Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 27, 2015

Mark 9:38-50 Commentary

Comments and Observations:

Unity is important in preaching and teaching.  We drill that message into our seminary students in preaching class.  We often refer to the mnemonic device devised by Paul Scott Wilson that can be remembered by the phrase “The Tiny Dog Is Now Mine.”  The first letter of each word in that phrase is part of a checklist to ensure sermon unity: in your sermons, we tell students, strive to have:

One Text

One Theme

One Doctrine

One Image

One Need

One Mission

If students fall down anywhere on this list it tends to be occasionally on the One Text rule (“Why did you spend half your sermon on Luke 19 discussing in great detail the raising of Lazarus in John 11 . . .?”) but much more commonly they fall down on the One Image part.  A single sermon does not need to try to make its point by spending time on the image of a rock and then of a parade and then of a fireworks display and then of a loaf of bread . . .

Thankfully, I am in no position to grade the words of our Lord.  Good thing, too, because in Mark 9 the list of images used in the span of only a few short verses becomes rather long rather fast: a cup of water, a millstone, cutting off feet and hands, gouging out eyeballs, a worm, a fire, salt.  Image-wise, this feels like trying to drink from a firehose!

What accounts for this torrent of words and images here?  What accounts for Jesus kind of going off here in this barrage of images, all of which trend in the direction of the severe?  Is Jesus getting a little frustrated here?  Frustration is no sin, so far as I can tell.  Frustration could lead to sin but emotion-wise it may be no different than feeling happy or sad, surprised or troubled.

In Mark 9, I suspect Jesus was getting frustrated.  What was it going to take to get some basic truths through the thick skulls of these disciples?  In the lection prior to this one in Mark 9:30-37, Jesus had to deal with the ludicrous spectacle of his disciples’ responding to yet another clear-as-a-bell prediction from him that he was going to suffer and die with an argument about which of the disciples was “the greatest.”  So in language that was equally clear as a bell, Jesus sat the disciples down to tell them that their perspective was upside-down when it came to the kingdom of God.  Servants were the great ones.  Losers were the winners.  To further provide an object lesson, Jesus gives what was quite literally a “Children’s Sermon” by grabbing a little child from among the little kids that were apparently in the place where they were staying and then holding up that lowly little loser (since that’s how society viewed children back then) as their role model.

Then, as though he had not heard a word Jesus had said, John breaks in to say, “OK, fine, that’s nice.  But listen, Teacher, we saw someone today who is not even in our little club here driving out demons by invoking your name.  And I think you’ll be quite pleased to know, Jesus, that we put the kibosh on that immediately.  No “Members Only” discipleship gold card, no exorcisms!”

The Bible never supplies adverbs for us so we don’t know how Jesus said his next line of “Do not stop him.”  A saccharine-infused piety would lead one to read that line as though Jesus were speaking in the vacant-stare monotone you usually see in all those movies that are made about Jesus.  But I rather think that before Jesus spoke that line, first his jaw dropped to the floor before he managed to sputter in exasperation, “Do not stop him, for pity sake!  Anybody who believes in me enough to know my name can deliver a knockout punch to demons is a friend of ours and of mine.  He’s not taking my name in vain, he’s using my name to take it to the demons and unless you’re of the opinion that leaving the demons alone is a good idea, let these people carry on with their work, which is at the end of the day also MY work!”

By now I imagine the disciples had drawn back a bit at the vehemence of Jesus’ response.  But there was something about the way they were looking at Jesus that told him they still weren’t quite buying what he was selling, either.  So in frustration Jesus goes for broke and lets loose with a string of images so grotesque, so over the top, that he is pretty sure these slow-witted disciples won’t fail to grasp his point this time.

“Look,” Jesus says with incredulity rising in his voice, “you simply must start to straighten up and fly right.  Stop competing with one another.  Stop wanting to arrogate all the glory to yourselves.  Stop building up walls by which to protect your own turf.  You simply have to shed anything that is keeping you from reveling in the kingdom of grace I’ve been talking about for a long time now.  And I really mean it!  Get rid of whatever is in the way: hands, feet, eyeballs.  Chop ‘em off, gouge ‘em out!  Better maimed than full of undying worms and unquenchable fire!”

