Power and Persecution
Week of Sunday September 30 - Pentecost 18
Gospel: Mark 9:38-50
33 Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the way?’ 34But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. 35He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ 36Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’
38 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.’39But 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.40Whoever is not against us is for us. 41For 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.
42 ‘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. 43If 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. 45And 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.,47And 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, 48where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.
49 ‘For everyone will be salted with fire. 50Salt 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.’
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I’ve included some verses set down for last week. Look at verse 37. When Jesus picks up the little child he says:
‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’
Immediately John says (38)
‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.’
Talk about not welcome!
Verse 38 is an immediate and deliberate contrast to verse 37! Welcome, welcome, welcome, welcome... we forbid. We are, in fact, still talking about “who is the greatest.” (36) In the view of the world, the one who is the greatest has the power to decide who belongs, who is accepted, and who will receive the rewards. Some people are accepted in, some are defined out.
Ironically, the man the disciples wanted to define out was successfully casting out demons; they had just failed in that same activity in verse 18. Sometimes those we disparage seem, nonetheless, to be achieving things we are unable to achieve! (HT to Brian for this insight.)
Jesus seems to be saying that what defines acceptability to him is not membership of our little group. What matter is if a person is acting “in my name.” The phrase is repeated:
whoever receives one such child in my name...
casting out demons in your name...
no one who does a deed of power in my name...
because you bear the name of Christ....
What matters is doing things in Jesus’ name; acting the way Jesus would act. Everything in this reading is about action, not doctrine. In the same spirit as Matthew 25, Jesus says “whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.”
Brian Stoffregen repeats an anecdote which nicely summarises Jesus’ view on who is in and who is out:
Jensen (Preaching Mark's Gospel) quotes an unnamed professor of theology who once said: "Whenever you want to draw lines in order to mark who is outside the kingdom and who is inside, always remember: Jesus is on the other side of the line! Jesus is always with the outsiders!" [italics in the original, p. 149.]
So far then, greatness and power are about serving, not lording, and acceptance and reward are about acting in Jesus name, rather than belonging to the correct clique. This has all been about life in the community. It springs from the context of the disciples’ discussion “on the way,” (33,34) which is Mark’s code phrase for those who travel with Jesus; ie, the church. He repeats the phrase twice. In other words, we are to be a community of justice based in Jesus; that finally, is where our correct use of power leads us.
Then there is another repetition in these verses: the word whoever. It gets slightly hidden by the NRSV translation of verse 42.
whoever wants to be first... (35)
whoever welcomes one such child in my name... (37)
whoever welcomes me... (37)
for no one who does a deed of power in my name... (39) (the words for whoever, hos an, are not here in the Greek, but whoever is implied.)
whoever gives you a cup of water to drink... (40 This is you plural; the community)
whoever puts a stumbling-block... ( 42 NRSV has ‘If any of you put a stumbling-block...)
It seems to me that there is no mention of an in-group here. Mark's community, referred to as “you” are not excluded from being among the “whoevers”; indeed, they should be among them. But whoever is anyone. In verse 40, whoever is, in fact, implied to be someone who is not a member of the community but who is helping the the community.
Whoever puts a stumbling block in the way of the community of the little ones who believe in Jesus risks a terrible end. This community which is struggling to manage its power and leadership also sounds like a community which is persecuted. Even a cup of water is welcome!
The response to this persecution is not to curse the outsiders and the persecutors. Not all those who are not in our community are against us. (40, 41) Jesus' response is to deal with our own community behaviour, and to live clean. This is a marked contrast to our preferred behaviour when we suffer, or are on the defensive. The favourite human strategy is to demonise the outsider and the oppressor. We take the role of victim, which lets us excuse our own faults, and even allows us to justify wrongdoing; how can it be our fault, how can we be blamed? We are righteous; the ones being sinned against, here.
This teaching has already begun with the lesson on servant leadership and greatness (35) which follows on from the lesson that even the Messiah will suffer and die. His resurrection and power will come from this suffering. (30-32)
Rather than rail at those who sin against us, Jesus calls us to make sure there is no sin within us. There is no more whoever in the text. It is all you. If any of you... your hand, your foot, your eye...
It is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, says Jesus in verse 43. He speaks of entering life again in verse 45, and then in verse 47 says, 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. Life and Kingdom of God, the same things really, are shut off to us if we do not live well with each other, and if we do not live clean.
We might note here that the people who enter life are the maimed; Jewish tradition tended to see the maimed and imperfect as not blessed of God and not holy. Sacrifices had to be without blemish.
You will notice I have said “if we do not live well with each other, and if we do not live clean.” Clearly, leadership and greatness and servanthood are about living well with each other. The point is made clear at the end of the reading; be at peace with one another. (50)
But why live clean? The references to hand, eye and foot easily bear sexual overtones. Loader notes this in his commentary this week, with some interesting reflections on how to deal with sexual abuse. We might remember the seraphs in Isaiah 6.
... each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew.... (Isa 6:2)
Why six wings on an angel? You must cover your eyes in the presence of God, or die. “Feet” is a euphemism for genitals; nakedness is not to be exposed.
The church seems always to fail in the areas of power (which includes greed and injustice) and of sex. Take the issues relating to sex and the power out of Paul’s lists of exhortations and condemnations, and not much is left! (Try Galatians 5:16ff)
Jesus seems to be saying that what matters is not church membership. What matters is if we live according to his name; justly and clean.
Or, as Betty says to Merrily in A Crown of Lights:
Faith is faith, but religions are no better than the people who practice them.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!