I know that some people find the lectionary to be a pain. But this Sunday you have to love it. I wonder how many of us preachers would actually choose to preach Mark 9:38-50 if it wasn't set to be read this Sunday in the common lectionary? I think the answer is pretty clear. Not many! On first glance you would think that this is a natural for a Christian preacher. After all, it is among the few passages in Mark that include teachings of Jesus. Most of Mark's gospel is a narrative about Jesus' ministry, healings and encounters with disciples, crowds and opponents. Yes, there are a few parables told. Here in chapters nine and ten we find actual teachings just before he arrives at Palm Sunday and Holy Week. Heaven knows I have run into so many people who tell me that they aren't fans of the God of the Old Testament or of Paul and even that they struggle with Jesus' divinity and with the resurrection. That doesn't leave much but it does leave the teachings of Jesus. And many people tell me that it is Jesus' teachings that they find most powerful in the Bible. hmmm. That brings us to Mark 9:38-50. Teachings of Jesus that are not easy to comprehend. These are the teachings that leave me wondering if the fans of Jesus as a teacher have actually read his teachings. This Sunday we are in the shoes of the disciples who Mark has just said: "did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him" (Mk 9:32). The good news for me is that it is not my job to defend, explain or comprehend Jesus. For so long I felt that I needed to protect him and to make sense of him so that the congregation could be re-assured that this all makes sense, that our minister is doing his job and that all is well. Now I realize that my work is to not hide Jesus from the congregation but to let them be confronted by him just as the disciples were confronted by him. Yes, I may have some insights to offer and some helpful explanations or interpretations. But if I don't understand Jesus I will say so. I am also a disciple struggling to see and to hear. I expect that there may be someone in the congregation who sees and hears in a way that I do not. It isn't my calling to have it all figured out before preaching or to wrap the sermon up in a nice bow with a wonderful ending that resolves all of the problems. Having said that, I am working away on a number of parts of this text that are problematic and that will surely need to be addressed on Sunday ...
The text begins with the one time in Mark's gospel that the disciple named John has a speaking part. John is offended because someone who is not a follower of Jesus is casting out demons by using Jesus' name. It is like a patent or copyright violation. Jesus' own disciples have just failed at casting out a demon (Mk 9:18). Now some outsider is taking advantage of Jesus' name to heal. Jesus shocks his own when he sees nothing wrong with this. In fact, he proceeds to say that "Whoever is not against us is for us". And, then, that anyone who gives John or one of disciples a cup of water because they "bear the name of Christ will by no means lose his reward". Last Sunday Jesus told us that the least among us, the servant, the one at the bottom of the hierarchy is the greatest. Now he says that the uncredentialed outsider who participates in the most humble and menial way in Jesus' ministry is to be considered as an insider.
Then Jesus turns from outsiders to insiders and forewarns them not to put a "stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me". In Greek the word for "stumbling block" is "skandalon" from which we derive "scandal" (and which Paul uses to describe the "scandal of the cross"). Some Bibles translate this as "sin". I wonder what might cause "little ones" to "stumble". And who are the "little ones who believe in me". He has just brought a little child into their midst and said that welcoming one such as this is welcoming "the one who sent me". Little ones may well be children. But it likely refers to more than children in the community. Those new to the gospel? Those struggling to comprehend? I wonder.
Jesus famously uses hyperbole to identify just how serious it is if one causes a little one to stumble. Better to amputate a hand or foot or an eye than to be thrown into hell or have a millstone drown one in the sea. Yikes. Did Monty Python make a sketch based on this text? It is easy to imagine all the saints and monks and holy people gathering on one leg, with one arm, blinded in one eye ... or more. Apparently Christians have taken this text metaphorically - if they have paid attention to it at all. Some commentators imagine that it is a text about the whole community and about ridding the community of those persons who cause little ones to stumble in order to maintain the discipline of the early church. And hell, what are we to make of hell. The Greek word in the text is "Gehenna" which is a valley on the outskirts of Jerusalem that had become known as the destination of the wicked. It had become a metaphor for hell in Jesus day but it did not have the connotations that we have inherited from Dante and the medieval church. I wonder how to speak about this faithfully.
And if that isn't enough for one sermon there are the three sayings about salt that end the passage (Mk 9:49-50). None of them is the well-known verse from Matthew that "You are the salt of the earth". Instead we have the announcement that "everyone will be salted with fire". Then the concern that salty not lose its taste. Does salt ever lose its taste? And then the advice to "Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another". hmmm. Salt is a rich metaphor. It is the root word of "salary" because of its high value in the ancient word. It cured meat and food, healed infection, gave flavour to food, kept animals and people alive. In our day salt is inexpensive, plentiful and a health concern. We don't have expressions like "salted with fire" or have salt in yourselves". What is Jesus telling us?
I will continue to become as familiar as I can with this odd text, sitting at Jesus knee, listening as closely as I can, trusting that it is worthwhile to hang in with confusing texts and teachings rather than to rush on to something that seems more promising, easier to grasp. And I will be glad for any help I can get!