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The Christian Case for Tolerance

In today’s gospel,

we hear the intriguing story of Jesus’ disciples

trying to stop a man who

had been casting out demons in Jesus’ name.

They seem to have become especially upset

because the offender was not one of them.

In the eyes of the disciples,

he was not part of the inner circle,

and he was acting differently

from what they considered to be the norm.

As soon as Jesus heard about it,

he turned the tables on his closest followers

and rebuked their blind, unbending exclusiveness.

He told them not to stop the man,

because whatever good is done in Jesus’ name

would put him in a situation of

not speaking evil of the Lord.

And tellingly, Jesus concluded,

“Whoever is not against us is for us.”

Jesus made it clear

that he and his disciples were not a little clique,

working in a corner of life, fenced off from others.

His world view, his God’s-eye view,

made him well aware that God’s actions

are not limited to the forms

with which his disciples were familiar.

What is the lesson in this for us?

Don’t Jesus’ words ring true as

a rebuke of our often blind and

unbending exclusiveness… our arrogant assumptions

that God’s action among us

is limited to forms with which

we are most comfortable and most familiar?

What Jesus taught his disciples is equally a lesson for us.

Christians cannot fence themselves off from

others who have different ways of following Jesus

and of finding God.

The one who is not against us is for us.

The one who is not against Jesus is on the side of Christ.

In this, our Lord gives us a model for a broader view.

There is an issue of tolerance.

Doesn’t Jesus’ message to the disciples

help us stop short when

we fall into the all too common trap of

thinking in terms of “us” and “them” –

…seeing life only from the perspective of our own groups?

Intolerance of the other is certainly an attitude that

Jesus rejected in today’s gospel reading.

Possibly, he realized that the disciples

considered the man casting out demons

as a threat to their inner-circle status.

He was an outsider, so they tried to stop him.

Jesus rejected this

by making it clear that only in a narrower sense

can one be an outsider.

What was true for the disciples

has been true throughout history.

The world and the church

have fought for centuries

in such a fence-building frenzy.

The stories of the past schisms and divisions are legion.

And living out the tendencies of the same human nature,

we still act this way in our time,

don’t we?

Standing against this,

Jesus’ words remind us that Christianity

is not the preserve of a privileged few.

He reminds us

that no one seeking to do the Lord’s work

is an outsider.

He reminds us to welcome all people

who are willing to join the journey,

following our Lord.

Over and over again, Jesus’ words remind us

to be including – not excluding.

Over and over again, Jesus’ words rebuke us

when we turn against others

because they are different.

Over and over again, the life Jesus lived

and the way he taught his first disciples

remind us of the scandal of our divisions.

There is another side to this, of course.

Sometimes, conscience and practicality

dictate that we separate ourselves from others.

But the message here, at the very least,

is not to do so lightly –

not to draw a line in the sand

except as a last resort.

Jesus helps us work against the subtle temptation

to think that “for me to be right,

anyone who disagrees with me must be wrong.”

Jesus seems to be telling the disciples something like this:

“Look for the commonality.

Recognize that there are many among you

who might work or think differently

, but don’t jump to the conclusion

that that makes them against you –

or against me.”

He warns us against simplistic solutions to complex problems.

He causes us to see that

truth is always bigger than any one person’s,

or any one group’s grasp of it.

Jesus cautions us against inflexibility of thought or deed.

He helps us embrace tolerance of a variety of actions and viewpoints.

He helps us re-learn what is so easy to forget:

that diversity is not only good;

it is absolutely essential for

the health of the Body of Christ.

Today’s gospel reinforces a belief

that what we need in the church

is less “either/or” and more “both/and.”

Where do we find commonality?

Why not begin by looking to our earliest roots?

Those who can declare that “Jesus is Lord”

are not against us,

and therefore, are for us, and for Christ.

Those who can follow the steps of Jesus,

taking up their crosses and

denying themselves for the sake of God and God’s children

are not against us, and therefore are for us,

and for Christ.

The story of today’s gospel

is about the disciples’ attempt

to draw a circle around Jesus and themselves –

shutting out the one who was

casting out demons in Jesus’ name.

Perhaps a concise, powerful poem

by Edwin Markham can help us remember

that Jesus ordered the disciples

not to exclude that man and

to recall that those who are not against us are for us.

In his poem “Outwitted,” Edwin Markham writes:

“He drew a circle that shut me out –

Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.

But Love and I had the wit to win:

We drew a circle that took him in.”

Pray that we, too, learn to expand our circles

to include others

that are different than us.




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