Commentary on Mark 9:38-50
Coming from the villages of Caesarea Philippi where Jesus first announced his suffering, rejection, death, and resurrection (8:31),
Jesus is now moving south toward Jerusalem and is passing through Galilee where he announces his passion and resurrection for the second time (9:30-31). Once again the disciples misunderstand Jesus’ messiahship (9:32-34) and again Jesus teaches them concerning discipleship (9:35-37).
The text for our consideration continues the theme of the disciples’ misunderstanding. They question Jesus concerning an exorcist who is not one of them and is casting out demons in Jesus’ name, but “was not following us” (9:38b).
Perhaps the disciples are anticipating that Jesus would rebuke such a person, but Jesus uses the occasion to teach the disciples. Waging the battle against Satan, demons or unclean spirits is a central theme in Mark. The first public act of Jesus’ ministry is casting out the unclean spirit of the man in the synagogue in Capernaum (1:21-28). Demonic possession is overcome in the name of Jesus, which is what this unknown exorcist was doing: ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name” (9:38a).
Jesus’ teaching moment comes in his words to the disciples: “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” (9:39). Jesus’ battle against Satan (1:12-13) and ongoing presence of evil takes all the resources possible: “Whoever is not against us is for us” (9:40).
Not only is Jesus’ ministry against the powers of evil, but his ministry is a pattern for all who reach out in love to the neighbor: “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” (9:41). Serving the neighbor is not to gain reward but to live in response to the neighbor and serving out of love and in the name of Christ.
This text draws several teachings of Jesus into a teaching block to focus on the radical call of following Jesus. Jesus has a special place for children and the powerless in his teaching. The most remembered teaching of Jesus is still ahead in chapter ten: “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs” (10:14). Our text anticipates this teaching as Jesus warns against putting “a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me” (9:42a).
To cause a little one to fall away, to turn from Jesus, brings forth one of the harshest sayings of Jesus in the gospels. If there is anything that brings about the fall of little ones, “it would be better for you if a great millstone was hung about your neck and you were thrown into the sea” (9:42b).
This harsh saying is followed by sayings on maiming. Three of the most precious members of the human body come into focus for severe judgment: hand, foot, and eye. The three members follow the same pattern: “And if your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire” (9:43). The same severe judgment follows with the foot being cut off (9:45), and with the tearing out of the eye (9:47).
Jesus’ concern for “little ones” or “powerless ones” is ultimate. The gathered sayings are concluded with yet another ominous word identifying what continues for the unrighteous in eternal punishment, “where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched” (9:48).
There is a word of hope over and against a word of judgment in these sayings of Jesus, and is present in the words the evangelist calls forth from the prophet Isaiah. This saying in Mark is the final word from the last verses of the prophet Isaiah, words of judgment set within the context of promise and hope:
“For as the new heaven and the new earth which I will make, shall remain
before me, says the LORD; so shall your descendants and your name remain.
From new moon to new moon, and from sabbath to sabbath, all flesh shall
come to worship before me, says the LORD.
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” (Isaiah 66:22-24).
The concluding verses of Isaiah’s prophecy and vision express God’s promise and call God’s people to worship and praise. Juxtaposed to this vision and promise is the reality of the power of evil and separation of the unrighteous from God’s eternal glory.
In light of these words of promise and judgment, the evangelist calls upon Jesus’ teaching to be the salt of the world. If we, as the people of God and followers of Jesus, lose our purpose to honor and worship the Lord and serve one another, we are like salt that has lost its intended purpose and is only good to be destroyed: “Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it?” (9:50a).
The closing admonition of our text is the claim and promise of God and Jesus’ call to live as God’s intended purpose in creating us for life: “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another” (9:50b). This is the call, identity, and promise of discipleship which is the peace that Jesus offers to all his followers. We are called by Jesus into a cosmic engagement against the powers of evil and injustice and to serve our neighbor in love.