Mark 9:38-50 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
38 John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone[a] casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” 39 But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. 40 Whoever is not against us is for us. 41 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.
42 “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me,[b] it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. 43 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,[c] to the unquenchable fire.[d] 45 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.[e][f] 47 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,[g] 48 where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.
49 “For everyone will be salted with fire.[h] 50 Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it?[i] Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”
You could call Jesus’ disciples a band of misfits. They don’t seem to understand who Jesus is or what he’s trying to do. They have their vision of messiahship, and he has his. Jesus tells them that his path leads to the cross and they argue about who is the greatest, which leads him to tell them not only that the first must be last but if you welcome the child you welcome him (and the one who sent him) (Mark 9:30-37). All of this must have been confusing to the disciples. In many ways none of this sounds all that logical. It’s counter-intuitive. As we are so often told, might makes right. The key to success is getting power and keeping it. But that’s not the way Jesus understands his mission.
Verses 38-41 seem to be an attempt by a disciple to change the subject. John brings up their observation that some other folks were doing deeds of power in the name of Jesus, but they weren’t part of their group. Jesus gives a quick answer that I want to come back to, but comes back to the question of how the “little ones” are treated. Since Jesus has already called on the disciples to welcome the children, I’m reading the “little ones” to be the children. I want to come back to John’s question in a moment, because I think it has some importance for how we understand boundaries—both ecumenically and inter-religiously.
Jesus speaks of placing stumbling blocks in the way of the little ones. The usage here is built on the Greek skandalizein of scandalize. Sharon Ringe writes that “the English cognate “scandalize” sounds quaint in a world where no action or behavior seems to shock anymore.” She goes on to write that “the sense of the verb, however, is of being so horrified that one simply cannot remain in the place or go forward along the path where one had that experience” [Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 4, p. 119]. The question is—what is causing the scandal. What sin is to be avoided, because it’s better to be thrown into the sea with a mill-stone around your neck or cut your eye out of hand off? Why is it better to go to gain access to the kingdom maimed than go to hell with all your body parts intact? All of this is quite harsh, and even scandalous in their own right. Of course, Mark’s Jesus isn’t safe and cuddly. He does like children, but he can give a rather stern and scary message when necessary. One might feel obliged to skip over this lectionary reading and try something a little more positive. After all, the reading from James 5 speaks of prayers for healing, though the reading from Esther 7 records the execution of the enemy of Esther and Mordechai—Haman. So, maybe this isn’t so bad.
It would seem that Jesus is concerned about boundaries and character. He’s not concerned about those outside the community who happen to do what is right, while those within the community fail to act accordingly. He reminds them that they are an example to others, including children. Of course this can lead to legalism. Remember how Origen went out and castrated himself so he wouldn’t face temptation? Paul dealt with the question of meat offered to idols, which appeared to be causing problems for members of that community. While idols don’t represent reality, Paul recommends that consciences be respected. I’m really not sure who is the weak and who is the strong, but it is better not to eat something that causes another to stumble (1 Corinthians 8). Again, character counts, which is what I hear in Jesus admonition about salt. If it has lost its saltiness, what good is it? We’re to be salt—a spiritual seasoning in the world. So have the salt of the Spirit in you so that you can be at peace with each other.
This takes me back to the top, and John’s question. I think this is a character question as well, but of a somewhat different manner. John is upset that there are other people, exorcists, who are casting out demons in Jesus’ name. The problem is that they’re not of the in-group. Although denominationalism isn’t what it once was, we still get jealous about our territory as Christians. We can begin to think of ourselves and the way we do things as being the truly Christian way. Why else would we do it this way? My own denominational founders faced this temptation. They called on other Christians to join them in Christian unity. All the others had to do was give up their human traditions and adopt the true New Testament Christianity that they proffered. The problem was—these other Christians believed that they also had the true faith, and that they’re traditions reflected the true biblical faith.
Jesus’ answer to John is pretty straightforward. If they’re not against us, then they’re for us. After all, it does appear that they were being successful, otherwise why would John be fretting? Jesus has a broader vision. If others give you a cup of water because you bear the name of Jesus, then they receive their reward. Boundaries for Jesus seem more permeable, and yet Jesus is concerned about character and behavior. How we live does reflect on what we say. The world around us has concluded that we Christians may not be such a blessing to the world after all. They call us hypocrites, and perhaps that is who we are, and if it is true then we have scandalized the world. So, speaking of boundaries, there are the denominational boundaries we erect, but there are also the boundaries that we erect between Christians and non-Christians. The question that we face as Christians is whether God is active and present in other religious traditions? As we consider this question, we must be willing to do some work of discernment. We must ask the question of what it means to be Christian, and whether those qualities are present not only other religions, but in our communities as well. For to critique other religions when our own communities are scandal prone, should cause us to stop and take stock of where the Spirit is truly present! Jesus says that “whoever is not against is for us,” and besides that, “have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”