Commentary on Mark 9:38-50
In Mark 9:38, John directs a comment towards Jesus on behalf of the disciples that is the epitome of myopia
The words almost sound whiney, like a four-year old tattletale: “because he was not following us.” The disciples thinking of themselves as an exemplary unit worthy to be followed is beyond the pale. Have they so quickly forgotten that following upon the transfiguration, an afflicted individual must complain to Jesus about his son’s demon: “I asked your disciples to cast it out, but they could not do so” (Mark 9:18)? Have they so quickly forgotten the episode immediately previous to John’s question, in which Jesus resolutely declared that arguments about status are upended in God’s Kingdom, that traditional divisions of “us” and “them” are rendered moot? Their concern smacks of an elitism that does nothing more than confirm their continued ignorance.
Verse 42 returns abruptly to the topic under discussion in Mark 9:33-36. The conversation about another performing exorcisms (9:38-41) is intercalated (a classic Markan Sandwich) with the discussion about who is the greatest.
- Story 1 (Mark 9:33-37) — Argument over who is the greatest results in Jesus’ declaration that greatness will be defined by who is last and servant of all, represented in a small child.
- Story 2 (Mark 9:38-41) — The disciples are uptight over an unknown exorcist wielding the power of the kingdom.
- Story 1 continued (Mark 9:42-50) — Warnings about those who put a stumbling block before any little one who would believe in Jesus.
Mark intercalates such stories so that the reader understands them and interprets them together. Here it implies that the disciples’ immature concern over an exorcists’ lineage sets up the very sort of stumbling block about which Jesus warns.
Diversity and Mark’s community
This Markan sandwich may take us directly into the concerns of Mark’s community, rather than represent accurately scenes from the life of Jesus. Clifton Black argues that the phrase “soon afterward” in Mark 9:39 “seems to point beyond the narrative’s frame, into the life of the community.”1 Likewise, the phrase “bear the name of Christ” as a way of identifying a group makes more sense later in the first century than in the lifetime of the historical Jesus.
We can easily imagine a scenario in early Christianity where there might be ignorance, distrust, or wariness between different groups of Christians. The evidence from Paul’s letters suggests that from the first decades, the church faced disagreements about theology and evangelical strategy. The ability to communicate among churches was probably difficult and slow, accomplished mostly through emissaries and letters. If we imagine a close-knit community behind Mark’s gospel with a particular iteration and understanding of its heritage and tradition, then we might understand their anxiety or jealousy arising from encountering a community with similar claims. Mark has no time for such anxiety, jealousy, or elitism. Jesus’ response encompasses a rather expansive, universalistic view of the church. As long as something is being done in the name of Christ they will “by no means lose the reward” (Mark 9:41).
Unity and diversity in the church
The church has, from the very beginning, struggled to place itself along continuum of unity and diversity. Four gospels were retained and their harmonization rejected. The views of Matthew, Paul, and the letter of James all sit somewhat awkwardly in the same canon. Calls for Christian unity have consistently referred to Jesus’ prayer that “They all may be one” (John 17:22). Yet the Johannine epistles starkly name anyone who denies Jesus has come in the flesh to be the “antichrist.”
I will never forget when I had lunch with my Baptist grandmother to tell her about my new girlfriend (who would end up as my wife). The conversation went like this:
Grandma: “Is she Catholic?”
Grandma: “Well, that can change.”
(I didn’t tell her that I myself was in the process of confirmation in the Roman Catholic Church). I tell this story not to belittle Baptists, but to suggest that ecumenism and intra-Christian dialogue may be an overlooked but important topic to preach about. It is also a pressing theological issue. Many marriages today are from mixed Christian backgrounds. Christians at work, school, and at home live cheek-by-jowl with different types of Christians. I recently had to spend 30 minutes explaining to the little-league coach why my son couldn’t practice on Wednesday nights because it conflicted with our church’s religious education classes. These, he thought, were supposed to be on Sundays. I am consistently disappointed and confounded by the lack of information my students have about forms of Christianity different from their own. Such ignorance is harmful to the body of Christ. The challenge, it would seems me, is to find a way to express our beliefs in all their fullness, while listening and striving to understand those of another. This could yield common ground, growth, and insight. Centuries of violence, mistrust, ignorance, and caricature are much to overcome.
One document worth studying in light of ecumenism is the joint declaration on justification by the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church (from 1999). Greg Hillis, professor at Bellarmine University, makes a thoughtful argument about this document as a model for ecumenical dialogue:
Each side articulates fully what it believes about justification in a manner that, remarkably, allows Catholics to see much of their own theology in Lutheranism and vice versa. The result is that Lutherans and Catholics were able to make important shared statements on justification with the recognition that both Lutherans and Catholics might read those shared statements in somewhat different ways. In other words, they achieve unity without compromising diversity.2
1 C. Clifton Black, Mark (Nashville: Abingdon, 2011), 217.