deliverance from the demonic may involve deliverance from a personal addiction, or from personal greed or selfish ambition, or from some negative, harmful pattern of behavior. Or it may be deliverance from systemic, group idolatry or prejudice or oppression or injustice of some kind. It can be personal or communal or both. It can be individual liberation from personal sin, or it can be communal and corporate liberation from systemic sin. To be engaged in this work of liberation is good work. To be part of an individual’s liberation from personal addiction or sin, or to participate in a community’s or society’s liberation from injustice like racism or nationalism or sexism is good work. It is God’s work.
Now, in the first part of our Gospel text today here is a person engaging in this good work who does not know Jesus and is not a disciple of Jesus, though, he apparently is in some sense invoking the name of Jesus. The disciples try to stop this man from engaging in these good works. The disciples, however, are struggling with their own demon, namely, the demon of selfish ambition. They don’t know this man. They don’t know what he believes. So, they don’t like it that this man, apart from their control, is doing God’s work. Sounds familiar doesn’t it? Jesus says that anyone who engages in works of liberation is for us. They are on our side, says Jesus. They are on the side of mercy and justice.
Three or four years ago I came across a story about Bernie Sanders and a Liberty University graduate that I shared with you. It’s a story worth sharing again. I’m sure you are aware that Bernie Sanders is not a Christian. He is Jewish, though, as far as I know, he does not claim to be a deeply religious person. Three or four years ago he was invited to address the students and faculty of Liberty University, the school founded by the late Jerry Farwell. I doubt if they will ever do that again, and I couldn’t believe it when they actually invited Bernie Sanders to their campus, but they did, and he went. He expounded a vision taught by Jesus in the golden rule: “In everything do to others as you would have them to do to you; for this is the law and the prophets” (Matt. 7:12). He quoted that text and he quoted Amos: “But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream” (5:24). He said to the student body of Liberty University that it would be a hard case to make that we are a just society. He said it would be a hard case to prove that American society lives by the golden rule. To prove his point he called attention to “the massive injustice” of income and wealth inequality in America. He said there is no justice “when so few have so much and so many have so little.” He noted that our country has the highest rate of childhood poverty of any major country on earth.
He said, “there is no justice when low income and working class mothers are forced to separate from their babies one or two weeks after birth and go back to work because they need the money that their jobs provide.” Again, he pointed out that we are the “only major country on earth that does not provide paid family and medical leave.”
One evangelical Christian, a two-time graduate of Liberty University posted on the internet a sermon he preached based on Sanders speech. The sermon went viral. Hundreds of thousands of people read it. In the sermon he compared Bernie Sanders to John the Baptist confronting the hypocrisy and inauthenticity of the religious establishment of his day. I’m sure that went over well with the president and board of Liberty University. Keep in mind this is not a progressive like me. This is an evangelical Christian who earned his Bachelor’s degree and Master’s degree from Liberty University. This evangelical Christian graduate of Liberty University said:
“As I heard Bernie Sanders crying out to the religious leaders at Liberty University, in his hoarse voice, with his wild hair, this Jew, and he proclaimed justice over us. He called us to account for being complicit with those who are wealthy and those who are powerful and for abandoning the poor, ‘the least of these’ who Jesus said he had come to bring good news to. . . .” He goes on and says, “And lightning hit my heart in that moment. And I realized that we are evangelical Christians, that we believe the Bible. . . . And yet somehow, we commit to the mental gymnastics necessary [in interpreting scripture] that allows us to abandon ‘the least of these,’ to abandon the poor, to abandon the immigrants, to abandon those who are in prison.”
This was written three or four years ago, but his words are even more relevant today aren’t they? Think of all the little ones that we have turned away, abandoned, and even criminalized at our borders. He went on to say that when he heard Sanders speak he heard Jesus saying in the Gospel of Matthew that when you care for the most vulnerable, when you care for the little ones, you care for Jesus, for Jesus said, “When you have done it for the ‘least of these’ [the little ones], you have done it for me.”
Let me ask you this: Who do you think best represents Jesus? Someone who claims Jesus as Savior and confesses Jesus as Lord, but does not practice the golden rule or express any concern or compassion for the most vulnerable, and is not engaged in works of mercy and justice? Or someone who does not claim to be a Christian at all, but cares about the poor and the oppressed, who sides with the most vulnerable among us, and who does works of mercy and justice? Who best represents the name of Jesus? Who best reflects the character and will of Jesus? Who is actually “for” Jesus?
Jesus says, “I truly tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.” Jesus is telling his own disciples that anyone who is not a disciple who sides with the hurting and the sick and the poor and the most vulnerable, anyone who acts in mercy towards them, who does something as simple as offer them a drink to quench their thirst, they will be rewarded. They are on God’s side. Jesus is telling his disciples that they are with us and for us, no matter who they are or what they believe.
