Jesus: “Not Against You = For You” or “Not With Me = Against Me”?

This has confused me for a long time. In two stories, only pages apart, Jesus seems to contradict himself. First this happens:

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 the one who is not against you is for you.”

-Luke 9:49-50

Yet, this happens just two chapters later:

Now he was casting out a demon that was mute. When the demon had gone out, the mute man spoke, and the people marveled. But some of them said, “He casts out demons by Beelzebul, the prince of demons,” while others, to test him, kept seeking from him a sign from heaven. But he, knowing their thoughts, said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and a divided household falls. And if Satan also is divided against himself, how will his kingdom stand? For you say that I cast out demons by Beelzebul. And if I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges. But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own palace, his goods are safe; but when one stronger than he attacks him and overcomes him, he takes away his armor in which he trusted and divides his spoil. Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.

-Luke 11:14-23

So, which is it Jesus? Are those who are not against you with you? Are those not with you against you? The neutral person thought he was neither for nor against Jesus, but Jesus seems to think of him as somehow both for and against. You can see why I’ve been confused.

However, as I was reading chapter 11 this morning, something new became clear: In chapter 9, Jesus is talking to disciples who need to be rebuked for excluding genuine partners, and he rebukes them for excluding genuine partners. In chapter 11, Jesus is talking to opponents who need to be warned that their rejection of him does not go unnoticed, and he warns them that their rejection of him does not go unnoticed.

Because Jesus says both things, we, as Jesus’ followers, shouldn’t choose one to the exclusion of the other as our mantra. We shouldn’t choose the “open” understanding of the Church–the one who is not against you is for you–and forget the latter. We shouldn’t choose the “closed” understanding of the Church–whoever is not with me is against me–and forget the former.

The best we can probably do is remember, on the one hand, that Jesus told the world, “whoever is not with me is against me.” This remains true, soberingly so. On the other hand, we must also remember that Jesus told his disciples (that is, us), “the one who is not against you is for you“–probably because, like John, we are faulty judges of who is for and against Jesus. Jesus himself is a perfect judge of who is for and against him, and it will matter in the end. However: In this age, as we are not, we should err toward generosity (while believing that the truth will be shown in the end), knowing it is not our right or responsibility to make the call today.


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