MARK 9:38-50. THE CONTEXT
This passage follows the story of Jesus taking a child in his arms and saying, “Whoever receives one such little child in my name, receives me” (v. 37). In verse 42, Jesus sounds a similar note, but with the opposite emphasis, “Whoever will cause one of these little ones who believe in me to stumble, it would be better for him if he were thrown into the sea with a millstone hung around his neck” (v. 42). Mark places the conversation about the exorcist (vv. 38-41) between these two passages about children and little ones.
Jesus is “on the way” (8:27; 9:33), a code phrase for his journey to Jerusalem and the cross. Until Peter acknowledged him as Christ (8:29), Jesus’ ministry was characterized by miracles and admiring crowds. Once revealed as Christ, Jesus “began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again” (8:31).
From this point until his arrival in Jerusalem, Jesus focuses on preparing the disciples for what lies ahead. One of his chief emphases will be helping them to understand discipleship as humble service rather than as position and power (9:33-42; 10:13-31, 35-45). The first part of our Gospel lesson is part of that emphasis.
MARK 9:38-41. WHOEVER IS NOT AGAINST US IS ON OUR SIDE
38John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone who doesn’t follow us casting out demons in your name; and we forbade him, because he doesn’t follow us.” 39But Jesus said, “Don’t forbid him, for there is no one who will do a mighty work in my name, and be able quickly to speak evil of me.40For whoever is not against us is on our side. 41For whoever will give you a cup of water to drink in my name, because you are Christ’s, most certainly I tell you, he will in no way lose his reward.”
“John said to him, ‘Teacher, we saw someone who doesn’t follow us casting out demons in your name; and we forbade him, because he doesn’t follow us'” (v. 38). This is John, the son of Zebedee, the brother of James—one of the Sons of Thunder. His nickname suggests a volcanic personality—too ready to act precipitously. That is what he does here.
The exorcist probably observed the exorcism reported in 9:14-29 and experimented with using Jesus’ name. John does not ask Jesus how to handle the exorcist, but simply reports what the disciples have done—probably seeking Jesus’ praise or at least hoping that he will confirm their action.
Note that John does not say, “He doesn’t follow you (Jesus)”, but “he doesn’t follow us.” Jesus never says, “Come after us”—meaning “Come after me and my disciples.” He frequently says, “Come after me” (1:17; 2:14; 8:34; 10:21). John has, without authority, broadened the concept of following to include the disciples. In the next chapter, we will see the full scope of his ambition (10:35-45), but here we see its beginnings.
John is one of three disciples, Peter, James, and John, privileged to be with Jesus on several special occasions—at the healing/resurrection of the daughter of the synagogue ruler (5:37)—at the transfiguration (9:2)—and at Gethsemane (14:22). However, the Gospels also present these privileged three as quick to say the wrong thing. Peter rebuked Jesus when Jesus first foretold his death and resurrection (8:32)—and put his foot in his mouth at the Transfiguration (9:5). When Jesus foretold his death a second time, James and John were too involved with their personal ambitions to hear what he said (9:30-41). Now John finds that he has made another mistake by forbidding exorcists who weren’t following “us.”
There is a note of frustration in John’s comment. The disciples tried, apparently without success, to stop the man who was casting out demons. A part of their frustration surely stems from their earlier failure to perform an exorcism (9:14-29). Now these “certified” disciples, still smarting from that failure, fail to stop an “uncertified” but successful exorcist who is using Jesus’ name without authorization. John is surely concerned here, not only with protecting the sanctity of Jesus’ name, but also with protecting the disciples’ unique status. If Jesus commissioned the twelve (6:7-13), he must intend for them to accomplish whatever work that is to be done in his name—or so John imagines.
The book of Acts records an incident in which Jewish exorcists, using Jesus’ name, failed dismally and were beaten by the demon-possessed man for their trouble (Acts 19:13-16)—demonstrating that it is possible to use Jesus’ name wrongly and making it clear that Jesus’ name has power only when pronounced in faith.
“But Jesus said, ‘Don’t forbid him, for there is no one who will do a mighty work in my name, and be able quickly to speak evil of me. For whoever is not against us is on our side'” (vv. 39-40). The disciples drew a circle to keep the exorcist out, but Jesus re-draws the circle to include him in. The one who touched lepers (1:41), ate with tax collectors and sinners (2:15-16), and took little children into his arms (9:36) draws a wide circle. The disciples will soon be reminded of this when they try to prevent children from coming to Jesus (10:13-16).
