Conrad Gempf: 5th Sparrow

January 2002
For or against?
Previous 5th Sparrows

Comment on this column SOMETIMES IT LOOKS as though the Gospels disagree with each other. Here's one where Luke seems to contradict himself:

In Luke 9:50, Jesus says, "For whoever is not against you is for you," which must mean that anyone who isn't an out-and-out enemy is an ally of sorts. The undeclared are numbered with the good guys.

But Luke 11:23 has Jesus say, "He who is not with me is against me," which makes it sound like anyone who isn't committed to being on Jesus' side is an enemy. The undeclared are numbered with the bad guys.

It can't be both, can it? Well, actually, this time at least, it can. The "for" and "against" aspect isn't the only difference between the two; there's also the small matter of the pronoun. The first one is about the believers, the second is about Jesus himself.

The contexts of the sayings reinforce that important difference. In the second of the passages, Jesus has performed an exorcism and is confronted by some people who are suspicious and believe him to be in league with demons. The passage is about what side Jesus is on and who is with him. Those who aren't with HIM have to be counted as against him.

In the first passage, however, the context is that of the disciples asserting their authority: someone else is doing great deeds and they've tried to stop it. This is a message about the church, not about Jesus. If they're not against YOU they're for you.

As long as you're able to see a difference between Jesus and his followers, there's no contradiction. The Gospels are clear that there is a judgment coming, based on allegiance to him. But in the meantime, we're warned against judgmentalism now.

There are some people who call themselves Christians doing some outrageous things and others doing some really embarrassing things. Only Jesus knows whether they're for him or against him; meantime it's pretty clear that they're not against us. Shake your head and laugh if you must, but count them among the good guys.

Dr Conrad Gempf is a lecturer in New Testament at London Bible College. He also writes for and edits the monthly webzine there.

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