39. Mark 9:33-50: Life Together
I borrow the title “Life Together” for this section from Larry Hurtado who observes that it begins with the disciples arguing with each other (v.34) and closes with an admonition for them to be at peace thus bracketing this section as communal relations.
Jesus notices the disciples talking among each other on the way to Capernaum. They probably cast furtive glances in his direction from time to time. He knew something was up. “What were you all talking about on the road?” he asks. No response. But Jesus knew they were trying to one-up each for top-billing in this New Exodus movement. He kills that one with a shot right between the eyes: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all (v.35).”
This shocking reversal of all cultural shibboleths and common-sense notions of appropriate behavior is too well-known and surrounded with rationalizations and reasons that Jesus can’t be taken seriously for us to feel its astonishing force. But it remains the truth: in a “Looking out for #1” world, Jesus says this is not the way, not his way.
To reinforce this truth Jesus calls a child and has them stand in the midst of the twelve. Now this too has been surrounded with sentimentalizing mystifications about the innocence or defenselessness or cuteness of children so that when Jesus bids us welcome them we feel a certain rightness about it. But that does not comport well with what the first saying enjoins on us: to be the last and servant of all.
“The distinctive thing about children was their lack of any rights. A father could put a newborn outside to starve to death if he had wanted a boy and got a girl or if the baby seemed weak or handicapped. Children existed for the benefit of their parents—really of their fathers. In the Aramaic that Jesus was presumably speaking, the same word (talya) can mean either “child” or “servant.” Welcoming children means helping the most vulnerable. Jesus is thus not urging childishness in any form on his disciples but telling them to stop competing about who will make the top and make sure they care for those on the bottom” (Placher, Mark:2700-2701).
That means, to put it as provocatively as I can, to welcome the “undeserving” poor, the illegal immigrant, the hungry, homeless, drug-addicted, powerless, the lonely and loners, the unlikeable, those who can’t or won’t help themselves, and (you fill in the blank), is welcome Jesus and his Father!
Why we don’t and don’t want to assume this posture is the place this story rubs most of us. And well it should! So let the truth of this text sting today and prod you and I for the reasons we withhold ourselves from him in this most fundamental of ways, the downward nobility embodied by Jesus Christ himself.
Not only were the disciples trying to one-up each other, they wanted to keep their movement (“he was not following us,” v.39) pure too. Not Jesus’ movement, their movement. Another exorcist is working in the area casting out demons in Jesus’ name. John takes umbrage and tells Jesus they tried to stop him because he wasn’t a part of their disciple group.
Jesus upbraids them by saying that others who do good works in his name are to left to their labors. “For no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me” (v.39). Wright is correct, I think, to see this not as a matter of being inclusive or exclusive in a general sense, but of not realizing there is a battle going on (the New Exodus) and they need all the allies they can find. No one working in Jesus’ name is against him but rather for him (v.40). We can ill afford to neglect or reject others working for Jesus in the midst of the struggle he has called us to join.
9:42-48 (vv.44 and 46 are missing from the best manuscripts of Mark)
Next Jesus warns against harm to “little ones who believe in me” (v.42). The harm he intends by using the verb skandalisē, “put a stumbling block before” is to cause someone to abandon the faith (Boring, Mark:7982-7983). The extremity of the images Jesus uses here makes this clear. The “little child” of the first section has morphed into an image of the Christian community.
Everyone takes the images of drowning oneself in the sea and bodily mutilation as hyperbolic and not literal counsel. That we are dealing with Christians influencing other Christians is clear by Jesus admonishing the scandalizers that it is better to enter the Kingdom of God maimed than to be cast into “Gehenna” (vv.43,45,47). In Mark’s New Exodus imagery the scandalizers are serving the cause of the enemy rather the forces of Jesus.
Gehenna is not hell in a traditional sense.
“Gehenna was a valley south of Jerusalem where in ancient times babies were sacrificed to the Canaanite god Moloch. In the reforms under King Josiah (7th century BCE) such practices were brought to an end, and the area became a garbage dump, where refuse was continually smoldering. Gehenna was a horrible place, full of fire, smells, maggots, rats, and things in decay. Its history as a locus of child sacrifice further evokes the context here, where Jesus is singling out for condemnation those who “put a stumbling block before” or “trip up” any of the “little ones who believe in me” (Placher, Mark:2739-2743).
It was the place of historical punishment for disobedient Israel in its career as God’s people (see Jer. 7:32; 2 Kgs. 23:10; Jer. 7:31,33 19:7-8). Further, the 1st century Jewish historian Josephus describes the Roman siege on Jerusalem in just such terms. Therefore, I believe that “when Jesus speaks of unrighteous Jews being thrown into the “Gehenna of fire”, what he has in mind is not eternal punishment in a post mortem “hell”, as traditionally understood, but judgment on Israel in the manner imagined by Isaiah and Jeremiah” (Andrew Perriman, “Was Gehenna a burning rubbish dump, and does it matter?” at http://www.postost.net/2015/11/was-gehenna-burning-rubbish-dump-does-it-matter).
This means that Jesus is not thinking about eternal destinies here, but rather the consequences of continued disobedience on the part of the Jews. This judgment was meted out in the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 a.d. Those who subvert the faith of Jesus’ followers received this treatment.
These curious sayings about “salt” conclude this section. “For everyone will be salted with fire.” The best guide for interpreting this may be the early marginal interpretation by a copyist that took it as a reference to persecution.
Under persecution it is essential that the “salt” remain salty. That is, Jesus’ followers must retain their distinctiveness as his New Exodus people. Loss of this distinctiveness is irreparable and irreplaceable.
David Garland explains the last salt saying this way:
“The second half of the saying, ‘Have salt among yourselves [not in yourselves] and be at peace with one another” (9:50b), is in synonymous parallelism. To have salt among yourselves means to share salt, a reference to having meals together in the context of fellowship and peace (Ezra 4:14; Acts 1:4). When people share meals together, they are at peace with one another” (Mark:7294-7302).
From internal squabbling about status, to welcoming all who work for Jesus’ sake, to warning about the dangers of tripping up the faith walk of other believers, to enduring persecution as a community at peace with one another, these are the matters Jesus deals with in this section. These matters are essentials to faithful performance of our responsibilities as God’s New Exodus people, yesterday and today.