Thought for the day
Jesus knows, of course, that it is not our hands or our feet or our eyes which cause us to sin (cf. Mark 7:14-23). There is a certain sarcastic, even caustic wit in telling us to lop off extremities, as if it were that simple. Sometimes, humour is more effective—more disarming at any rate—than blunt exhortation (hence, dictators always fear the comedians). The point is not lost however: we need to get to the root of the matter and undergo conversion of heart, then of life and then of the whole person, limbs and all!
Loving God, help us to continue on the path of conversion of heart and life. Help us to make those choices which will reflect our faith in you, loving, just and faithful God. Help us to see ourselves as you would wish us to be, in your own image and likeness.
Mark 9:38 John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” 39 But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. 40 Whoever is not against us is for us. 41 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 9:42 “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. 43 If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. 45 And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. 47 And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, 48 where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.
Our first reactions to these two scenes will be important to note. Both contain teachings that disturb. Scene One portrays the mean-spiritedness of the disciples and then v. 41 comes with a very unexpected twist: whoever gives to you. Scene Two seems to be two sets of teachings, all introduced by “if”. The first teaching in v. 42 has a sharp relevance today. The expansion in vv. 43-48 constitutes a powerful command to the believer to get rid of whatever is “in the way” of living the Gospel. (Vv. 44 and 46 are missing in the main manuscripts, so there are gaps.)
Kind of writing
It looks as if individual sayings or groups of sayings have been gathered together by the tradition or by the evangelist. Probably they did not all belong together originally. Vv. 39, 40 and 41 all seem to be different sayings of Jesus, with a loose, mostly verbal connection.
E.g., in the second scene, it looks as if 42 and 43-48 were not originally together but they are linked by “if”, and “better” and some image of punishment.
Old Testament background
Gehenna: a valley south and south-west of Jerusalem, also known as Hinnom. It was a place of human sacrifice and become a way of speaking of God’s final punishment of the wicked (cf. 2 Kings 23:20 and 2 Chronicles 28:1-5). The New Testament translations usually use the word “hell.” Jeremiah writes:
For the people of Judah have done evil in my sight, says the Lord; they have set their abominations in the house that is called by my name, defiling it. And they go on building the high place of Topheth, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire—which I did not command, nor did it come into my mind. Therefore, the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when it will no more be called Topheth, or the valley of the son of Hinnom, but the valley of Slaughter: for they will bury in Topheth until there is no more room. The corpses of this people will be food for the birds of the air, and for the animals of the earth; and no one will frighten them away. And I will bring to an end the sound of mirth and gladness, the voice of the bride and bridegroom in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem; for the land shall become a waste. (Jer 7:30-34)
Worm and fire: these words are standard expressions for the destruction of evil.
And they shall go out and look at the dead bodies of the people who have rebelled against me; for their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh. (Isa 66:24)
Woe to the nations that rise up against my people! The Lord Almighty will take vengeance on them in the day of judgment; he will send fire and worms into their flesh; they shall weep in pain forever. (Jdt 16:17)
Humble yourself to the utmost, for the punishment of the ungodly is fire and worms. (Sir 7:17)
New Testament foreground
The wide context is the extended teaching on discipleship in Mark 8-10. As part of his teaching method, Mark notes the failures of the disciples—failure to heal, failure to understand (regularly), and here, failure to recognise outsiders as bearers of the Gospel.
The immediate context is: Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” (Mark 9:33–37)
Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written, “Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles, and sing praises to your name”; and again he says, “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people”; and again, “Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, and let all the peoples praise him”; and again Isaiah says, “The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the Gentiles; in him the Gentiles shall hope.” May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. (Rom 15:7–13)
Verse 38 “Teachers” is used in Mark’s Gospel by a variety of people (Mark 4:38; 5:35; 9:17, 38; 10:17, 20, 35; 12:14, 19, 32; 13:1; 14:14). There is a considerable irony that the apostles, who only a few verses before could perform an exorcism, here object to someone else successfully exorcising. The irony extends to the expression “following us”. This is a little shock because the reader is really expecting “following you.” But once again, we have two levels in Mark and the post-Resurrection context is in view. Who is the authentic leadership is the question. Using the name of a holy figure was a technique in pagan magic.
Verse 39 A wonderfully open response, in the form of an implied syllogism. If such a person is actually doing good... A person who does good in Jesus’ name will proclaim him.
Verse 40 A broad, inclusive statement because “whoever” really means anyone at all. It could have been the other way around! There is a strong contrast with the Q version of this saying elsewhere: Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. (Matthew 12:30 = Luke 11:23)
Verse 41 A curious statement because it portrays the disciples as receiving. It is hard to know in what context this might have made sense. In Matthew’s Gospel, it seems clear that a similar teaching refers to non-Christian pagans coming to the help of Christians who are in jail (cf. Matthew 25:31-46). The implied reference to “Christians” takes us once more to the post-Easter context.
Verse 42 The Greek for stumbling block is scandalon. The literal meaning of the word is to cause someone to trip up. This is the only time in Mark that “little ones who believe in me” is used of disciples. But cf. Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” (Mark 9:36–37) People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them. (Mark 10:13–16) It suggests their powerlessness. The millstone intended here is the larger one turned by a mule and so rather effective.
Verse 43 The following sequence of sayings is all based on the same pattern. “To enter life” means to get to heaven. The attention shifts from causing others to stumble to what causes you to stumble. A radical self-purification is what is in mind. Hell = Gehenna. A social science reading would suggest the hand means engagement with others.
The verses following are without context, and manage to be both direct and oblique, wrapped up in the hyperbole characteristic of rabbinic discourse. The words “stumbling block” and “stumble” tumble through the passage giving a kind of unity. The general meaning is not lost, however: choices, even sacrifices, have to be made, and made in good time, that is, now!
Verse 45 In a social science context, the foot means autonomy.
Verse 47 Again, in a social science setting, the eye is related to the way we look at others.
Verse 48 The grim imagery suggests permanent pain and disgrace.
Pointers for prayer
1. John objected to a person who was not in their group, casting out demons in Jesus’ name. Jesus himself had no problems with this. Jealousy can poison our outlook even when what is done by another is good. “S/he is invading my patch.” Perhaps you have seen, in yourself or in others, the negative effect of jealousy and the contrasting positive effect of being able to rejoice that good is being done, irrespective of who is the person doing it.
2. In strong terms Jesus condemns those who are destructive of the life of others, particularly the “little ones.” Just as Jesus came that we might have life and have it to the full, we likewise are here to make a positive difference to others. What was it like for you when you were able to do something that was helpful to another?
3. Rather dramatically Jesus tells us to cut off a hand, or tear out an eye, rather than harm another. It is not to be taken literally but it does mean that we should not be casual about our efforts to live a good life. When have you experienced the benefits of an element of seriousness in your approach to life?
Pour out your Spirit, O God, over all the world to inspire every heart with knowledge and love of you. Grant that we who confess Jesus as Lord may shun whatever is contrary to this faith and give witness to your love that has saved us in Christ, for he lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God, for ever and ever. Amen.