Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 26, 2021
Mark 9:38-50 Commentary
It seems that the deflecting from discomfort that we saw last week is continuing this week. Though it may not seem like it at a first read through, Mark has placed this set of sayings here for a reason.
Instead of the usual suspect, Peter, it’s John who speaks up this time. It could be that John is trying to get the disciples out of trouble by getting someone else in trouble… But I think that, given what we’ve been reading over these last few weeks, there’s a deeper weed that Jesus is still working on pulling out from among them: this tendency towards exclusion.
Even though Jesus has just used the word “welcome” four times in one sentence, telling the disciples that when they welcome someone without status into their midst they are welcoming him and God, John double checks: “there are still some who are out, though, right?”
We can appreciate this thinking. John’s talking about people who are going around and casting out demons and using the name of the Christ to do it. Our guard goes up with John—are they grifters? They weren’t part of the crew that Jesus commissioned earlier in the gospel, so they don’t have the right credentials, do they?
But yet again, like when they were arguing about who was the greatest in order to distract themselves from the fear of what Jesus was telling them about his impending suffering, their fear is showing. And this time, we see that they weren’t just distracting themselves with talks of greatness: they want to be great. The cat’s out of the bag as soon as John says, “We tried to stop him because he was not following us.”
John didn’t say, “because he was not following you, Jesus.” Nope, it was because he wasn’t following “us.” We can give John the benefit of the doubt that Jesus was at least included in the us… but even still, in their own minds, the disciples have lumped themselves with Jesus in terms of authority and leadership. Idolatry alert!
The disciples wanted to still have exclusions (a human disposition, it seems). Excluding others requires reasons, and behind those reasons is usually some sort of feeling of superiority. We see that we haven’t left the object lesson about the little child from verses 36-37 after all.
Jesus addresses their concern about the person who is not “with them” but is using Jesus’ name to deliver and heal people. He basically says, “I’ll take care of it, as necessary. But if they are doing good for people, don’t stand in their way.” Mark his words, to call upon the Lord (use his name), then be used by the Lord (as part of a miracle) will affect a person. We know from the rest of the New Testament that the filling of the Holy Spirit happens for short-term moments as well as permanently, and that an encounter with God and God’s glory is not able to be ignored. So, if someone doesn’t realize what they’re doing, they will soon enough be helped by God in figuring it out…
This question feels quite alive today. There are a lot of people who are using the banner of Christianity to their advantage, and in ways that seem so very contrary to the message of the gospel and the kingdom of God. Jesus’ words here tell us to trust that their comeuppance will come. And as we decide how to respond, associate, or denounce, Jesus’ words point us to the fruit of their work: are they helping people, or are they jockeying for power? If we take Jesus’ words here seriously, he’s not talking about people who “help” others know their sin, but people who give someone a glass of water: meeting real needs, right now.
“Helping” people know their sins and why they shouldn’t belong is the work of exclusion based on one’s perceived power. Overall, in this little conversational foray into how Jesus’ name is used—either in welcoming or in excluding, in service of others or as a way of shoring up exclusionary power—we see that the disciples are just like so many of the other religious leaders we’ve encountered in the gospel: in need of repentance. R.T. France frames Jesus’ words as invitation: “The effect of the pericope is to encourage a welcoming openness on the part of Jesus’ disciples which is in stark contrast to the protective exclusiveness more often associated with religious groups.” (The Gospel of Mark, p. 376) In other words, there’s still time for them (and us) to change!
Jesus starts them on that road of change by spending more time to responding to the heart issue than the presenting concern. Like he did with the Pharisees and the crowd regarding the source of true purity in Mark 7, Jesus lays out for his disciples that the sin they need to concern themselves with is their own. He does so by framing it as causing others and themselves stumble.
This section of Jesus’ teachings is a great example of how all of the law and the prophets hang on just two commands: Love God and love your neighbour as yourself.