Unlike the scribes and Pharisees, who have been against Jesus from the beginning (2:18, 24; 3:6; 7:1-5; 8:11), the exorcist is not an enemy. The exorcist’s work (driving out demons or evil spirits) is in keeping with Jesus’ concerns. While this exorcist would not meet the standard of authentic discipleship, Jesus shows sympathy for his work and encourages his disciples to do the same.
Jesus does not open the door to every religious activity here. He distinguishes this exorcist from others in two ways. First, the exorcist does “a mighty work.” The effect of his work is both extraordinary and beneficial—he has cast out demons. Second, he has done so “in my name”—in the name of Jesus. While it is possible to use Jesus’ name in vain, Jesus would know if that were the case here. It is obvious from Jesus’ comments that this man’s calling upon his name has a ring of authenticity that Jesus can endorse.
A similar incident took place centuries earlier when Moses appointed seventy elders, whom God then gave the gift of prophecy. Eldad and Medad were not among the seventy, but also prophesied. Joshua called Moses to stop Eldad and Medad, but Moses responded, “Are you jealous for my sake? I wish that all Yahweh’s people were prophets, that Yahweh would put his Spirit on them!” (Numbers 11:29).
Likewise, Jesus calls the disciples to a more inclusive vision. “Whoever is not against us is on our side” (v. 40). We need to hear that in a church fragmented along many lines—denominational, doctrinal, racial, socio-economic, national, liberal/conservative, social-action/evangelical, charismatic/non-charismatic, and young/elderly. We are always tempted to regard Christians from the other side of the line as inferior—if we think of them as Christians at all. Perhaps more to the point, we ordained clergy can be jealous of our prerogatives and dismissive of laypersons who move into areas of ministry usually reserved for clergy. Laypersons serving in official positions can often be equally jealous of their authority. Christ calls us to put aside petty jealousies and to respect the gifts of those who work in his name.
However, there is a fine line between those who believe differently and those whose beliefs are incompatible with Christian teachings. The church needs to be careful to adhere to the fundamentals of the faith—and not to “dumb down” basic doctrines in an attempt to accommodate those who believe differently.
“For whoever will give you a cup of water to drink in my name, because you are Christ’s, most certainly I tell you, he will in no way lose his reward” (v. 41). Elsewhere, Jesus calls us to love enemies and to help vulnerable people generally, but his blessing here is directed to those who help Christians—those who “are Christ’s.” The principle is that the king’s emissary is to be treated with the respect due the king—with appropriate rewards and punishments for people who give or fail to give such respect.
The gift that Jesus mentions is simple—a cup of cold water—essential to life but something that almost anyone can give. The cup of water symbolizes any practical gift—food, clothing, shelter, financial aid, or help getting out of a ditch.
Note the similarity to the prior passage, “Whoever receives one such little child in my name, receives me” (v. 37). It is the name of Jesus that identifies the welcoming person (v. 37) and the recipient of the water (v. 41).
MARK 9:42-48. STUMBLING BLOCKS & LITTLE ONES
42“Whoever will cause one of these little ones who believe in me to stumble, (Greek: skandalise—causes to stumble) it would be better for him if he were thrown into the sea with a millstone (Greek: mulos onikos—a donkey millstone—a large millstone) hung around his neck. 43If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed, rather than having your two hands to go into Gehenna, into the unquenchable fire, 44‘where their worm doesn’t die, and the fire is not quenched.’ 45If your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life lame, rather than having your two feet to be cast into Gehenna, (Greek: geennan) into the fire that will never be quenched— 46‘where their worm doesn’t die, and the fire is not quenched.’ 47If your eye causes you to stumble, cast it out. It is better for you to enter into the Kingdom of God with one eye, rather than having two eyes to be cast into the Gehenna (geennan) of fire, 48‘where their worm doesn’t die, and the fire is not quenched.'”
NOTE: Verses 44 and 46 are not found in the best Greek texts, and many translations omit them.
“Whoever will cause one of these little ones who believe in me to stumble” (v. 42a). These “little ones” (v. 42) are not children but rather “little ones who believe in me”—believers of new or delicate faith—little in the sense that they are vulnerable. A strong, mature Christian might ignore a harsh word or bad example, but these little ones might be injured. “Stumble” could refer either to loss of faith or being drawn into sin.
“it would be better for him if he were thrown into the sea with a millstone hung around his neck” (v. 42b). There are small human-powered millstones and larger donkey-powered millstones. Jesus specifies the larger mulos onikos—a donkey-powered millstone. A man could not lift a donkey-millstone.
Placed round a person’s neck and tossed into the sea, the millstone would carry the person quickly and permanently to the bottom. The person dragged to the bottom of the sea by a millstone would be denied a proper burial—a terrible fate in Jewish eyes.
