The Sunday lectionary gospel reading for Trinity 17 in Year B is Mark 9.38–50. It is a rather unusual reading; it completes the collection of sayings that we began last week, and there is some continuity across the two passages; and it does belong (as we noted last week) to a section of teachings of Jesus in between narrative sections. But within the passage itself, there is a distinct lack of continuity; we find here none of the careful narrative composition that we have seen elsewhere in Mark as we have gone through the lectionary year.
Instead, the links between different sayings (which come in quite different places in Luke and Matthew, where they do occur) depend on repetition of words, even when these words signify something slightly different from one saying to the next. This kind of linking might seem rather odd to us; it is probably the best way to understand the shape of the Letter of James, which overall also lacks a clear sense of progression, but moves from one subject to the next by means of such word links. We do see it, though, in the contemporary example of some stand-up comics, particularly those who specialise in one-liners. Sections of their set will often have no logical continuity, but depend on word links as they move from one subject to the next. Can we think of this as Jesus (at least in the mind’s eye of Mark) doing a stand-up set on the importance of the kingdom?!
If there is a theme, perhaps it is this: the business of the kingdom is serious, and should be taken seriously. This should not lead to an anxious or controlling concern for tight boundaries around community identity, but rather the opposite. We need to take seriously even the beginning signs of fragile faith in Jesus, nurturing and protecting it in ourselves and in others because it is so important and so precious.
These [trials of many kinds] have come so that your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed (1 Peter 1.7).
The first unit of text comprises verses 38 to 40, and concerns the response to a rival exorcist. This is the only place in this gospel—or, as far as I can see, any gospel—where John acts or is referred to alone. And it does not look good. Perhaps his impetuous and defensive behaviour is the reason that Jesus gives him (with his brother) the nick-name ‘Son of Thunder’ (Mark 3.17).
Although the subject matter has shifted, the connection with the previous passage is in the phrase ‘in my/your name’ (verses 37, 38, 39). Near contemporary sources to the New Testament tell us about the practice of exorcism in both Jewish and pagan contexts—though the frequency and extent of this does not match what is recorded in the gospels of Jesus. It seems to be a distinctive practice of his in relation the coming of the kingdom, to which it is nearly always related.
There is a fascinating dynamic in John’s objection, as he relates it to Jesus. On the one hand, the man appears to be acting ‘in Jesus’ name’, and therefore drawing on his authority. On the other, John complains that ‘he was not following us’. The verb here, akoloutheo, (from which we get the term ‘acolyte’ for one who follows) is consistently used of discipleship—indeed, it is the key term in that pivotal passage in Mark 8.34. But it is otherwise only ever used of Jesus; he alone is the one to be followed, and John has made the mistake of thinking that following Jesus is about belonging to a particular group, even when that group is closely identified with Jesus himself.
The phrase in Jesus’ reply is interesting and unexpected, being framed as a double negative. Anyone who exercises spiritual power in Jesus’ name will not be able to speak negatively of Jesus. It reminds me of Paul’s identification of the presence of the of the Spirit with the affirmation of Jesus’ lordship (1 Cor 12.3), not least because exorcism is one of the works of power effected by the presence of the Spirit (Matt 12.28).
Jesus’ rejection of John’s objection is a standing rebuke to anyone who would replace loyalty to Jesus with identification with a particular group or institution. It cuts the theological ground from under the whole notion of ‘denomination’; the ekklesia of God consists of those who follow Jesus, no more and no less.
Characteristically, Jesus concludes a discussion and explanation with a summary apothegm, something worth bearing in mind in our own preaching. In most English versions it is expressed as a direct parallelism: ‘Whoever is not against us is for us’, but in Greek Jesus inverts the second phrase, forming an even more memorable chiasm: ‘For whoever is not against us, for us is’. (I think it is rendered this way in the Bible According to Yoda…)
Much has been made of the apparent contradiction between this and the logically opposite saying in Matt 12.30 ‘Whoever is not with me is against me’. ‘Each excludes any middle ground, but the Matthean formula sounds exclusive and dismissive, the Marcan inclusive and welcoming’ (France, NIGTC, p 377). France notes that both sayings are paralleled in Cicero’s words to Caesar (Pro Ligario 11): ‘We have often heard you say that while we reckon everyone as enemies except those who are with us, you yourself count all those who are not against you as on your side.’ There is some pastoral wisdom in reflecting which saying fits our attitude most accurately…
But the context of the two sayings is quite different. In Matthew, Jesus’ own ministry of exorcism is attributed to Satan; those who oppose Jesus’ own ministry are opposed to God’s purposes and put themselves beyond the possibility of forgiveness. By contrast, this man is acting in Jesus’ name, and is drawing on his power. Although the one occurs in Mark, and the other in Matthew, Luke includes them both (Luke 9.49; Luke 11.23) so clearly did not think them contradictory.
Jesus’ second apothegm, which closes this section, is fascinating for several reasons. In contemporary culture, to offer someone a cup of cold water is an act of basic kindness, especially in hot weather, though we might want to offer something more substantial if we were really concerned about them. But in first century Israel, cold water was not on tap; to find it, you would need a well, a stream, or a cistern. Offering cold water required a deliberate dedication of time and effort. Simple acts of kindness reveal the disposition of our heart.
