Jesus said, “... Whoever is not against you is for you... He who is not with me is against me...” Luke 9:50, Luke 11:23
“Oh, you can’t believe the Bible! - it’s full of contradictions!”
Have you ever had that said to you by a non-Christian friend? I wouldn’t be surprised. And this is just the kind of thing they have in mind: in the space of a couple of chapters Jesus seems to make two completely opposite statements. (The fact that one speaks of “you” and the other of “me” is neither here nor there, for Jesus and his disciples are united in purpose.)
Well, is Jesus contradicting himself, or is there a convincing explanation? I believe there is.
It all comes down to that thing called “context” - in other words, the setting in which something occurs. Each of Jesus’ sayings is true, if we take note of their settings. Think of a modern example. Here are two sentences: “An hour is a very short time” and “An hour is a very long time”. How can those two statements be anything but glaringly contradictory! There is surely no way they can be reconciled.
But wait a minute. Suppose you have just been told “You have one hour to live...” - that first sentence would seem alarmingly true, the second one false. But suppose you have been told “It will be an hour before the next bus arrives...” - you would probably think the second sentence was disappointingly true and the first one false. See what I mean about context? And see how two totally contradictory statements can both be true?
So... what are the contexts in which Jesus says these two things?
First, “Whoever is not against you is for you.” If you go to Luke 9:49-50 you find that one of the twelve is telling Jesus about someone they had met who was using his name to cast out demons. And they are shocked. What a cheek! How dare somebody who is not “one of us” presume to do the work of Jesus! So “we tried to stop him.”
To which Jesus replies: No! You did wrong. All right, that man may not yet be an out-and-out disciple, but never mind. He was trying to do a good thing, and to do it in my name. Leave him alone! - for “whoever is not against you is for you”.
What do we learn from this? In essence, not to be hard or condemning of people who, while they may not be the kind of Christians we profess to be, are nonetheless genuine in their desire to serve God. The emotional charismatic, for example, mustn’t dismiss the stern Calvinist. The convinced baptist must accept as a fellow-disciple the person who advocates infant baptism. (I’m sure you can think of plenty of other examples.)
In other words, that first saying is true - as a lesson in tolerance.
So what about the second saying: “He who is not with me is against me”? If we go now to Luke 11:14-23 we find that Jesus is speaking in a completely different context, all about the absolute opposition of light and darkness, truth and falsehood, God and Satan. He is making clear that we are caught up in the middle of a life-or-death battle between these two forces. And his point is that in this battle there can be no neutrality. Try to be neutral - and you are in effect taking sides against Jesus. And so: “He who is not with me is against me.”
This also is true, then - as a solemn call to commitment.
So now the bit that really matters: Which of the two lessons do I personally need today? Am I, perhaps, a bit bigoted, a bit too ready to dismiss anyone who doesn’t see things just my way? Do I need Jesus’ lesson in humility? Or am I the kind of person who tries to sit on the fence when decision is called for? Is it time I responded to Jesus’ call to commitment and discipleship?
Only our own hearts can enable us to answer those questions. Why not stop right now, close your eyes, think very honestly, and then respond in prayer?
Lord Jesus, help me to be tolerant and accepting when that is what is called for, and to be unyielding and uncompromising when truth is at stake. (And, of course, the wisdom to know the difference!) Amen.