Posted: September 26, 2018 in Uncategorized

Mark 9:38-50


Demons and hell and self-mutilation! This is pretty heavy stuff. While the violence of this language is particularly striking after the immediately preceding portrait of Jesus gently taking a child into his arms, the harshness of these sayings affirms the absolute seriousness of Jesus’ message. The pericope as a whole instructs the disciples to remove whatever barriers stand before the Kingdom of God, but the surprising news is that it is often the disciples themselves who are the ones in the way.

We need to be careful here not to dismiss the exorcism as in the land of witches and warlocks because even as late as 90 CE we had Jewish Exorcists using Solomon’s Methods in conducting an exorcism. Josephus that great Jewish historian reminds us that

God helped Solomon learn the technique to heal and treat men against demons. He also composed incantations by which spiritual disorders are remedied. Solomon left behind methods of exorcism by which the possessor will drive out demons so that they never return. Josephus talks about the method as being a very powerful therapy where one would hold a ring that had one of those roots prescribed by Solomon under its seal to the nose of the demoniac; then, when he smelled (it), the demon came out through the (victim’s) nostrils. And when the man collapsed on the spot, the demon was made to swear never to enter him again. The healer would invoke Solomon and recite incantations Solomon had composed. Sometimes to prove the therapy a bowl of water was placed nearby and order the demon to upset the bowl as evidence that it had actually left the man.

In Mark the problem with the unauthorized exorcist is not that he has failed to show himself as a follower of Jesus but that he is not following “us.” Once again, the disciples grapple with the issues of identity and authority, but Jesus’ response is clear: “Do not stop him.” This command and the following instruction call the disciples to respond to believers outside of their community in a way that does not hinder them. By recognizing the legitimacy of the exorcist’s work, the disciples are forced to acknowledge that Jesus’ transformative power extends beyond their own inner circle. The knowledge that others are effectively engaging in ministry invites the disciples to consider the existence of a broad Christian fellowship marked only by belief in Jesus. One can sense here the world where the gospel was going beyond the devout Jew to include other Jewish sects and variations of Judaism. Perhaps a hangover from the demise of the Northern Kingdom and then the overthrow if Judah. The gospel was needing to include the so-called outsiders if it was to retain authenticity.

This revelation in turn alerts the disciples to the nature of their own ability to pursue ministry. Clearly the source of the disciples’ capacity to accomplish any work is found in Jesus alone rather than either in the disciples themselves or in their status in any particular group. Verse 42 reinforces the injunction against interfering with the mission of those outside of the disciples’ inner circle and initiates a block of text warning the disciples against placing similar stumbling blocks before themselves.

The metaphors of hand, foot, and eye invite the disciples to evaluate the totality of their existence to discern any behaviour, self-conception, or world view that hinders the attainment of a fuller relationship with God. The issue here does not seem to be one of actions in this life that lead to eternal reward or punishment in a life to come. Instead, the kingdom is so presently accessible that the disciples need only remove any stumbling blocks of their own making that obstruct an otherwise open path. By identifying and eliminating any self-destructive resistance, the disciples are drawn into the life of the Kingdom of God and are released from the hell that is separation from God.

The closing sayings about salt instruct the disciples to purify themselves by removing whatever contaminant hinders the effectiveness of their mission. This metaphor of purification complements the metaphor of cutting away that which causes one to stumble. Again, the disciples are commanded to adopt a rigorous self-discipline that leads to greater effectiveness in ministry.

What we might think about here is that this text invites communities to identify the self-constructed stumbling blocks that prevent flourishing. In other words, are there subtle ways in which the church sabotages its very own ministries? Are the goals of committees in conflict with each other? Is the ministry of the church controlled by a select few whose needs and interests do not represent the larger body? Is the church clinging to a self-identity that no longer reflects its membership or a vision that no longer holds relevance? What’s keeping the church from discerning the will of God and pursuing Christ’s ministry? How can the church become Spirit-led rather than ego-driven? All questions that ask how we make sense of how to deal with the insider, outsider dilemma.

Ken Wilber of Integral Spirituality fame offers a way of approaching this with a simple method. He offers an idea from the process of integral thinking, turning attention to three critical principles: ‘Everyone is right’ This is a non-exclusion setting of the scene. The second principle is that ‘Some are more-right than others’ This is an inclusion of difference as a richness. And the third principle is If you want to know this, do that. This is the practical application to any matter under discussion.

These terms originate from Ken’s Integral Methodological Pluralism framework, a robust meta-paradigmatic scaffolding that seeks to honour, include, and integrate multiple paradigms and methodologies and practices across all domains of human knowing. But while these three principles are intended to help people make their particular fields of knowledge more expansive, comprehensive, and complete, they can also be taken more generally as three essential qualities of the integral mind, and can be used as an ongoing micro-practice to help us see more fully, communicate more skillfully, and discover the best and most effective solutions to whatever problems we happen to be facing. In other words, they can be an effective way of dealing with the inclusion, exclusion, insiders, outsiders issue.

