Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Jesus uses shock treatment to jolt his followers out of smug self-complacency or shameless indecency

Sand in outstretched palm
Photo by Francesco Alberti on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

September 26, 2021

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Commentary on Mark 9:38-50

I hear groans from preachers reading this Sunday’s Gospel. It contains most things that drive the conscientious into a slough of despondence: exorcisms (verse 38); multiple disturbances in the Greek text, footnoted in responsible English translations (verses 42, 44, 45, 46, 49); hard sayings of Jesus (verses 39-41) that are logically incoherent (verses 48–50) or manifestly outrageous (verses 42-47). No Working Preacher essay can disentangle all these knots. For that, a reliable commentary is mandatory. Here I can only paraphrase Mark’s intent, as best I can, respond to its repugnant aspects, and suggest why I believe such scripture deserves a hearing from the pulpit.

What is Mark driving at?

Mark 9:38-10:31 presents this Gospel’s most concentrated cluster of moral teaching: vignettes of discipleship expressed within the believing community (9:38-50), the family (10:1-16), and a larger social sphere (10:17-31). This Sunday Mark considers the church’s boundaries and internal responsibilities. The radical character of discipleship is focal, consistent with last Sunday’s mandate that each of Jesus’ followers become “last of all and servant of all” (9:35).

Mark 9:38-41 encourages a broad-minded attitude toward those who provide relief but operate outside the disciples’ circle: “Whoever is not against us is for us” (9:40). Here Jesus commends in strongest terms (“truly I tell you”; see 3:28; 8:12; 9:1) the reward due anyone who quashes diabolical forces in his name (3:23-27)—whether or not they are “following us” (9:38: our way of being church)—or another who offers a simple cup of water to disciples “because you are Christ’s by name” (9:41, my translation). Adhering to the spirit of 9:35-37, 9:38-41 stresses gracious reception of anyone whose action, bold or modest, genuinely conforms to Jesus’ character. If that’s something you think your congregants need to hear this Sunday, and no more, I say: Go for it.

“For whoever offers you a cup of water because you bear Christ’s name” (9:41, my translation).

“But whoever trips up one of these little ones who believe” (8:42, my translation).

The contrast established in 9:39-41 and 9:42-50 is that between nurturance of Christian believers and infliction of injuries that cause them to lose their faithful footing. The primary meaning of the Greek word skandalon is a trap for catching a live animal (Joshua 23:13; Psalm 140:9), which shades into a metaphorical pitfall (Romans 11:9; 1 John 2:10). The cognate verb skandalizō (NRSV: “put a stumbling block before” [Mark 9:42] or “cause to stumble” [9:43, 45, 47]) conveys the sense of tripping up someone for downfall. While Matthew often employs the term (10:42; 11:11; 18:6, 10, 14), only in 9:42 does Mark use “little ones” (tōn mikrōn) to refer to one’s fellow believers. It is conceptually related to the child (to paidion) who should be received “in my name” (9:36-37). Harming “one of these little ones” invites punishment worse than being hurled into the sea with a huge grinding stone “hung around your neck” (9:42).

In Mark 9:43, 45, and 47, the image of stumbling recurs. Here the self is the apparent victim. Yet the aphorisms’ content imply social responsibility: one may trip up oneself through conduct harmful to others. The foot can take you places you dare not go. The hand can reach where it shouldn’t. The eye can gaze with malicious intent. A limb’s amputation may be required to save the whole body; drastic surgery is necessary in emergencies if one hopes “to enter [eternal] life” (9:43, 45; 10:17) or “the kingdom of God” (9:47).

If one suffering gangrene, whether of body or of soul, pretends to be healthy, the outcome is hell. Gehenna (9:43, 45, 47) was a ravine south of Jerusalem notorious for pagan infanticide (2 Chronicles 28:1–14), envisioned by later Jews as the place of the wicked’s final judgment (Luke 12:5). Undying worm and unquenched fire (Mark 9:48) were stock images for the destruction of evil (Isaiah 66:24; Judith 16:17). Mark 9:49-50 hearkens back to 8:34-37. “Salt is good”: like cross-bearing discipleship, a sacrificial preservative prevents the church from insipidity (9:50ab; compare Leviticus 2:13; Numbers 18:19). “Salt,” self-sacrifice for the gospel, promotes communal peace that quells self-centeredness and one-upmanship (9:50c; 9:33–34, 38).

Why does Jesus speak so grotesquely?

Repeatedly Mark’s Jesus heals bodies diseased and deformed (1:31-34, 40-41; 2:1-12; 3:1-6; 5:1-43; 7:31-37; 8:22-26; 10:46-52). Because “he did not speak to them except in parables” (4:33), he cannot be literally advocating self-mutilation in 9:43, 45, or 47. These are stark remarks, intended to grab us by the scruff of the neck and shake us to our senses of the grim consequences that disciples invite when they abuse one another or anyone else.

When you can assume your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock—to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures. (Flannery O’Connor, 1925–1964)

Today’s preachers might ponder that and, with judiciousness, consider its practice. Shock only for its own sake is juvenile, unbecoming a Christian preacher. But let’s face facts. With the exception of the African-American church, a lot of contemporary preaching is so anodyne, so colorless, that it may put God to sleep. In Mark 9:42-50 Jesus uses shock treatment to jolt his followers out of smug self-complacency or shameless indecency.

Why should scripture like Mark 9:38–50 be preached?

Let’s take a hard look at our treatment of little ones who believe in Jesus. Are we supporting them as they totter, or strewing rocks and fences and walls that break them down? Jesus’ family is expansive (Mark 3:31-35); the church faces a reckoning. If a bacterial soul isn’t disinfected now, its treatment later will be a helluva lot worse.