Who best represents Jesus? Those who profess Jesus as Savior, but side with the elite, the powerful, the rich, the oppressors? Or those who stand up for and stand with the little ones?
Who is actually for Jesus and who is actually against Jesus? It may not be the persons we think.
An episode in the Synoptic Gospels of Luke and Mark bear this out. Luke’s version reads:
John answered, “Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he does not follow with us.” But Jesus said to him, “Do not stop him; for whoever is not against you is for you” (Luke 9:49-50).
The key word here is “us.” The disciples are offended that the one engaging in works of healing and liberation in the name of Christ was not sanctioned or credentialed by their group. Their interest seems to be one of control, gatekeeping, and promoting group exceptionalism. Jesus challenges them (and us) to think in terms of a larger story and in broader patterns.
There are hints in Mark’s version of the story that Mark was concerned with conflicting Christian groups within his church context (Mark 9:38-41). Luke’s context is less specific and more inclusive. If we follow Luke’s lead then by extension we can apply this to any group, Christian or some other religious faith or no religious faith at all.
In both Mark’s and Luke’s narrative, just prior to this interchange the disciples had been arguing about who is the greatest in God’s realm. In response Jesus embraces a little child and according to Luke’s version says, “Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me; for the least among all of you is the greatest” (Luke 9:48).
In that culture a child represented not only someone of low status, but one of society’s most vulnerable members. There were no laws protecting children’s rights.
Clearly, mercy and justice extended to the little ones, work done to bring healing and liberation to the most vulnerable in society is work done in the “name” of Jesus – that is, it is work that reflects Jesus’ character and values, his love, compassion, and justice.
Let’s suppose I have a friend who does not claim to be a Christian. Nevertheless, he stands up for a coworker who is being treated badly and discriminated against. Such courageous action will probably cost him advancement within the company or maybe even his job. My friend is acting in the “name” of Jesus whether he recognizes it or not. He is reflecting the compassion and justice of Christ, even though he may not claim to know Christ at all. This is similar to what the writer of 1 John says about love, “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them” (1 John 4:16b). Whenever a person acts in love, God is present in that person, whether he or she professes to know God or not.
Our response to the little ones – our actions and inactions, what we do or fail to do reveals at any given moment whether we stand “for” Jesus or “against” him.
Recently Vermont senator and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders gave a speech at Liberty University, the school founded by the late Baptist minister Jerry Falwell. Bernie Sanders is not a Christian. He is Jewish, though he does not claim to be a deeply religious person. He expounded a vision taught by Jesus in the golden rule: “In everything do to others as you would have them to do to you; for this is the law and the prophets” (Matt. 7:12). He quoted that text and he quoted Amos: “But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream” (5:24).
He said that it would be a hard case to make that we are a just society, a society that lives by the golden rule. He pointed out the massive injustice in terms of income and wealth inequality. He said there is no justice “when so few have so much and so many have so little.” He noted that our country has the highest rate of childhood poverty of any major country on earth.
He said, “there is no justice when low income and working class mothers are forced to separate from their babies one or two weeks after birth and go back to work because they need the money that their jobs provide.” Again, he pointed out that we are the “only major country on earth that does not provide paid family and medical leave.”
One evangelical Christian, a twice graduate of Liberty University posted on the internet a sermon he preached based on Sanders speech. The sermon went viral. In the sermon he compared Bernie Sanders to John the Baptist confronting the hypocrisy and inauthenticity of the religious establishment of his day. This evangelical Christian graduate of Liberty University said:
“As I heard Bernie Sanders crying out to the religious leaders at Liberty University, in his hoarse voice, with his wild hair, this Jew, and he proclaimed justice over us. He called us to account for being complicit with those who are wealthy and those who are powerful and for abandoning the poor, ‘the least of these’ who Jesus said he had come to bring good news to. . . .
And lightning hit my heart in that moment. And I realized that we are evangelical Christians, that we believe the Bible. . . . And yet somehow, we commit to the mental gymnastics necessary [in interpreting scripture] that allows us to abandon ‘the least of these,’ to abandon the poor, to abandon the immigrants, to abandon those who are in prison.”
He said that when he heard Sanders he heard Jesus saying in the Gospel of Matthew that when you care for the most vulnerable, when you care for the little ones, you care for Jesus, for Jesus said, “When you have done it for the ‘least of these’, you have done it for me” (Matt. 25:40).
In contrast consider presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, professing Christian and former Southern Baptist minister. By all appearances Huckabee doesn’t seem to care for the little ones much at all, or for that matter any non-Christian minority, whereas the non-religious Jew Bernie Sanders seems to care a great deal.
So who best represents Jesus? Who best reflects the “name” (character, values, and work) of Jesus? Who is “for” what Jesus is for and who is “against” what Jesus is against? And what can we learn from this?