Jesus is not suggesting that we drown people who cause others to stumble, but instead uses hyperbole—exaggerated language—to dramatize the danger of causing injury to “little ones.” His point is that a person who causes such “little ones” to stumble will suffer a terrible fate at God’s hands—a fate even more terrible than being suddenly and violently drowned at sea.
“If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed, rather than having your two hands to go into Gehenna, into the unquenchable fire” (v. 43). In the Old Testament, Gehenna was the place where the wicked were punished. The name Gehenna comes from the Hebrew, ge Hinnom, which means the Valley of Hinnom. This was a valley near Jerusalem where human sacrifice was sometimes practiced (2 Kings 23:10) and where rubbish from Jerusalem was burned in fires that never cooled. This valley, therefore, stands as a metaphor for a place of eternal, fiery damnation.
Again, as in verse 42, Jesus uses hyperbole—exaggerated language—to dramatize his point. He has talked about the danger of one person causing another to stumble—an outside threat. Now he talks about danger of temptations that rise up within us—an inside threat.
The preacher must handle verses 43-47 carefully, lest a “little one” in the congregation hear these verses as a call to self-mutilation. If we are careless at this point, causing “little ones who believe in me” to injure themselves, we become liable to judgment—become the one for whom it would be better to be cast into the sea with a donkey-millstone hung about his/her neck.
Today, we might re-phrase Jesus’ words this way: “If it costs an arm and a leg to resist temptation, it is worth it.” When we talk like that, we aren’t suggesting that a person literally sacrifice an arm or leg, but are simply using colorful language to make the point that resisting temptation is very, very important.
However, if we should not take Jesus words, “cut it off,” literally, we must take them seriously. Discipleship sometimes requires amputations. We need to amputate bad habits—resentments—ambitions that cause us to act unethically. The recovering alcoholic or drug addict needs to amputate old relationships that threaten to pull him/her back to a life of addiction. The rich young ruler needed to amputate his wallet. We need to amputate things that stand between us and God.
“It is better for you to enter into life maimed, rather than having your two hands to go into Gehenna, into the unquenchable fire” (v. 43b). These references to hell are difficult for many Christians today who are uncomfortable with the idea of hell. However, they are Jesus’ words, and we dare not discount them. They draw our attention to the holiness and justice of God, which are as real as the grace of God. This is the only reference to hell and its torments in this Gospel, and we should note that it is disciples who are in danger rather than unbelievers. Both the stumbling Christian and the Christian who causes others to stumble are subject to judgment.
“where their worm doesn’t die, and the fire is not quenched” (v. 48). This is derived from Isaiah 66:24: “They shall go forth, and look on the dead bodies of the men who have transgressed against me: for their worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched; and they will be loathsome to all mankind.”
In its original context, the verse from Isaiah warned that those who opposed God would be subject to a loathsome judgment. Jesus quotes that verse to warn that such judgment is still possible.
MARK 9:49-50. SALT & FIRE
49“For everyone will be salted with fire, and every sacrifice will be seasoned with salt. 50Salt is good, but if the salt has lost its saltiness, with what will you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”
The sayings of verses 49-50 appear to be three independent sayings that Mark brings together because they all refer to salt.
“For everyone will be salted with fire” (v. 49). Both salt and fire are useful in preserving meat, and temple sacrifices require salt as well as fire (Leviticus 2:13). Now Jesus uses salt and fire to represent the hardships that disciples will experience for their faithfulness (Edwards, 296; France, 383), suggesting that the disciples will be the offerings and that they will be salted with persecution—a present reality for Mark’s church, which was living with persecution at the time of the writing of this Gospel.
“Salt is good; but if the salt has lost its saltiness, with what will you season it?” (v. 50a). Salt is good because it makes food palatable and functions as a preservative. Pure salt does not lose its saltiness, but salt found on the shores of the Dead Sea is often intermixed with impurities to the extent that it is no longer fit to use for seasoning or preservation. Adulterated salt serves as a metaphor for disciples who become adulterated with the world’s values—thus losing both their faith-flavor and their ability to make a difference in the world.
“Have salt in yourselves, (or “among yourselves”) and be at peace with one another” (v. 50b). My understanding of this verse is that Jesus is calling his disciples to maintain the saltiness of their faith while also maintaining their peace with one another—a difficult balance to achieve.
This is a helpful word for the church today, where peace is often threatened by Christians who insist on imposing their own agenda rather than working peaceably with others. In a sense, this verse is related to verse 39, where Jesus commands John not to stop the man who is casting out demons in Jesus’ name. In that instance, Jesus is calling us to be at peace with outsiders. In verse 50, he is calling us to be at peace with insiders.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Copyright 2015, Richard Niell Donovan