This is the only place in the gospel where Jesus uses the title ‘Christ’ to refer to himself. We might conclude that this is Mark recasting Jesus’ words in a way more relevant to his own audience—though Jesus does use the term ‘objectively’ in Mark 12.35 and 13.21, and has accepted Peter’s attribution of it to him a chapter earlier, so it is not completely out of place.
But the real challenge is what it says about those who are sympathetic to the disciples because of their identification with Jesus. It follows the same logic as the ‘parable’ of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25, where those who respond to ‘the least of these my brethren’ (the disciples, who because of their faithfulness to Jesus will often be hungry, thirsty, sick and imprisoned, strangers and in need of welcome and succour) are, by proxy, responding to Jesus himself. This saying is thus another way of expressing the previous maxim ‘Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me’; and if people’s standing before God is, in some way, determined by their response to us as disciples of Jesus, we had better start looking more like Jesus.
The next collection of sayings begins by linking the previous two sections. The phrase ‘these little ones’ immediately refers back to those sympathisers identifying with the disciples, but looks further back to the language of the child, a literal ‘little one’, in verses 36–37. This is Marks’ only use of mikroi to denote the disciples, though Matthew uses it repeatedly, and includes the two sayings (receiving a child, causing little ones to sin) in one combination saying in Matt 18.5–6.
It is curious that English translations render the phrase here, ’causes one of these…to sin’, harmonising it with the verses that follow on from this saying in Luke 17.3. The term here is in fact skandalizo, which has much more of a sense of stumbling or taking offence—and the same term is repeated in the following verse, directed not at causing others, but at things that cause us to stumble. It is the term used of the disciples’ failure in Mark 14.27 and 29.
The active use in the present context is best understood of one who causes such a failure on the part of others, who trips or disables another’s discipleship (France, NIGTC, p 380).
So the question here is: what might we do to cause others to fail to be faithful? What am I doing to weaken my own walk with the Lord? ‘Danger comes to the disciple not only from outside but from within’ (France).
In all these examples, Jesus is deploying characteristic hyperbole. The ‘millstone’ is a μύλος ὀνικος, a ‘millstone of a donkey’, that is, the large flat stones turned by a donkey pulling it around, rather than the smaller ones that can be turned by hand. The idea of lifting it and slinging it around someone’s neck is off course absurd—as is the idea of amputating part of our bodies in order to avoid stumbling. The power of the metaphor is to note that our walk of discipleship is both costly and precious; there are many things we might need to sacrifice in order to ‘seek first’, above all these other things, the kingdom of God.
(This verse was gruesomely taken literally in the 1963 schlock horror movie The Man with X-ray Eyes, in which the main character could not bear to see the evil all around him once he could see into people’s lives.)
Jesus’ mention of γέεννα, Gehenna or Ge Hinnom, misleadingly translated ‘hell’, is an allusion to the rubbish dump outside the walls of Jerusalem, on the southern side, where rubbish would smoulder in the hot summers of the Middle East. Rubbish there would also decompose, which might give rise to the mention of ‘their worm does not die’—though the pairing of fire with worms more likely derives from the judgement scene in Is 66.24.
Christians who disparage ‘hell-fire preaching’ must face the awkward fact that Mark’s Jesus (and still more Matthew’s and Luke’s) envisaged an ultimate separation between life and γέεννα which demanded the most drastic renunciation in order to avoid the unquenchable fire, and that he did not regard even his disciples as immune from the need to examine themselves and take appropriate action (France, NIGTC, 383).
The final section of our readings consists of three sayings which appear unrelated, except for the verbal links. The first of these picks up the previous language of fire, and adds salt; we then have the saying about disciples being ‘salty’, parallel with Matt 5.13 but stripped of its wider context; and finally a saying about salty relationships within the community.
The brief and enigmatic four-word saying (Πᾶς γαρ πυρι ἁλισθήσεται) occurs nowhere in the other gospels. The difficulty with its interpretation lies in the wide range of meanings of salt in ancient culture. Perhaps the best reading comes from noting the connection between salt and sacrifice, together with ritual and moral purity, found in Lev 2.13, Ezra 6.9, 7.22, and Ezek 43.24. To follow Jesus is to live a life of sacrificial purity following his own example.
The idea of salt ‘losing its saltiness’ seems rather odd to modern ears, since we are accustomed to using pure salt. Most salt in the ancient world—such as that quarried from the Dead Sea—was in fact a mixture of minerals, with salt being only one. Thus it would be possible for the salt to have been dissolved out, leaving only other mineral particles which offer none of benefits of salt. But, as someone has commented, Jesus is here wanting to give us a lesson on discipleship, not a lesson on chemistry! The absurdity of salt not being salty is only surpassed by the absurdity of a disciple of Jesus who no longer offers a distinctive, appealing and life-enhancing contribution to the world around him or her.
Part of our purity and sacrifice carries over into relationships within the body. Are we concerned to keep short accounts? Will we sacrifice for the sake of others in order to maintain the unity of the body in the bond of peace? Salt can symbolise a covenant commitment (Lev 2.13, Num 18.19, 2 Chron 13.5), perhaps because of its value. Are we willing to invest in relationships with our sisters in brothers in Christ, even if they are very different from us, because of the precious covenant that is ours in Jesus?
In preaching on all these issues, the challenge for us is to make these demanding sayings a word of grace. And we need to return to the opening lesson: the value of faith and the demands of the life of discipleship mean that we need to include all those on the periphery, to draw them into fellowship, rather than erecting unnecessary barriers. What matters is not whether anyone is following us, but whether we and they together are following Jesus.