Commentary on Mark 9:38-50
This story comes as Jesus heads toward Jerusalem.
Throughout Mark 8-10, Jesus struggles to turn the disciples’ thoughts from human thoughts to God’s thoughts. The disciples have great difficulty getting to where Jesus is leading them. Peter tried to protect his friend from the danger ahead, and Jesus called him Satan. The disciples argued among themselves about who was greatest and Jesus called them to welcome children. Remember last week when he held that toddler in his arms? Our story picks up there and we have no indication that Jesus has set aside the child.
A conversation not followed
John speaks up for the first of two times in Mark’s gospel. On both occasions, John addresses Jesus as “teacher” and immediately demonstrates that he has not followed Jesus’ teaching. The second occasion will be when Jesus predicts his upcoming passion for the third time, and John together with his brother will turn away from the prediction again to pursue their own greatness. That second John-speech shares many traits with the one assigned for today. In the first part of the story (which we heard last week), Jesus is holding the toddler in his arms and exhorting his disciples to attend to them if they wish to pursuit greatness. John interrupts him — “teacher” — without any sign that he has heard this and steers the conversation away from hospitality and compassion. John seems to be king of the non sequitur.
The speech patterns in Jesus’ reply suggest surprise and frustration. Jesus has to take several runs at explaining John’s error. No one verbally interrupts Jesus for clarification as they often do. Yet, as we overhear Jesus’ response we sense that Jesus sees how little the disciples are following his argument. He offers multiple responses to explain all that is wrong with John’s censure of the exorcist.
First, Jesus emphatically states not to stop him. Then three gar clauses in rapid succession point out the problems with John’s assumptions. The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) drops the middle “for” which could have connected the multiple attempts to teach those who prove unteachable. My own translation would be, ““Don’t stop him, ‘cause there is no one who will do a work of power by my name and very soon after be able to pronounce misfortune on me, ‘cause all who aren’t against us are for us, ‘cause all who offer you a cup of water based on a name, because you are under the anointed one, I tell you, this is the way it is, they definitely won’t lose their reward.”
Returning to the child
Because the lectionary separated what Jesus says about the toddler he holds from John’s non sequitur, Jesus seems to be one who makes a leap to a new topic. But actually Jesus is bringing the attention of the disciples back to his teaching about the child whom he still holds in his arms. He told them of the importance of welcoming the little ones; now he warns of what will happen if they act hostilely toward the same.
Just as Jesus took three runs at John’s confusion in the hopes of straightening him out, here he takes several runs at explaining the perils of acting scandalously toward the little ones. Unlike the three random responses to John, these come across as carefully thought out. This is where Jesus was headed prior to John’s interruption. Close repetition holds the argument together as Jesus talks about the cost of harming children. (Late manuscripts tried to make the parallels even more emphatic by using the language of verse 48 after each warning. The use of more trustworthy, earlier manuscripts leads the NRSV to omit verses 44 or 46.)
The repetition serves to drive home Jesus’ warning vividly. Similar to the response to the exorcist issue, Jesus begins with a clear and unambiguous statement. Those scandalizing the little ones who trust deserve to sleep with the fishes. Then Jesus states three times that losing a scandalizing member is preferable to gaining a place in the eternal fire. This echoes the warnings in Mark 8 about losing oneself in order to find oneself although the metaphor has become very concrete. Hands, feet, and eyes are lost so that one’s self is not.
A bridge between the unquenchable fire discourse and Jesus’ final point is made by first linking fire to being salted with fire, and then linking that salting with salt and its proper functioning. Jesus calls the disciples to have salt among themselves. In order to be sure they are following this time, Jesus moves out of metaphor and speaks plainly (perhaps again responding to the puzzled look on their faces): be at peace with one another. In the journey toward Jerusalem, peace among themselves has proven and will prove to be a continual challenge.
The sacrament of children
When seen in the narrative flow, this text warns of missing Jesus’ call to care for the little ones. Inattention to the little ones imperils one’s life eternally. Children are portrayed as those who practice that key marker of discipleship: they trust or believe in Jesus (verse 42). When Jesus held the toddler in their midst Christ declared the child a sacrament of God’s presence and his own: ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me’ (Mark 9:37).
This story warns us to pay attention to the children who give us access to the presence of God. We are to do all within our power to protect and care for them within the community of faith and without. Sometimes we do damage to them actively. But just as often we, like John, simply lose track of those whom Jesus has put in the center of community. We become distracted by competition or our own status. Jesus calls us to be a community of peace where trusting children are cherished.