What does Jesus really mean when he says “whoever is not against us is for us”?
This concept comes up in the Gospel reading for this past Sunday, Mark 9:38-40 (Proper 21, Yr. B), and in the parallel in Luke 9:49-50. (Matt. 12:30 and Luke 11:23 have a similar, yet different phrase in a different context, “he who is not with me is against me.” We will return to that.) In Mark and Luke the context is that of a person casting out demons in the name of Jesus but who was not following “us.”
Mark 9:38 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.”
39 But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. 40 Whoever is not against us is for us.”
This last verse has been used many, many times to assert that Jesus is saying that one does not have to be a Christian, so long as they are doing good works and not actively opposing the work of the followers of Jesus. “Whoever is not against us is for us” becomes “they are as good as being ‘us.'” But is that really what Jesus is saying? It doesn’t seem likely.
Consider first of all that this person is casting out demons in the name of Jesus. Whatever that man’s motivations, he understood the power of the name of Jesus to heal and cast out demons and was thus freeing people from their suffering. This is not really the equivalent of, say, a person of a different religion bringing relief supplies to a region devastated by a hurricane. It is more akin to a Lutheran pastor anointing a patient at a hospital who is a Presbyterian. He is doing so, bringing grace, peace, and healing to that person “in the name of Jesus” (and, most likely, in the name of the Trinity). As the early church was trying to determine who was in/out, right/wrong in their beliefs and teachings, this was a powerful statement. It is no less powerful to us today.
In other words, the person who is doing the healing/casting out of demons in Mark/Luke is not one of the gang following Jesus, but he is one who accepts and believes in the power of Jesus. It is in and by that name that he works. He has faith in the name of Jesus, at least as a tool of healing.
In my recent study of Jesus in the Talmud, I found this repeatedly. 1See t. Ḥul. 2:22 // y. ʾAvod. Zar. 2:2 // b. ʾAvod. Zar. 27b // y. Shab. 14:4. In these cases there is a man named Jacob healing in the name of “Jesus” and the healing is rejected since a faithful death is viewed by the Rabbis as preferable to being healed in the name of a heretic. They did not question whether this man Jacob could really heal, they knew he could, but doing so in the name of Jesus was heretical and so to be shunned, even if it meant death.
Now, notice the following verse in Mark (not present in Luke).
9:41 For truly I 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.
This is an interesting statement since Jesus is saying that what is deemed worthy in the act is not the charity of quenching thirst (whether this is simple hospitality or the life-saving draught of a person in the desert is irrelevant), but the fact that the drink is offered because the receiver “bears the name of Christ.” The person giving the drink is doing so in honor and recognition of the one the receiver represents. This is like receiving the emissary of the king, one treats the emissary as if it were the king himself.
But notice that the nature of the person offering the drink is not specified. They are not offering the drink “in the name of Jesus,” as the person casting out the demon was, and yet they will “by no means lose the reward.” Is this a statement that it doesn’t matter who you follow or what you believe, so long as you graciously welcome the followers of Christ you too shall receive “the reward” (and what is that reward? in this context it is not clear). Perhaps, but I think that would be pushing a bit too far, given the rest of not only Mark, but the New Testament. In its immediate context, there is certainly an emphasis upon humility. “If any one would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all,” Jesus says in verse 35. The person offering the drink of water is serving others and this is preferable to jockeying for position to see who is the greatest of all and will set at Jesus’ right hand.
“Whoever is not against us is for us.” What does Jesus mean? Well, he is cleary rebuking his disciples. They are arguing over who among them is the greatest (Mark 9:34) and they are certainly setting up boundaries between “us” and “them.” This passage is a sustained lesson on humility and servanthood. The man is healing “in Jesus name” and that means that he is, in some way, a believer in the Christ. (Notice the use of that title in verse 41, it is not a generic acceptance of Jesus as a wise man or healer; he is the anointed one of God.) And belief in Jesus as the Messiah is central to these teachings, as seen in verse 42, “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone… “etc.
This conversation is still taking place within the Jewish community. Jesus is certainly widening the disciples view, he is saying that there are far more people who believe in me and are being used by God than you are willing to recognize, but they recognize me. We may view Catholics as overwrought and archaic, but they believe in Jesus. Episcopalians may think that all other Christians are too judgmental (ironic, isn’t it?) and yet we must acknowledge that we worship the same Lord Jesus.
Finally, let’s consider the inverse parallels mentioned earlier from Matt. 12:30 and Luke 11:23. 2Some consider these sayings the “more original” source of the Markan statement. (See Fitzmeyer, Anchor Bible Commentary, I don’t have the citation.) Jesus has been healing people and casting out demons and is accused of only being able to do so “by Beelzebul, the prince of demons.” Jesus responds by asking if a house divided against itself can stand (it cannot) and goes on to say,
“He who is not with me is against me.”
This is obviously very similar wording to the other passage and yet carries a very different message. Here the emphasis and onus is upon being with Jesus. There is no room for apathy or non-partisanship. One cannot be agnostic to Jesus. If you are not with him, you are against him. That is a fairly strong statement and the opposite of the reading of the prior passage as one of universalism.
There are often attempts to soften the impact of this statement as well. One reading I came across attributed to Theophylact, the 11th century Orthodox archbishop of Ochrid and Bulgaria, 3I have not been able to verify the citation, but I have no reason to think it is not genuine. argues that Jesus was not referring to people as those who are not “with me,” but rather the demons. Those spiritual forces that are not with him are against him. That reading seems forced and not in keeping with the rest of the passage (this would require the spiritual forces to also gather/scatter, “whoever does not gather with me scatters”), but it could be possible. Although I think unlikely.
It seems far more probable that Jesus is speaking to the Pharisees and those around him and saying that, if you are not supporting and affirming the work of the Son of Man then you are against him. The material surrounding this statement includes challenges to sabbath regulations in terms of “working” (plucking grains to eat) and healing. Jesus asserts that the Son of Man is the “lord of the sabbath.” His authority to heal and cast our demons is then challenged as well. He responds with both logic (“a house divided against itself will not stand” and “if I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your sons cast them out?”) and authority (“if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you”). Furthermore, the passage that follows in Matthew emphasizes that one is able to discern who is good and evil by their fruit (Matt. 12:33-37). Look and see, he says to the crowd, that my work is producing good fruit, the fruit of healing, feeding, and peace, and that is how you know it comes from God.
These odd and seemingly antithetical statements are saying different things. They have a different “range,” if you will. The first saying that the Church must not hinder those who do work in his name, the community of faith is broader then you may think. The latter is warning that it is not good enough to get out of the way of those working in Jesus’ name, you must be with him, otherwise you are against him. Yet these passages are similar in this sense: those are are doing work in Jesus’ name are not to be hindered but embraced.
The call to the Church is clear, focus upon the works of Christ and do not worry about divisions.
- 1See t. Ḥul. 2:22 // y. ʾAvod. Zar. 2:2 // b. ʾAvod. Zar. 27b // y. Shab. 14:4.
- 2Some consider these sayings the “more original” source of the Markan statement. (See Fitzmeyer, Anchor Bible Commentary, I don’t have the citation.)
- 3I have not been able to verify the citation, but I have no reason to think it is not genuine.