Some passages seem intended to make us puzzle out which way to go. That’s okay. Study and meditation are holy processes, and they often bring clarity.
Week by week I find I’m struck by what one might call the “texture” of Mark’s Gospel. There is a big difference between the sweeping big picture and the granular up-close view.
Mark, Big Picture
When I was in seminary, a British actor came to town — I don’t remember his name — to perform a one-man show of the Gospel of Mark. He had memorized the whole thing in the KJV, and he simply recited it to us from the stage, vividly, with interpretive skill.
I was blown away by by the way Mark held together as a story, as a piece of literature. Repeated terms were obvious, and themes and emphases bubbled up. It was a powerful experience.
Mark, Close Up
But stopping to look closely at each week’s lectionary passage has the opposite effect. Within almost every week’s reading there is more than one story. In passages where he teaches, things that I’ve always thought of as various examples of a particular topic turn out to be substantially, or at least partially, unrelated.
This week, the 26th Sunday in Ordinary time in Year B, the lectionary Gospel is Mark 9:38-50. It breaks down into three discrete chunks.
- Jesus discusses the fine points of recognizing supporters and opponents.
- Jesus discussed various aspects of “stumbling.”
- Jesus discusses the quality of “saltiness.”
1. Recognizing Supporters and Opponents
By the time we reach chapter nine, Jesus is enormously successful. Crowds regularly swarm him for healing as well as teaching. He’s known to cast out demons.
In this passage we get a window into an odd aspect of Jesus’ popularity and success: non-disciple exorcists have begun to invoke Jesus’ name to make demons leave.
Which is strange, you know? What would they say?
I don’t follow him, but by the power of Jesus begone!
The disciples tried to stop them.
Then the interesting thing happens: Jesus says to let the non-disciples go ahead and use his name.
It is explicitly self-protective: Jesus says that if someone uses his name for positive power, then that person won’t end up saying nasty things about him. (See verse 39.)
But it also grows from a similar root as last week’s text where accepting a child was functionally accepting Jesus and God.
For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.” (Mark 9:41)
This verse twists it around a bit:
- Jesus isn’t telling the disciples that they should accept someone else.
- Jesus is telling them about when they, the disciples are accepted and served.
How do you tell who’s on Jesus side?
This topic of spotting who is and isn’t on Jesus’ side deserves a small excursus into the other synoptic Gospels.
Here in Mark it is very positive.
Whoever is not against us is for us.” (Mark 9:40 NRSV)
Over in Matthew, however, the Lord seems more negative.
Whoever is not with me is against me…” (Matthew 12:30 NRSV)
But then in Luke he is maybe of two minds.
On the one hand,
…whoever is not against you is for you.” (Luke 9:50 NRSV)
But on the other hand,
Whoever is not with me is against me…” (Luke 11:23 NRSV)
At first glance it seems contradictory. There is, however a path out of the labyrinth.
The way of wisdom is always about discernment rather than rigidity. There are, famously, sayings in the Book of Proverbs that directly contradict each other. They are not absolute rules, to be followed blindly.
Wisdom calls you to live in the love and fear of God. Then, a changed and wiser person, you will know which proverb applies in your particular situation.
That applies here. But the Gospels, read in context, make it clear that Jesus is actually describing very different situations.
Those who see Jesus’ deeds and credit the devil
In Matthew 12;30 and Luke 11:23, Jesus is dealing with those who accuse him of working by the power of Satan. If you are so misguided that you think healing the sick and caring for the outcast is evil, well then you simply aren’t on Jesus’ side.
Those who do things like Jesus, but don’t follow
In Luke 9:50 and here in Mark 9:40, Jesus is dealing with people who do exactly the kinds of things he does. They are casting out demons, curing an oppressive evil. He’s happy to have his name used for that — even by non-believers.
So… take a look at the world, O Christian, and see who wants to increase access to medical care. See who would support the refugee. See who would feed the poor.
Criticize them at your peril. If you aren’t with him, you are against him.
So… take another look at the world, O Christian. See who doesn’t stand with you as a Christian — but who helps bring sanity to the demon possessed, who tries to remove evil from our midst. See who brings healing to the sick, and food to the poor, and welcome to the outcast.
Criticize them at your peril. If they aren’t against him they are for him.
2. The issue of “stumbling”
In verse 42 we are wanted against putting stumbling blocks before others, especially children.
Then, in an almost-but-not-quite-poetic litany we are warned to take extreme action if our hand (verse 43), our foot (verse 45), or our eye (verse 47) causes us to stumble.
It’s hyperbole, people.
Before you show up in the emergency room for trying to follow the advice of 43, 45, or 47, think hard about the crux of the argument:
This is all about what “causes” you to stumble.
When you fall into sin, it isn’t the fault of your poor hand, foot, or eye. They don’t cause you to stumble. You use them in the process of stumbling.
What causes the stumbling? That would be your thoughts.
Evagrius of Pontus, the theologian among the Desert Fathers, had a great deal to say about this. I started a series on this, long ago, and if there is interest I’ll get back to it.
The call in Jesus’ obvious (darkly humorous) hyperbole is that we need to take a good hard look at our thinking. Root out the thoughts that cause our stumbling. They lead us to use all of our parts the wrong way.
3. The quality of “saltiness”
The little series of assertions about salt at the end are, to my mind, clumped together and rather cryptic.
You’re gonna be “salted with fire,” he says, and that doesn’t sound good.
(Sounds like a weighty metaphor…)
On the other hand salt “is good,” but unlike in my pantry where sodium chloride remains shelf stable, he indicates salt might “lose its saltiness.”
(Clearly another weighty metaphor… and in a different direction.)
On the third hand (which would obviously make it awkward to find shirts that fit) we are supposed to “have salt in ourselves” while remaining at peace with others.
(Which is a third, and different, weighty metaphor).
Exploring those three versions of salt would be the work of another day. I suspect that each one might be a proverb of sorts, applicable to a different life context.
Were I to say more I’d start by exploring the variety of other uses of “salt” in Scripture, as well as looking for New Testament passages on fire, loss of liveliness, and the difficulties of maintaining peace.
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