John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him, for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me. For the one who is not against us is for us.” Mark 9.38-40.
I love the way that the Lord has always got something new to show, even in very familiar passages of Scripture. Take this morning’s passage. I have read it innumerable times over the last fifty years but until this morning I had never connected the incident it describes with what had happened to the disciples just a few days before and which Mark has recorded just a few verses earlier.
Jesus had taken Peter, James and John with him up a mountain and had been transfigured before them. But on coming down from the mountain they had been met with a scene of confusion and chaos. The remaining disciples have been trying to cast an unclean spirit out of a boy brought to them by his father. In fact, the father had brought the boy to Jesus but, because Jesus was not there, had asked the disciples to cast the unclean spirit out of his son. “But,” he tells Jesus, “they were not able” (Mark 9.18).
Jesus then does what the disciples had been unable to do; but their failure clearly rankled with the disciples and as soon as they can get Jesus alone, still smarting with humiliation, they ask him, “Why could we not cast it out?” Jesus tells them: “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer” (Mark 9.28-29). But now, in this morning’s reading, just a few verses later, we find John reporting to Jesus that “we” — that is the disciples en masse — “we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” Of course they did. They were jealous. This outsider was doing what they had not been able to do, yet they were Jesus’ special people!
Jesus’ reply is illuminating: “Do not stop him, for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me. For the one who is not against us is for us.” This is sometimes seen as a contradiction of Jesus’ other saying, “Whoever is not with me is against me” (Matthew 12.30), but the two statements are not in opposition. Here, Jesus is laying down the rule that anyone taking the side of good against evil is taking his (Jesus’) side whether the person concerned knows it or not. As Jesus clearly spells out in the context of the other saying: Satan cannot cast out Satan. He would be destroying his own kingdom were he to do so. So if someone is truly casting out demons, they cannot be acting for Satan. They must, of necessity, be acting for God and therefore be aligned with Jesus.
The situation is quite different, however, when someone simply refuses to take sides or be drawn in when Jesus and Satan come into conflict. “That person’s supposed neutrality,” says Jesus, “brings them out on the side of Satan.” That is what the Matthew 12.30 statement teaches. “At the moment of choice between me and whatever opposes me,” Jesus is saying, “the person who tries to sit on the fence has, in fact, already come down against me.”
What am I to take from all this into today? First, that I am not to have a more restrictive view than Jesus about who is carrying out God’s purposes in the world. People who are genuinely “undoing the works of Satan” in any way at all are “for us” as the church, even if they don’t belong to it, and “for Jesus” whether or not they yet know him or acknowledge his Lordship. (This is very pertinent to my post of 27 April, “My Shepherd Cyrus” where I argue against those who say AA is not Christian and is not therefore a proper channel for deliverance from alcohol addiction.) Secondly, I am to be prepared to stand up and be counted whenever light conflicts with darkness, whenever what is going on in front of me (however other people may see it) is Jesus v Satan.
Help me, Lord Jesus, to be “for you” every moment of every day in every situation. Amen.