Practice, Not “The Right Name”

Binding30 years in and Ched Myers’ Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus(1988) is more relevant than ever. This week’s commentary homes in on Mark 9:38-50.

The arrogance in John’s objection lies in its attempt to erect boundaries around the exercise of compassionate ministry “in Jesus’ name.” He equates exorcism with the accrual of status and power, and wishes to maintain a monopoly over it. This is especially ludicrous in light of the disciples’ lack of exorcism power, which we have just witnessed (9:14-29). But more importantly, it cuts directly against the grain of “receiving” in 9:37, an exhortation to inclusion, not exclusivity. On top of all this, John’s censure is based on the fact that the stranger “was not following us.” The disciples want to be followed, not followers. Never was a “royal we” less appropriate!

Rather than attacking such utter incomprehension directly, however, Jesus simply gives three reasons why the disciples must not “hinder” the exorcist. The first reason seems practical enough: anyone who engages in “powerful practice” (poiesei dunamin) in Jesus’ name cannot soon afterward speak ill of him (9:39). The second reason expands this into  general rule of thumb: “those who are not against us are for us” (9:40). There is a tone of irony here: for in fact Peter will at the end of the story indeed “speak ill” of Jesus, and even now he and the rest of the disciples, who are allegedly for Jesus, are progressively turning against him.

It is the third reason that is central (9:41), stressed by its solemn tone (the only Amen saying in this subsection) and by the fact that only here (apart from 1:1) in Mark does the term “Messiah” appear outside the context of confessional struggle. Not only is Jesus willing to endorse the redemptive practice of “outsiders,” but also the simplest act of hospitality (“a cup of water”) shown to anyone “who bears the name of Messiah.” John is worried about those with competing power, but Jesus is welcoming all those who do the works of mercy and justice. John is entertaining “holier than thou” delusions, but Jesus points out how his followers will often find themselves on the receiving end of compassion. In other words, disciples have no corner on the ministry of healing and liberation, and therefore should without prejudice work alongside those whose practice is redemptive. Conversely, those who minister in any way to Christians receive due recognition in the kingdom.

This would appear to affirm what Karl Rahner had once called “anonymous Christianity.” Mark is extending the principle articulated in the “confessional crisis”: it is practice, not “the right name,” that is recognized in the kingdom. This teaching also forbids the erection of exclusive and rigid social boundaries around the community of faith. Jesus seems to understand the relationship between the power of monopoly and the monopoly of power; the quickest way to undermine aspirations to social control is to keep the definitions of “belonging” ultimately fluid and inclusive. As if to further secure this argument, Jesus now turns to show how, just as good can come from “outside,” betrayal can come from “inside.”

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