Commentary on Mark 9:30-50
Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent, when many of us choose to renounce a habit or a pleasure as a symbol of our devotion to God.
Perhaps we think about Jesus’ exhortation after his first passion prediction, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). In the Gospel reading for today, the disciples have not thought about renunciation, but about reputation. Jesus’ response to them helps us to take a closer look at our Lenten disciplines.
Second Passion Prediction (verses 30-32)
This story is part of an extended teaching on discipleship that runs from 8:27-10:45, in which Jesus repeats the passion prediction 3 times (8:31; 9:31; 10:32-34). The disciples express misunderstandings, and Jesus provides remedial teachings (8:32-37; 9:32-37; 10:35-45). Here, we take a look at the second passion prediction and its aftermath. After the first passion prediction, Jesus had taught his disciples not only that he would suffer, die, and rise, but also that they must imitate him by losing their lives in order to save them. After the second passion prediction, Jesus makes it clear that this pattern of discipleship means service to others. Following Jesus is not something a person does alone. It takes a village.
We can break up the rest of this long text into two parts, both connected with catch-phrases. Mark connects two passages about who is the greatest (verses 33-37) and the strange exorcist (verses 38-41) with the catch-phrase, “in my name’ (verses 37, 38, 39, and 41). These two passages show that while the disciples are most concerned with making a name for themselves, what is most important is to bear the name of Jesus. Second, Mark connects a group of sayings with a series of catchwords: “scandal/ize” (verses 42, 43, 45, 47); “fire” (verses 48, 49); and “salt” (verses 49, 50).
Bearing the Name of Jesus (verses 33-41)
The disciples argue about who is the greatest, each one contending for first rank in their social group. In response, Jesus takes the posture of a teacher and places among them a little child, a symbol of weakness and a lack of status in society, and a symbol for discipleship in the Kingdom of God. That is, Jesus says that those who welcome “such a child,” or disciple, “in my name” welcome not only him, but the one who sent him. The disciples are to identify with the humble child who comes without status or power.
Jesus had already begun to reveal this principle to the disciples when he sent them on their mission to teach and cast out demons (6:6b-13). He told them to go without status or power: take only a staff, no money or bread, and only one tunic. Like children, they had to rely on others for their sustenance. Some would welcome them, and others would not (6:11). In our text, we are to understand that those who would welcome them would welcome Jesus and the one who sent him. The pattern for discipleship, then, is not marked by a quest for greatness that seeks to secure one’s own name, but by a humble and dependent ministry conducted in Jesus’ name.
When the disciples complain about another exorcist, they reveal that they have not learned the lesson of the child. They complain because this exorcist “was not following us.” Jesus had set apart the Twelve and had given them authority to preach and to cast out demons. But this man has not been authorized; he was not initiated into their number. The irony of the disciples’ complaint is that they have just found themselves powerless to cast out demons from a boy (9:18, 28). Their quest for exclusivity reveals that they are more concerned with their own reputation than they are with the success of Jesus’ mission. This unfamiliar exorcist, on the other hand, has understood the centrality to Jesus ministry of the struggle against Satanic forces, and joins the struggle by casting out demons in Jesus’ name.
Costly Discipleship (9:43-50)
The following sayings function to increase the radical nature of self-sacrifice to which Jesus has called his disciples. Jesus uses hyperbole to warn against “scandalizing,” or tripping up, the “little ones,” or would-be disciples, and also against tripping up oneself with sin. By connecting these sayings, Mark links the costliness of discipleship with responsibility for others. That is, it is just as costly to hinder someone else’s progress in discipleship as it is to hinder one’s own.
Also, by connecting the sayings about hell-fire with the sayings about salt, Mark contrasts two choices. The unquenchable fire is Mark’s explanation of Gehenna, or Hell (verse 44), the place of final punishment of the wicked (Isaiah 66:24; 2 Kings 23:10; 2 Chronicles 28:1-4; Jeremiah 7:30-34). In contrast, the fire of verse 49 is one of purification. Salt was a preservative; but also, salt accompanied Old Testament sacrifices (Leviticus 2:13; Ezekiel 43:24). Perhaps the description of being “salted with fire” followed by the exhortation to “have salt in yourselves” is an exhortation for disciples to be seasoned with salt, like the sacrifice. If so, this is a call for self-sacrificial living.
The ashes on our foreheads today may remind us to be salted with fire through self-sacrificial living. The ashes form the sign of the cross, reminding us that we are not “great,” but that we go in the name of one who is great because he died to save us. We go in his name and not our own. As we enter the season of Lent, we may consider doing more than renouncing a pleasure or habit. Instead, we may consider renouncing ourselves, recalling Jesus’ exhortation that true followers “deny themselves and up their cross and follow me.” We may renounce ourselves by developing the spiritual discipline of serving others in the name of Jesus. Perhaps we may develop habits that will continue beyond the season.