Jesus starts with the thread of who we welcome, our neighbours. When we set up exclusions that keep people from God, we bring judgement upon ourselves. (Millstones were actual methods of judgement at the time, a death sentence.) Of course, we know that God is all-powerful and will gather his children to himself—we can’t actually stop God from communing with his people. But the sin is found in what we are communicating about God and our place in a pecking order that we’ve made up. By saying that others cannot belong in the way we think we belong, we are saying that we decide a person’s value, not God. Idolatry alert! Jesus says, so very starkly, “It is better if you would die a suffering and scary death than to tell someone who believes in me that they cannot be part of the fellowship of believers.”
How easy to forget that we are all people “on the way,” equal in the sight of God. When we don’t respect one another, impede one another’s communion with God, we’ve placed a stumbling block in front of them: ourselves. We step in as mediator between them and God, a role that belongs only to Christ. That stumbling block is our own pride and attempts at playing God. To use John’s words, “The people who don’t follow us in the way we follow Jesus, they don’t belong!” Idolatry alert!
Then Jesus quickly pivots to a whole slew of hyperbolic commands about cutting out the parts of their lives causing them to stumble all on their own. Here is where we see the command to love God at work. Remember that Jesus, in Mark 8.34-36, told them that in order to save their lives they’d have to lose it… here we see him return to the concept of ruining their lives now in order to gain eternity.
In turn, Jesus says to remove hands, feet, and eyes if they are leading us on the road to Gehenna, the place of punishment. He juxtaposes two kinds of fire: one that consumes and destroys all of you, and one that consumes and destroys parts of you in order to purify you—like salt does. (Salt served three purposes at the time: as a preservative, a cleansing agent and for flavouring; each has symbolic significance in this passage.) What Jesus is trying to get across to them is that they have been so focused on excluding others that they have lost sight of the things that exclude them!
By using hyperbole, (Jesus doesn’t want them to literally cut off their body parts) Jesus is attempting to grab their attention and shake them loose from their set way of thinking about these things. Focusing on externals, especially the externals of others, leads to the idolatrous act of thinking of ourselves as God. And this, in turn, usually leads to a pattern of becoming blind to our own sin and shortcomings. If we stopped and practiced some self-examination, we risk jeopardizing our feelings of superiority and we’ll likely be confronted with our idolatry—that we love ourselves more than we love God.
But being purified is good, Jesus says to them at the end of our passage this week. Suffering a little now for the sake of becoming more like God, instead of trying to be God, giving up the things (sin) that don’t belong to God now so that we might begin to experience the joys of heaven even in this life, this is what it means to lose our lives in order to gain it. To love God by “having salt” (a command in the present tense to purify ourselves—including of the practice of telling others they don’t belong), and to love our neighbours by “being at peace” with one another (another command in the present tense).
This is, of course, a welcoming stance built on trust that those who call upon the name of the Lord for justification of their actions (whether for their own gain or in service to others) will meet God and answer for their use of his name. If only we could stop building walls, one stumbling block at a time…
Reading through these verses as a unit can be a real head scratcher—how does it all relate? In fact, consensus seems to be that this section, especially verses 42-50, were a set of sayings that were placed together because of the repetitive words (thereby making it easier to memorize). There are versions of these commands in Matthew and Luke as well, but each instance happens in different contexts. What is the same in each version, however, is that Jesus speaks in hyperbole: he does not mean anyone to literally cut off their hands or feet, etc. What he really wants is for us to take very seriously what he is explaining to us: the stakes are HIGH.
As mentioned above, Jesus describes two kinds of fires: one that consumes and one that purifies or cleanses. It’s like when firefighters set a controlled or prescribed burn in order to stop or limit the destruction of a wildfire. Using fire to fight fire, the idea is to reduce the material that serves as fuel for the wildfire. This is essentially Jesus’ advice for avoiding causing ourselves to stumble with sin: give our temptations less to work with, otherwise, our temptations will come to rule and consume all of us. This advice also harkens back to Jesus’ comments about discipleship and following him; to save our lives, we have to “ruin” or lose them. Just like with controlled burns, we have to give up some parts to death in order to preserve much greater life. We have to suffer losing some things that give us momentary excitement, bliss, distraction from pain, superiority, or whatever else drives us to sin, in order to begin to experience the riches of his grace—and a much deeper, sustaining satisfaction.
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