Sunday, 25 January 2015

When a little is a lot

Jesus said, 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 9:41

When she was British prime minister Margaret Thatcher was said to have had a simple way of assessing potential political allies; she would ask the question: “Is he/she one of us?”

One of us... It’s a really give-away phrase. Putting it crudely, it raises  the question whether or not a particular person is part of our in-crowd, our clique even. A group in an office, a factory, a hospital, a school might regard someone outside their circle as “not one of us”. Or a football fan doubtful about someone’s true allegiance. Or a strict vegetarian about someone’s commitment to the cause. 

Most of us have probably had unpleasant experiences of feeling excluded from a particular group. And (let’s not forget!) perhaps we too have been guilty of making other people feel that way.

In our passage the disciples of Jesus have just been involved in a situation which highlights this question. Let’s imagine the scene...

They are walking along the road together, but Jesus isn’t with them. They see a crowd of people near the roadside; something out of the ordinary is obviously going on. They go over to have a look. They see a man standing over someone on the ground and chanting some kind of prayer. Oh yes - they have seen this kind of thing before: this is an exorcism! The standing man is trying to cast demons out of the man on the ground.

As followers of Jesus who have seen him do this many times they naturally take an interest. What sort of technique or method is this person using? What words? Well, there’s quite a lot of noise going on, but to their dismay they distinctly pick up... the word Jesus

Yes! This man is using the name of Jesus - their Jesus, their master, their teacher - to work this miracle.

So the question becomes: who is he? They scan his face. Someone Jesus has healed? Someone they have seen in the crowds around him? No, they have no recollection of him at all. He is a complete stranger, an outsider. This is outrageous!

They are in no doubt what to do. They step into the middle of the crowd and tell the mysterious stranger to stop at once: how dare he use the name of Jesus in this way! They may not say the exact words, but their indignation is obvious: You are not one of us.

Well, did they do right or wrong? When they come to tell Jesus what has happened they are obviously pretty sure of themselves: “We told him to stop” - as if expecting the reply “Well done, my friends.”

But no. Jesus in fact rebukes them. Leave this man alone! He has done a good thing! And what is more, he will actually receive a reward from God - this is the clear implication of verse 41.

The main lesson of the story is very clear: as followers of Jesus we had better be careful not to dismiss or condemn others who are doing Christlike things just because they don’t happen to belong to our particular circle. Yes, there are people around who act and preach in ways we aren’t quite comfortable with. But God alone knows their hearts, so it is only wise to suspend judgment and leave him to do the judging. 

That’s the main point. But there is something else here worth focusing on: that word “reward”. Jesus states plainly that “anyone who gives you a cup of water (never mind casting a demon out of you!) in my name... will not lose his reward.”

My mind automatically asks the question, What might that reward actually be? And I have to admit that I don’t really know the answer to that. It certainly can’t be forgiveness or salvation, for Jesus makes very clear elsewhere that we can never earn God’s love or mercy by doing what is right (see, for example, Luke 17:7-10).

Perhaps it’s not what really matters anyway. What does matter is that, apparently, God sees and values even the tiniest act of kindness done in his name, even just the offering of a cup of water to a thirsty person.

And how relevant is that to our everyday lives! It means that every day there are opportunities to do some simple thing that brings happiness and healing into the life of some unfortunate person - and in so doing, to bring a smile to the face of God himself.

So while I take away from this episode various questions and some real challenges, I take away also a very beautiful paradox: You don’t have to do a lot to do a lot...

Lord, strengthen me, that, while I stand/ Firm on the rock and strong in thee, /I may stretch out a loving hand/ To wrestlers with the troubled sea. Amen!

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