Commentary on Mark 9:38-50
Context in Mark
This week’s passage from chapter 9 of Mark, resides within the larger context of the second major section of Mark (8:22-10:52), as did last week’s.
Review contextual information from last week’s commentary. The pattern continues with Jesus predicting his passion and resurrection, followed by the disciples’ lack of understanding (verses 30-37). Throughout Mark the disciples are often portrayed as clueless, confused or downright resistant. In verses 38-50 Jesus moves into specific and graphic teachings that clarify precisely what is expected of a disciple of Jesus.
There are many points in the gospel lesson for sermon themes, including Jesus’ tolerance for an unknown exorcist and Jesus’ apparent critique of the disciples’ exclusivism (verses 38-40), the danger of being a stumbling block to others (verses 42-48), and the loss of identity/flavor (verse 50). I will focus on the danger of stumbling blocks.
Jesus turns the spotlight on the disciples themselves. This pericope begins with the disciples complaining to Jesus about a rival exorcist whom they tried to stop. Jesus tells them to lay off, because “whoever is not against us, is for us” (verse 40). We get the clear message that the disciples’ finger-pointing will not get far with Jesus. While they are eager to bring judgment on this outsider who is acting in Jesus’ name, Jesus himself wants the disciples to pay attention instead to their own behavior.
In fact, in verse 42 Jesus immediately turns the tables on the disciples, warning them that they are the ones in danger of doing harm. It’s as though Jesus says, “The problem is not the folks outside our group. Don’t worry about others — they are not the problem. Rather, look to yourselves. How are you getting in the way of the gospel? How are you a stumbling block?”
We can imagine that the first audiences who received the gospel of Mark would have recognized themselves in the disciples’ sense of competition over who can use Jesus’ name, who is right, who has authority. Early Christian communities struggled in the midst of persecution, conflict over Jewish-gentile relations, and all the growing pains of an infant church seeking identity and faithful witness. Christian groups disagreed with one another, contested each other’s claims, and even sought to censure one another.
Into this context, Mark’s Jesus warns that finger-pointing and scrupulosity about others can distract us so that we do harm and cause others to stumble. Sometimes, even our best intentions to reprove others can have unintended consequences for innocent bystanders. Indeed, great damage is done to the gospel when Christians are preoccupied with infighting and self-righteous proclamations about others. Jesus returns the focus back to our own behaviors, the ways we speak and live good news, and the ways we place obstacles in the way of that good news.
Commentators note that there are several catchwords repeated frequently throughout these verses, such as “name,” “scandal,” “fire,” and “salt.” In particular, the Greek word skandalon is used in each verse from 42 to verse 47. A skandalon is an obstacle that people trip over, and is usually translated “stumbling block” due to the decidedly moralistic tone the word “scandal” has taken in modern times. Jesus could not be more clear: he is talking about the danger that his own followers can do, and he uses the dire image of drowning to get his point across. Better to drown (be thrown into the sea with a millstone around one’s neck) than do harm to “these little ones.”
It’s interesting that Jesus lays bare the minefield of church, real dangers within Christian community particularly between more mature disciples and “the little ones.” The followers who are closest to Jesus in these verses, ie, the disciples, carry a huge responsibility as a result of their intimacy with Christ. Others look to them, follow their examples, are susceptible to their claims and practices, are perhaps especially vulnerable to their critiques and conflicts. Carelessness in discipleship can do irreparable damage to those most vulnerable within the body of Christ.
The next verses become more graphic still. Verses 43, 45, 47 each point to stumbling blocks that are part of us: hands, feet, eyes. Things we hold dear. Things we think we need. Through images of body parts, Jesus makes clear that stumbling blocks are not other people or things outside of us. They are part of us. These stumbling blocks might be events, practices, “the way we’ve always done it,” or our own pet causes.
Stumbling blocks that come disguised as precious body parts are so dangerous they should be severed. The violence of Jesus’ hyperbole here is inescapable. He uses an over-the-top, BOLDED AND ALL CAPS format to get the disciples’, and our, attention. We are likely to think there’s nothing worse than losing a hand, a foot, or an eye. But Jesus says there is. The consequences of causing another to stumble are far worse than self-maiming.
When the very things we hold dear and believe lead to abundant life become instead obstacles to “the little ones,” it leads to the death of unquenchable fire. Self-maiming is preferable to the violence against others we commit with these parts of ourselves. This week’s gospel lesson invites us as congregations to examine the stumbling blocks we place, often unknowingly, often in faithful enthusiasm, in front of the most vulnerable among us.
As a sermon preparation strategy, use your social media platform this week to ask “What stumbling blocks do you put in the way of others?” or “What stumbling blocks do Christians put up that hurt the cause of the gospel in the world?” This gives you a reality check on peoples’ concerns, and gets them thinking in preparation to hear the word. Or, you can open your sermon with a quick congregational brainstorm session about what “those other Christians” do or say that drives you crazy. This should be brief, playful and good-natured. Another strategy is to invite some directed conversation about stumbling blocks congregants can identify in themselves. It will be tempting for them to identify things that others have done, so challenge them to focus on their own eyes, hands and feet.
Note on missing verses 44 and 46: following verses 43 and 45 in some early manuscripts is the reference to Isaiah 66:24 still found in verse 48 “where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.” Those early manuscripts are now considered inferior, so verses 44 and 46 are omitted in most modern translations.