I am sure we can all think of instances where members of a congregation in extreme cases loved to compartmentalize or isolate the church across the street. Although they never bothered to visit this congregation, they probably considered their community to be everything that theirs was not. They prided ourselves on their high liturgy and lofty intellectualism, and they condemned the others for worshipping in a manner they considered insubstantial and for attracting a membership they deemed infantile. They even complained about the increased traffic resulting from heavy attendance at their services!

Instead of responding to the success of the neighboring church with a re-evaluation of their own programs, they clung to their old habits. They increased only in bitterness and self-righteousness rather than in membership and ministry. One wonders what opportunities were missed because they, like the disciples, considered those Christians outside their community to be competition rather than partners in Christ’s service.

Returning again to the text, this time in the everyday setting of a congregation we revisit the insider outsider scenario. It was just an off-hand comment, an aside to a friend at church about how so-and-so made a fool of herself in the Sunday School meeting. She thought no one else was listening. She didn’t realize that the target of her comment was around the corner hearing every word.

He didn’t intend to scare off the worship guests, the young couple who sat down timidly and fumbled with the bulletin. But they were in his seat. He glared at them through the entire service.

In these and many other ways we put stumbling blocks before other people. We trip them up and create obstacles along their journey of faith by our labeling and isolating activity.

We also remember that we too are in many cases the outsider. We too stumble. Jesus condemns those who lead other followers astray, and he also warns against stumbling ourselves. He points to our own hands, feet, and eyes causing us to stumble (vv. 43, 45, 47). As the headlines, office gossip, and neighbourhood rumours demonstrate, there are often other body parts involved as well. There is something deeper than the missteps of the hand, foot, and eye, though. Stumbling is a condition of the heart. It’s trusting the desires of the things we touch and hold, the places we go, and the things we see more than trusting in our God.

And thirdly we confront the outcome of this unfortunate dualism, this either or pathway, this insider, outsider approach. Jesus is clear that trusting in and indulging the flesh, whether the hand, foot, eye, or another part of the body, only leads to one end: disaster. (vv. 43, 45, 57). When the desires of our bodies and our hearts are so strong, and the temptation to put a stumbling block in a believer’s path is so great, no one is exempt from the possibility of ending up in disaster. We cannot avoid this outcome if we go down that pathway. We can’t self-amputate and declare ourselves forgiven, even if we follow Jesus’ command to cut off our hand or foot, or tear out our eye (vv. 43, 45, 47). Disaster is the only outcome. Here Mark doesn’t hold back. He has Jesus letting loose on how he describes disaster. It’s a place where “their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched” (v. 48).

And what’s the prognosis? Well! It seems that there is hope. There is a way of addressing difference that is not about one being inside while the other is outside. There is this thing called everlasting life and it is a promise or a reward that reaches through the stumbling and struggling that makes up normal living. Amid all of the warnings against stumbling and causing others to stumble, Jesus points out a promise, or as it he calls it here, “the reward” (v. 41). There is a way to be saved from the punishments of human reality, not in terms of a removal of struggle because it cannot be accomplished by a stumble-free life. And because of human reality, there is no such thing as a denial of or an escape from. We receive the reward, we are saved from disaster, and we are given the gift of life through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. It is a whole of life engagement. Jesus gave up everything, even life itself, so that we might see what life is about. Despite their actions and the condition of their hearts, those who stumble are able to “enter life” (vv. 43 & 45) and “enter the kingdom of God.”

Then we have the idea of restored saltiness. When the heart trusts, the heart no longer stumbles by being tripped up by its own motives and desires. Instead, it soars. To use another image that Jesus uses in this text, the heart becomes “salty” (v. 50), since it has been transformed. When one has salt in oneself (v. 50), others can’t help but notice. Instead of throwing up a stumbling block in someone else’s path, one’s saltiness acts like an invitation. One’s saltiness attracts others to the richness and depth of life that comes from trusting and opening one’s hands to receive the gift of salvation again not salvation from but rather salvation within.

And finally, we have the impact of this openness and inclusive approach to life. When one embraces “the reward” and “bears the name of the Jesus Way (v. 41), then instead of relationships being wrecked, the various parts of the body can be used in awe-inspiring “deeds of power” such as the giving to fellow travelers “a cup of water to drink” (v. 41) we can extend our hands, feet, and eyes in service so that others also may turn away from disaster and embrace the realities of life. And as a parting shot I would suggest the above is a challenge to the Augustinian view that he created when generalizing his own emotional struggles by creating a split self and a sundered soul that led the Catholic Church down the path of its doctrine of human nature, which deemed all souls fallen and broken and in need of an external supernatural redemption. Amen.

  1. This sermon quotes directly and heavily from my 2009 lectionary post here: http://jointhefeast.blogspot.com/2009/08/september-27-2009-mark-938-50-charlotte.html

    I would appreciate the courtesy of a citation.

  2. revdougnz says:

    Don’t recall having read your post however given that there is little original material I am happy to acknowledge a connection.

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