It's a fact of human nature that we often think of others in terms of what positive qualities they lack, rather than in terms of the positive qualities they actually have. Sometimes we make this worse by doing the exact opposite when it comes to ourselves, ignoring our own faults, and then comparing our estimation of others with that of ourselves.
It's what the disciples do in today's gospel. We are presented with the disciples reporting to Jesus the activity of some unknown man who is casting out devils in his name. He could be a follower of Christ who has proceeded to bring the Good News to others.
On the other hand, he could be someone who is not really a follower of Christ, but who uses Christ's name in exorcisms. If so, whatever faith he has is unformed but he has taken a small step. And that he successfully exorcises indicates the activity of God in his actions. What is clear is that he is not one of the disciples and they want to exclude him.
Of course, you might say that the disciples are realistic: you need to have some conditions for discipleship, otherwise discipleship would be meaningless. That is true. But Mark is not focusing on this aspect in today's gospel. We see this because in his account the disciples do not say to Jesus:
and because he was not one of your followers we tried to stop him.
Instead, they say:
because he was not one of us .
What they object to is that the unknown exorcist is not one of their group, and not that he is not a full disciple of Christ. In their eyes they have become the standard by which discipleship is measured and the call of Christ is effectively sidelined. They have concentrated on what the man is not, and not the fact that he successfully exorcises in Christ's name.
This is despite the fact that only a little earlier in the same chapter it is the disciples who are unable to exorcise a demon from a young boy. So, we have here the irony that if we apply the disciples' exclusionary approach to themselves then it is they who deserve to be excluded. Unlike the unknown man, it is they who are unable to exorcise in Christ's name.
By setting up their own standards they can blissfully ignore their own faults and feel righteous. However, there is a further catch: by trying to exclude the exorcist they show their misunderstanding of Christ's message, and so they merit their own exclusion all the more.
This is not something peculiar to the disciples. It can happen in our Christian communities or in any group situation and we should be aware of it, remembering that inasmuch as we try to exclude others unfairly from Christ, we exclude ourselves. Thankfully, this is not the last word because, although we are often exclusionary, God is not.
Today's gospel therefore confronts any presumption we may have to superiority, challenging us to find the good qualities in others rather than the negative. This may mean having to give up feelings of self-righteousness and superiority which we all love so very dear. It is a serious business because these feelings and the behaviour they lead to undermine faith through forms of exclusion, subtle or otherwise.
Jesus makes this point very strongly indeed:
But anyone who is an obstacle to bring down one of these little ones who have faith, would be better thrown into the sea with a great millstone round his neck.
How do you read this? Do you take this as a warning? It is a warning, of course, not to harm the little ones. But it is more than that. You see, the warning may be addressed to you and to me, but it is also possible that we are 'little ones'. You may or may not see yourself as a 'little one' needing protection, but neither did the disciples even though their behaviour showed them to be very little indeed.
They misjudged the exorcist and they misjudged themselves. Personally, I think we are all little ones to a greater or lesser degree and the less we see it the more little we are.
This strong warning remains a warning, but it also gives comfort. It gives comfort because it means that our salvation and well-being are to be protected because we little ones matter very much to God. We are therefore to be protectors, while recognising that we ourselves also need protection and so the simple categories we construct of 'them' and 'us' break down before our own weaknesses and the love of Christ.