ColumnsSunday’s Word

Whoever is not against us is for us

September 30, 2018


Nm 11:25-29

Eldad and Medad receive the Spirit

Ps 19:8, 10, 12-14

The law of the Lord refreshes the soul

Jas 5:1-6

Gold and silver corrode, wealth rots

Mk 9:38-43, 45, 47-48

“Whoever is not against us is for us” 093018.cfm

[ms-protect-content id=”1339,323,1059,1325,324,257,322,6459″]

Hebrew scholars point out that the names Eldad and Medad sound as comic in the original as in translation. They are the prototypical outsiders, disregarded by the proper sort. When they receive the spirit of prophesy along with the 70 elders, even though they were back in the camp and not at the meeting, Moses’ right-hand man, Joshua, wanted them stopped. But the wiser Moses disagreed — “Would that all the people of the LORD were prophets! Would that the LORD might bestow his spirit on them all!”

This story from Numbers sets the tone for the liturgy this week, with Mark’s Gospel telling of another outsider with the Spirit. This time it is John who is reporting that someone who is not authorized is acting in the Spirit, casting out demons, and it is Jesus responding. His key sentence is: “Whoever is not against us is for us.” Note that we usually quote it the other way around, and granted this too has biblical warrant, as it is found in other places.

But they are very different. To say “whoever is not for us is against us” is to make everyone outside an enemy. There is no neutral ground apart from full membership. But the way we find Jesus phrasing it today turns it around to say that everyone outside is a potential ally, not an enemy. Furthermore, anyone who does a good deed in his name cannot speak evil of him and will be rewarded.

The Gospel reading has two parts, however. The second part shifts to another topic — giving scandal. The words are harsh — “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were put around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.”

The topic seems to come out of the blue, but perhaps it is presented in contrast to the previous statement — “Anyone who gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ, amen, I say to you, will surely not lose his reward.” They are two quite different ways to treat others.

Once the topic moves into “causing sin,” instances start to pile up. If your hand, or your foot, or your eyes, cause you to sin, cut them off. For it is better to enter into life maimed than enter Gehenna whole, but in pain and remorse. “Gehenna,” literally, is the Valley of Hinnom, to the south of the city. It was the city dump, and something was always burning. It was a good metaphor for endless fire.

A footnote in your Bible may tell you that this list of infractions has probably been elaborated by an enthusiastic scribe, adding the parts about the foot and the eyes. They do not appear in good early manuscripts, so they were probably added. Also, the idea is an elaboration of the final verse in the book of Isaiah, which blesses the faithful and warns against infidelity. “For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be extinguished; and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.”

In addition, there is a way in which this entire passage — not only the amputation of body parts, but also the millstone placed around the neck and thrown into the sea — are examples of rhetorical exaggeration. This is typical of many of the sayings of Jesus and part of his culture. One remembers the splinter in another’s eye and the wooden beam in one’s own (Matt 7:3-5) or the camel negotiating the eye of a needle (Mark 10:25)? Nonetheless, the point is well taken.

For reflection: “Whoever is not against us is for us.” Why do we never quote it this way?

Father Beck is professor emeritus of religious studies at Loras College, Dubuque.