In the next paragraph in our Gospel text Jesus issues a stern warning. He uses vivid imagery and hyperbole (exaggerated symbolism) to make his point regarding how much God cares for the little ones. The little ones are the most vulnerable among us, who are often used and abused and taken advantage of by others for personal gain. Jesus warns them that if anyone puts a stumbling block before one of these “little ones” it would be better for that person, who has caused such hurt and offense to one of the little ones, to have a millstone hung around his neck and be cast into the sea.
Well, if that doesn’t make an impression consider his next warning. Jesus says, “If your hand causes you to sin against one of these little ones, then it’s better to cut off your hand, for it is better to enter into life maimed, than to keep both your hands and go straight to hell. If your foot causes you to sin against one of these little ones . . . and if your eye causes you to sin against one of these little ones, then it’s better to cut off your foot or pluck out your eye, and enter life without them, than to be thrown into hell, where the worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.” That’s about a stern a warning as you will find anywhere. Do you think God cares about the plight of the little ones? This is about how God expects us to treat God’s “little ones.” Most of us read this and instead of saying “Amen” we say, “O man” or “What the hell?”
The language here is obviously symbolic and hyperbolic. Jesus doesn’t expect anyone to cut off a body part and no one is going to enter into the future kingdom of God “maimed” or “lame.” Nor is the reference to “hell” or “unquenchable fire” any less symbolic. The whole point of the severity of this language is to highlight the value and priority God places on those who are vulnerable – the little ones – the poor, the marginalized, the disenfranchised, the displaced, the demeaned, the suffering, the abused, and the misused. Jesus is pointing out how much God cares about all “the little ones” who like little children in Jesus’ day have no position, no power, no status, no rights, and no way of defending themselves against those who would take advantage of them. This passage, in graphic imagery, points out how much these “little ones” mean to God. It shows how valuable they are. But it is a warning after all, and the warning is severe. Exaggerated for sure, but still severe. It’s a warning of judgment to come.
Jesus says in the very next sentence, “Everyone will be salted with fire.” Everyone is going to walk through the fire of God’s judgment. I think some people misunderstand those of us who believe in God’s universal redemption of all humankind and all creation. The misunderstanding comes in that they think we who believe in universal redemption don’t believe in God’s judgment at all. That’s a complete misunderstanding. I believe in the universal redemption of all people, but I also believe in the universal judgment of all people. I have no allusions at all that I will somehow escape God’s judgment. Like Jesus says, I am going to be salted with the fire of God’s judgment.
In writing to the Roman Christians in chapter 2 of that letter Paul warns them that when they judge and exclude others, they are passing judgment on themselves, and then he warns, “Do you imagine you will escape the judgment of God?” (2:1-4) Later in the same letter he picks up this theme again and warns, “Why do you judge and despise your sister and brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God” (14:10).
In writing to the church at Corinth, some of whom were catering to the well-to-do and despising God’s little ones, Paul warns that the Lord will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart (1 Cor. 3:5). Paul goes on to compare God’s judgment to a refiner’s fire. We all build on the foundation laid by the love and good works of Christ says Paul. That’s the standard. Paul says, “The work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it” (the day, of course, is the day of judgment). Paul draws on the same firey imagery that Jesus employed. He says that our work “will be revealed by fire, the fire will test what sort of work each has done.” He says, “If the work is burned up, the builder will suffer loss.” But, he goes on to say, “the builder will be saved, but only as through fire” (1 Cor. 3:13-15). The builder will be ultimately made whole and healed and transformed, but, says Paul, “as through fire.” The fire, of course, is not literal, but it is a symbol of God’s judgment. It may take a lot of “fire,” a lot of judgment, a lot of suffering, a lot of hardship to get there. What Paul seems to be saying is that God is going to change us, and in the process of changing us, it may take some or a lot of suffering in order to burn up, consume the corruption, the sin, and the injustice. And those of us who believe in universal redemption believe that God is going to see the process through. God is not to give up on any of us no matter what it takes.
And that is good news. This is why God’s judgment, which can be quite severe and painful, is ultimately something to be welcomed. Because God’s purpose in all of this is our ultimate transformation. God wants to burn up all the envy, jealousy, pride, arrogance, love of power, prejudice and all the stuff that hurts us and others, so that we will become mirrors of the loving, compassionate, authentic, and mercy-filled Christ. So that the Christ within us can flourish.
In Mark’s Gospel Jesus says it this way, “Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it?” The salt of God’s judgment is good. It may be severe at times and painful and result in some or much suffering, but it will not lose its saltiness. Then Jesus says, “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” God’s judgment leads to self-judgment. And when we come to the place in our journey when we are able to judge our lives by the standard of the Christ whose priority is to care for and seek justice for all God’s little ones, then we will truly be at peace – with God, with each other, with God’s creation, and with ourselves.
Our good God, may we be open to whatever it is you want to teach us and however you want to grow us into the Christ image that we might share his love and compassion, especially for those who have had a difficult time of it in life. Give us the wisdom, honesty, and humility to judge ourselves that we might become the persons you have created us to be.