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.’ But Jesus said, ‘Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. 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.’ (NRSV)
The disciples spot a rival. Some unnamed ‘someone’ is engaging in a similar ministry. By their own testimony their prevention attempt was not successful: ‘…we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.’ Best take such an important matter right to the top.
But Jesus is surprisingly unsurprised. He shows no sign of being threatened even though these acts are performed in his own name by one he does not actively oversee. But then he goes further. Jesus sees this man’s deeds of power as acts of faith.
And for him it is enough.
Perhaps Jesus does not quite understand. Kingdoms need to be defended – sometimes vigorously and ruthlessly. Leaders must demonstrate due vigilance in relation to any and every security threat. Invasion is always a possibility. In bringing this matter to Jesus attention John is simply practicing due diligence. Perhaps he imagines himself stepping up – and into – his future role as one of the Messiah’s chief-commanders. Once again we see the disciples fall short of Jesus’ kingdom-vision.
As usual, Jesus’ philosophy is broader. He is more welcoming and accommodating than initially imagined. Jesus oversees a generous, hospitable, and open kingdom. There is room here beyond the twelve and it would seem even beyond the growing group trailing behind him.
So Jesus throws open the gates: ‘Whoever is not against us is for us.’ He refuses to limit the definition of ‘for us’ to ‘like us’. His reply broadens the path to accommodate all those not actively attacking. Jesus is measuring generously. In fact the humble gift of a cup of water is enough to reap reward. Such an act is not extravagant – but it is enough to demonstrate a living faith.
I am left wondering what this passage has to say to a world-wide church divided over worship practices, kingdom priorities, and the place of culture in the life of the faithful community. Sometimes I wonder if we look over our rickety home-made fences a little too often and a little too nervously. We divide over strange issues sometimes.
Make no mistake, the disciples need this uncomfortable encounter. It is good for them. Without it they will not be able to accurately see – and then live – the extravagant, welcoming, and generous hospitality of God. Without this rival-come-friend encounter they will potentially misrepresent the values of their king.
And that is a serious issue.