This morning’s gospel reading may seem to you to be a bizarre and disconnected collection of sayings by Jesus and you wouldn’t be totally wrong. I suspect Jesus did not say them randomly back-to-back as they are listed here, but Mark has chosen them to make a point and I hope we can tease this out of these verses this morning.
Earlier in this same chapter we have Peter, James and John witness the transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain top. Peter has suggested they set up camp and stay awhile, and God the Father tells Peter, James, and John “This is my Son, the beloved, listen to him!” (Mark 9:7) Listening was not their best skill. As they come down from the mountain, the other nine disciples have been trying to heal a boy “with a demon”. The demon in this case sounds a lot like epilepsy, but whatever the cause, the disciples are unsuccessful in curing the boy. Jesus steps in, and as the father of the boy describes what has been going on he begs, “if you are able to do anything, please have pity on us and help us.” (Mark 9:22) Jesus, sounding a bit offended, repeats the man’s statement, “If you are able!” and reminds him that “all things can be done for the one who believes.” (Mark 9:23) The man confesses his belief while at the same time asking Jesus to help his unbelief. Jesus promptly heals the boy to the amazement of all, especially the 9 who had been trying unsuccessfully to heal the boy in Jesus’ absence. “Why could we not cast it out?” they ask. (Mark 9: 28) Jesus tells them “This kind can come out only through prayer.” (Mark 9: 29)
Right after this story, Mark states that Jesus, who we know is making his way toward Jerusalem where he will be betrayed, denied, tortured and crucified is trying to explain to his disciples what is about to happen to him, but they just don’t get it . Then he catches them arguing about which one of them is the greatest. Jesus gives them a lesson in humility and servant leadership using a child as his illustration.
Mark (believed to be a disciple of Peter) is never particularly flattering of the disciples and chapter 9 is no exception. Next Mark has John saying to Jesus, “ Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him because he was not following us.”
The disciples have caught an outsider accomplishing what they had just been unsuccessful at doing, and they are offended because this outsider is doing good in Jesus’ name. John is now telling Jesus expecting to be complimented and instead Jesus chastises him. “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.” (Mark 9: 39). The person John has witnessed using Jesus’ name may have seen Jesus’ name as nothing more than a powerful incantation, but Jesus is about to have a great many people speak ill of him. Someone who has been calling on Jesus’ name and seen the power it carries is not likely to be accusing him of blasphemy. In fact, Jesus tells them, people who are kind to you because you belong to me will be rewarded.
We are called to be kind to one another, to ease the burdens of one another, simply because we are God’s children, members of a heavenly family. We are not to do it to be rewarded, but the consequence of acting with compassion brings its own rewards.
Mark now turns this situation around and Jesus uses rather shocking language to get his point across. “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me,” in other words, if your actions cause someone who is faithfully following Christ to be diverted off of that path. Jesus says rather graphically, you would be better off dead. “It would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.” (Mark 9: 42). He gives you a good visual to make his point. This goes all the way back to the story of Cane and Abel in Genesis chapter 4 when the Cane, having just committed fratricide asks God, “am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen 4: 9). God’s response is basically, ‘YES’.
How do we lead others off the path? By involving them in our own sins, encouraging them in destructive behavior, and by causing people to doubt.
Jesus again illustrates rather graphically how important it is, not only that we do not lead others astray, but that we stay on the straight and narrow path ourselves. I don’t think that he was advocating self-mutilation, but was stating that physical disability is nothing compared to spiritual corruption. In Jesus’ life-time and before, physical disabilities separated one from their community and made them “other”. There were limitations on their ability to participate in religious rituals as well as the difficulties of caring for themselves. Many of the people who followed Jesus suffered from physical disability as witnessed by the many healing stories about Jesus.
Jesus gives an equally graphic description of the fate of those who do not heed his warning. He warns them that they will go to Gehenna. We translate that into English as hell, which brings about visions of Dante’s Inferno, but Gehenna was a real place with a wretched history.
Shortly before the Babylonian siege, destruction, and deportation of Jerusalem and its inhabitants the prophet Jeremiah makes this statement at the command of God at the entry of Topheth – the place of fire, aka “the valley of the son of Hinnom” or lamentations aka Gehenna.
“O kings of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem. This says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: I am going to bring such disaster upon this place that the ears of every who hears of it will tingle. Because the people have forsaken me, and have profaned this place by making offerings in it to other gods whom neither they nor their ancestors nor the kings of Judah have know, and because they have filled this place with the blood of the innocent, and gone on building the high places of Baal to burn their children in the fire as burnt offerings to Baal, which I did not command or decree, nor did it enter my mind; therefore the days are surely coming, says the Lord when this place shall no more be call Topheth or the valley of the son of Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter… (Jer. 19: 3-6) and Jeremiah continues his dire and graphic warnings for several more verses.
Jesus is describing a place cursed by God because of the idolatry and murder committed there. The fire that burns there is the memory of the fires of sacrifice which later became trash fires at dumping ground for sewage, diseased animals, and disreputable human beings denied a proper burial, a place where worms, probably magots, are always present. The place is still much the same to this day.
Human sacrifices stopped in Topheth/Gehenna long before Jesus, but idolatry and murder, and in some since sacrificing our children to the false idols of money, fame, and power still occur.
Jesus next statement is a reminder that we are all sinners and we all need to rid ourselves of those things that separate us from being who God created us to be. Jesus says, “For everyone will be salted with fire.” Mark has taken the references to fire in the previous statement and linked it to this different use of fire in this statement. This is the refiner’s fire. When precious metals are extracted from ore, they are put to the flame, the pure metal metaling off and the baser elements being eliminated. This is the fire that God uses.
Paul tells us “that suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.” (Romans 5: 3-4) James, the brother of Jesus tells us “whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance, and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing.” (James 1: 2-4)
Finally, Mark takes this “salting with fire” and transitions into the image of us as salt, that which preserves food and gives it flavor, served as a medicine, and was even used as money in ancient times. Jesus says, “Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace in the world.” ( Mark 9: 50) When salt is pure, it serves its purpose well, but when salt is diluted or contaminated with other substances it losses its saltiness. When we dilute the holiness of our lives, filling it with meaningless and unnecessary things, we are at risk of losing our effectiveness in being salt to the world.
I think Mark is reminding us of our interconnectedness with the rest of the world. We do not have the market on Jesus cornered, others, perhaps who seem different from us, may still do good deeds in Jesus’ name and we are to encourage not condemn them. We are to encourage others on the path, being careful not to fall away ourselves, or to lead others away. We are to remember that God will use our trials and tribulations to strengthen our character and in doing so, we become salt for the world, but in all things, we must remain humble remembering we are called to servant leadership not power and glory on the worlds terms.