The Strange Case of the Unknown Exorcist
Our reading for today (Mark 9: 38-41) is one of the strangest stories in Mark's gospel. OK, maybe not as strange as the young man in Mark 14:51-52 who is so intent on running away from the arrest of Jesus that he runs right out of his clothes! What's with that? But this one is pretty curious. We can call this story “The Strange Case of the Unknown Exorcist.”
The apostles had just tried and failed to cast out a demon from a young man (9:17-18). When Jesus joins them, they were arguing with the teachers of the law in front of a large crowd (9:14). Jesus Himself throws out the demon, and no one can argue with that. But the apostles continue to argue, this time over who is greatest. (It seems to me that James the Less was at a disadvantage in this discussion, but we're pretty sure Peter had some things to say!). The timing is interesting; they had failed miserably and now they are arguing over who is the greatest? Jesus tells them that true greatness in the kingdom of God is found in service to others, not in defending one’s status as compared to others. I remember hearing about a guy who was so humble that they awarded him a button that read "World's Humblest Man." He wore it proudly, so they took it away from him. If you are arguing about who is greatest in the kingdom of God, then it isn't you!
So the “The Strange Case of the Unknown Exorcist” is set against the backdrop of the apostles arguing over who is greatest in the kingdom of God. And the story makes more sense in that context--
“Teacher,” said John, “we saw a man driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.” “Do not stop him,” Jesus said. “No one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us. I tell you the truth, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to Christ will certainly not lose his reward. (Mark 9:38–41)
The apostles were outraged because they saw someone casting out demons in Jesus name, and they issued an immediate cease and desist order? Why? Because this guy wasn’t one of them! They didn’t know him, and he wasn’t part of their group. Of course, there might have been a little jealousy here. After all, he was successfully casting out demons right after they had tried to cast out a demon and failed. The very idea! But not only does Jesus not rebuke the unknown exorcist, he rebuked the apostles. People who do the work of God are not against God. Jesus says, “Whoever is not against us is for us.” The fact was that even though the apostles didn’t know this guy, Jesus did. Judas kept the money for Jesus and the apostles (John 12:6); maybe Matthew (the tax guy) kept the books. But the only one who keeps the membership list of the disciples is Jesus Himself!
Many followers of Jesus after the first have thought that it was their job to keeping the membership roll of true disciples. Several years ago, we received a letter from a neighboring church that informed us that their men’s business meeting had voted and had decided that we weren’t a true church. A couple other churches set us letters that informed us that their men’s business meetings agree that we weren’t a true church. And you know what Jesus says, “I tell you that if two of your men’s business meetings agree about anything…” Gallons of ink has been spilt by one group of believers writing up and writing off another group for any number of theological errors and doctrinal missteps, real and imagined. So many Christians have been alienated from one another, and so many seekers have given up their search because self-appointed roll-keepers of the kingdom have strained gnats and swallowed camels, shutting the kingdom of haven in the faces of those who would enter (Matt 23:13).
What do you do when you see someone who is seeking to follow and serve Christ who is not part of your group and who has a different understandings of Biblical teachings that do you? Engage them in honest and open study? Sure. Try to understand why they believe what they believe? Sure. Share what you believe to be the teaching of the Bible? Of course. But even if we can’t come to complete agreement on Bible doctrine and practice, does that mean that I am to write them up and off? Jesus says, “Do not stop him…for whoever is not against us is for us.” Maybe we all need to get busy giving out cups of cold water in Jesus name and leave managing the membership records to Jesus. Actually, there is no “maybe” here. Get busy serving Jesus and leave those other servants that you don’t know alone!