In the land of the nearly blind, you need to draw really big caricatures, Flannery O’Connor once observed.  That’s what Jesus does here and you have to wonder whether this band of disciples got the point even so (looking ahead a bit into the next chapter, the picture is not real bright on this front!).  I guess this is why also we preachers 2,000 years later can have a firm sense of job security.  Apparently, you can never repeat the core truths of the gospel too often.  It takes a while to sink in.

But as we preach on this text 2,000 years later, let’s also be clear about another thing: if the people who were literally closest to Jesus had this much trouble grasping the core of the Gospel and its most basic dynamic of humility and sacrifice, why should anyone even today assume they have the Gospel both cased and fully embodied?  Optimistically we could hope that with two millennia’s worth of reflection on the teachings of Jesus we today would have a much better shot at understanding it all than those for whom it was all so new and so bracingly different than they had expected.

But unless someone can convince you that our human tendency to clutch and claw for the limelight has abated in the heart of every person to whom you preach, it may be best not to assume too much and to take a cue from our Lord in Mark 9: preaching should not be tidy and safe and predictable today any more than the words of Jesus fit into any of that way back when.  In the land of the nearly blind also today, sometimes we preachers need to sketch some mighty big caricatures (and accept the fact that many just are not going to care for that one little bit).

Textual Points:

Jesus evokes Isaiah 66 in Mark 9:48 and in so doing, he did not bring to people’s minds the cheeriest of biblical verses or prophecies.  Although Isaiah 66 contains a lot of lyric imagery about Israel’s return to a New Jerusalem one day—a day in which the Lord God would settle his renewed people in a blissful form of shalom forever—that same chapter says that once the people are nestled down into all that shalom and goodness, they will nevertheless have the chance to look out over a vast field filled with the decaying bodies of all the rebellious nations and peoples whom God put to death.  As the curtain comes down on Isaiah, the last line is “And they will go out and look upon the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; their worm will not die, nor will their fire be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind.”

A cheery way to close a book it wasn’t!  But this dismal last verse of Isaiah is what Jesus quotes in Mark 9:48.  Apparently the alternative to being in God’s kingdom was a truly grim fate. But then Jesus says that everyone will be “salted with fire,” which is a hard line to make sense of in that theologically fire and salt are usually opposites.  To say “salted with fire” is a little like saying you are going to water your grass with oil.  Since there is more than a hint of a purification in this line of verse 49, it’s clear that this “fire” is not the same “fire” from the Isaiah quote.  Those who are NOT purified with eschatological fire will end up in the wormy place of unquenchable fire.  But there is another fire—a baptizing fire—that leads not to eternal death but life.

If Gehenna is the place of undying fires and grotesque consuming worms, the kingdom is to be full of light, goodness, and life-affirming patterns of thinking and being and behaving.  Connecting this with the earlier image about giving out cups of cold water in Jesus’ name, we could assert that everything that happens in the kingdom in the name of Christ Jesus will be full of life, full of joy, redolent of shalom.

Illustration Idea:

I once met a man who had read Mark 9, recognized his proclivity to lust after pretty women by looking at them with his eyes, and who then proceeded to take a knife and gouge out his right eye.  I met this man on a psych ward where I once worked and not surprisingly, he was just generally a victim of a raging schizophrenia.  But that would be the setting where we’d all expect to meet up with any woman or man who had hacked off a hand, a foot, or taken out an eye on account of Jesus’ words in Mark 9 (even as I once met another person who necessitated a confiscation of all the Bibles on the psych ward on account of his having taken rather literally the Bible’s call to “feast on the Word of God.”  Yes, he’d eat the Bibles.)  Words as grotesquely over-the-top as what we find Jesus saying here in Mark 9 are clearly not meant to be taken literally and only someone in the thrall of the devil or of a severe mental disorder that the devil was exploiting (or of a severe mental disorder whether or not you want to invoke demonic influence) would go out and do literally what Jesus says.

There is truth to that, of course, but I sometimes wonder if precisely because of all that we do not sometimes write off that part of Mark 9 as having really no application to us at all.  We all know what these words do not mean but we don’t often spend a lot of time wondering what they do mean.  But the grotesque extremes to which these words could lead some sad folks are no excuse for the rest of us to wonder if the proper understanding of the radical demands of this passage are or are not present in our own hearts.

Jesus is calling for total commitment here.  Spiritually the words and ideas in Mark 9 call us all up short.  We won’t get ourselves off the hook by waving it off as just a metaphor that, for goodness sake, we’re best off not pondering too long lest someone do something terrible to themselves!


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