As we dive into what God has for us this week in the gospel according to Mark, I want to back up and give us a broad overview of what’s happened to get us to this point—not just because context is important, but because it will help us make sense of this particular chunk of Scripture.
Mark 9 begins with what we call the ‘Transfiguration’ – Jesus leads Peter, James, and John up a mountain and shows them his true glory. He literally shines with the glory of God as he holds a conversation with Moses and Elijah. The three disciples have no idea what’s going on.
After this, he heals a boy who was possessed. As they leave that town, the disciples spend their time arguing about who among them is the greatest—the closest to Jesus, the best disciple, the smartest one.
Just before our story, Jesus confronts them about it, and he says: ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’
And that’s where we pick up the story.
John said to him, ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.’ But Jesus said, ‘Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. 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.
‘If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell., And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.
‘For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.’
This is one of the few moments in the gospels where we see Jesus correcting his disciples with promises of judgment and personal consequences. It’s not a happy moment, but it is a necessary one—to call these followers to account for their hearts and their hands.
The disciples, despite their humble beginnings as fishermen and tax collectors, seem to have gained a bit of an ego after following Jesus for a while. By now, they know full well that Jesus is powerful beyond anything they’ve ever seen, and Peter has already figured out that he’s the long-promised Messiah. So, Peter, James, and John in particular spend a lot of time trying to protect or hedge in Jesus, like some sort of ancient bouncers. Each one has spent more than a moment or two jockeying for the highest position in this band of followers.
Dr. Mark Stamm, a theologian and professor, reminds us that “Of the three who accompanied Jesus at the transfiguration—Peter, James, and John—all took turns at misunderstanding Jesus’ intentions for disciples. Peter resisted the call to the cross [when he tried to reprimand Jesus for saying he would die.] In this pericope, John saw spiritual authority not as means to participate in God’s liberating work, but as a possession to be guarded. Later, James (and John) saw God’s promise as opportunity for promotion [when they ask to sit on Jesus’ right and left hand in the new kingdom of God.] In each case we see enthusiasm focused on the wrong goals…”
Instead of focusing on the presence and work of Jesus, rejoicing at the idea of another person doing good work in his name, John tries to shut them down. He thought Jesus’ power could be enclosed, held in by membership in a particular group or even physical proximity to Jesus.
But he was wrong. Because those closest to Jesus in this passage aren’t necessarily the ones who are standing next to him—the ones closest to Jesus are those who are doing good work in Jesus’ name. Whether it’s healing, preaching, teaching, or even just handing out a cup of cold water—those who know Jesus best are the ones who do what he says.
Jesus cannot be walled in with neat boundaries, efficiently organized meetings, precise language about who’s in and who’s out—and this is good news. It’s good news especially after a week like this one, because it means that the love and power of Jesus don’t belong solely to any one church, to any political party, to any denomination. The name of Jesus belongs to those who are living and loving like Jesus.
That’s one advantage to being Presbyterian: we’ve never believed that ours was the only way. We know that we’re just part of the Church, that believers who look different and worship differently and even believe differently than we do aren’t our enemies—they’re our brothers and sisters in Christ.
When Jesus corrects John, he reminds us that the thing at the center of the Church is not our own work, our own alliances, or even our own opinions—it’s Jesus. The name of Jesus belongs to all who call on him, and we recognize Jesus among us and within us when we see and know the power of the Holy Spirit in our everyday lives.
This is the sort of leadership that Jesus was trying to cultivate in his disciples: the kind of life that tends to spread like crabgrass, rather than stay neatly within a landscaped border.
That’s one disadvantage, I suppose, to being Presbyterian. For all of our talk of doing things decently and in order, this sort of ministry—the everyday ministry that we do outside of these walls, when we comfort a friend or buy a meal for someone who doesn’t have stable housing, when we do our weekday jobs with integrity and passion, when we meet a conflict with curiosity or compassion—those things don’t lend themselves well to official reports, with numbers and classifications and multiple-choice questions.
But that’s the true work of transformation. It was Anne Lamott, I believe, who said: “I do not understand the mystery of grace — only that it meets us where we are and does not leave us where it found us.”
It’s that mystery that brings us to the second part of our passage—the fire and brimstone part.
It’s almost unanimously agreed among Christians that this is hyperbole. No sane person wants to start doling out capital punishments for heretics, and Jesus absolutely is not asking us to deliberately maim ourselves to prevent sin. I think y’all already knew that, but I just wanted to make sure we’re absolutely clear.
But as graphic and terrifying as this passage might be, it’s a fascinating exercise in how Jesus teaches. It’s subtle, but Jesus moves from a question about boundaries and who’s ‘on our side,’ and pivots to redirect the disciples away from being preoccupied with someone else and toward examining their own hearts, their own actions, their own motives and goals.
What is it that we need to prune away in order to follow Jesus more wholly?
Our hands symbolize our work and our actions. Is there an activity or habit that you would be better served to cut out of your life?
Our feet move us toward a destination – are our goals in line with being good citizens of the kingdom of God?Our eyes symbolize that which attracts our attention – where are our priorities, and what are we most easily distracted by?
I also want us to notice, though, that these questions are directed at us as individuals, while also recognizing that our behavior affects others in the community. I am solely responsible for my own choices, behavior, goals and priorities—and each of you is responsible for yours. But at the same time, we’re encouraged to think about the ways we influence others, particularly the “little ones” among us: not only children, but also those who are most vulnerable in every sense.
Especially in the age of social media, when we have instant access to hundreds or thousands of people at once, some of whom we know and love deeply, and many whom we barely know, what we do and say absolutely has the potential to encourage and enhance faith and faithfulness, or to be a stumbling block.
The idea is not that we project a fake image of perfection—that’s almost more dangerous than owning our mistakes, because that fake image will inevitably fade and fall. The idea is that we pay attention to ourselves, that we take good care of our minds, hearts, bodies and souls so that we can add to the good in the world—rather than add to the constant chaos.
And if you find yourself lost in the chaos, if you’re having trouble finding your own voice in the midst of the cacophony of negativity, if you’re feeling stuck in a rut of anxiety or sadness or anger, please know that there are all sorts of people who can help—it doesn’t have to be forever.
Despite the tone of this passage, there is all sorts of good news here. The river of God’s mercy is wider than we can imagine, there is grace enough there even for our deepest fears and worst failures, and even Jesus knows we won’t reach absolute perfection on this side of God’s kingdom—but he does ask us to take good care of ourselves, so that we can care well for one another.
Just as we receive grace, we’re called to offer it to others—even to our enemies. So take good care, friends. And no matter how the wind blows, no matter which dominoes fall, may you find your center in the power of the Holy Spirit, which is Christ’s life and love among us.