Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 27, 2009 (Lectionary 26)
Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29
Psalm 19:7-14 (8)
Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22
Psalm 124 (7)
Prayer of the Day
Generous God, your Son gave his life that we might come to peace with you. Give us a share of your Spirit, and in all we do empower us to bear the name of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
Alleluia. You word, O | Lord, is truth;
sanctify us | in the truth. Alleluia. (John 17:7)
1a. CONTEXT: Mark 9:38--50
This pericope is a continuation of the apothegmatic section which began at verse 33 in the midst of last Sunday's reading. This teaching section does not consist of parables or exhortations to the crowd, nor of explication of such public instruction for the sake of his disciples. Such proclamation and teaching was of course integral to Jesus' Galilean ministry, but this collection of the Lord's teaching is placed just following the dramatic turning of his mission in the direction of the Cross, i.e. after Peter's "confession", the Transfiguration, and three passion predictions in close succession. Even though they are momentarily resting at their home base in Capernaum, Jesus and his followers are already on the journey to Jerusalem.
Thus do we have here a particularly urgent concern for the ways in which the disciples will function as a messianic community. Given the opposition and persecution which lies ahead, will they rightly understand and witness to the Kingdom, or will they prove as good as the scribes at turning discipleship into an exercise in arrogance and competition?
1b. Text: Mark 9:38-50
9:38 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."
9:39 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.
9:40 Whoever is not against us is for us.
9:41 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.
9:42 "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.
9:43 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, to the unquenchable fire.
9:44 [Mark 9:44 and 9:46, which are identical with 9:48, are lacking in authority.]
9:45 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.,
9:46 [Mark 9:44 and 9:46, which are identical with 9:48, are lacking in authority.]
9:47 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,
9:48 where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.
9:49 For everyone will be salted with fire.
9:50 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."
38 Ἔφη αὐτῷ ὁ Ἰωάννης, Διδάσκαλε, εἴδομέν τινα ἐν τῷ ὀνόματί σου ἐκβάλλοντα δαιμόνια, καὶ ἐκωλύομεν αὐτόν, ὅτι οὐκ ἠκολούθει ἡμῖν.
39 ὁ δὲ Ἰησοῦς εἶπεν, Μὴ κωλύετε αὐτόν, οὐδεὶς γάρ ἐστιν ὃς ποιήσει δύναμιν ἐπὶ τῷ ὀνόματί μου καὶ δυνήσεται ταχὺ κακολογῆσαί με:
40 ὃς γὰρ οὐκ ἔστιν καθ' ἡμῶν, ὑπὲρ ἡμῶν ἐστιν.
41 Ὃς γὰρ ἂν ποτίσῃ ὑμᾶς ποτήριον ὕδατος ἐν ὀνόματι ὅτι Χριστοῦ ἐστε, ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν ὅτι οὐ μὴ ἀπολέσῃ τὸν μισθὸν αὐτοῦ.
42 Καὶ ὃς ἂν σκανδαλίσῃ ἕνα τῶν μικρῶν τούτων τῶν πιστευόντων [εἰς ἐμέ], καλόν ἐστιν αὐτῷ μᾶλλον εἰ περίκειται μύλος ὀνικὸς περὶ τὸν τράχηλον αὐτοῦ καὶ βέβληται εἰς τὴν θάλασσαν.
43 Καὶ ἐὰν σκανδαλίζῃ σε ἡ χείρ σου, ἀπόκοψον αὐτήν: καλόν ἐστίν σε κυλλὸν εἰσελθεῖν εἰς τὴν ζωὴν ἢ τὰς δύο χεῖρας ἔχοντα ἀπελθεῖν εἰς τὴν γέενναν, εἰς τὸ πῦρ τὸ ἄσβεστον. 44 καὶ
45 ἐὰν ὁ πούς σου σκανδαλίζῃ σε, ἀπόκοψον αὐτόν: καλόν ἐστίν σε εἰσελθεῖν εἰς τὴν ζωὴν χωλὸν ἢ τοὺς δύο πόδας ἔχοντα βληθῆναι εἰς τὴν γέενναν. 46 καὶ
47 ἐὰν ὁ ὀφθαλμός σου σκανδαλίζῃ σε, ἔκβαλε αὐτόν: καλόν σέ ἐστιν μονόφθαλμον εἰσελθεῖν εἰς τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ θεοῦ ἢ δύο ὀφθαλμοὺς ἔχοντα βληθῆναι εἰς τὴν γέενναν,
48 ὅπου ὁ σκώληξ αὐτῶν οὐ τελευτᾷ καὶ τὸ πῦρ οὐ σβέννυται:
49 πᾶς γὰρ πυρὶ ἁλισθήσεται.
50 Καλὸν τὸ ἅλας: ἐὰν δὲ τὸ ἅλας ἄναλον γένηται, ἐν τίνι αὐτὸ ἀρτύσετε; ἔχετε ἐν ἑαυτοῖς ἅλα, καὶ εἰρηνεύετε ἐν ἀλλήλοις.
Novum Testamentum Graece, Nestle-Aland 26th edition © 1979, Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, Stuttgart;
The Greek New Testament, 3rd edition © 1975, United Bible Societies, London
2. ANALYSIS: Mark 9:38-50
Mk. 9:38 "in your name"-- It is of course striking that we have here a reference not just to "competing" exorcists, but to the perception of such competition within the namers of Jesus. The implications of this as a comment on division and denominationalism in the early Christian community may be attenuated if one interprets the en to onomati sou as a mere reflection of the disciple's assumption that all such work would be done by the power of his master, but such an avoidance of the word's more immediate meaning seems both belabored and unnecessary. More likely is that the saying of Jesus in verse 39 is here intentionally pointed at divisions between Christians.
"not following us"-- Note how John's complaint arrogates the plural usage in regard to discipleship: the followers identify themselves
with Jesus in a way that demands that others follow them. What a striking image for subsequent political developments in the church!
Mk. 9:39 "Do not forbid him..."-- This language (me koluete) recalls the parallel story in Numbers 11:26-29, where Joshua asks Moses to forbid the unregistered prophets (koluson autous [LXX]). The jealousy and exclusivity of community leaders is not a new phenomenon among the people of God.
"for no one who does..."-- Jesus' rationale for not suppressing the alien exorcist not only involves solidarity in the common task of ministry (the "deed of power") whereby the kingdom is enacted, but also points ahead to the cost of that ministry to Jesus. The question is raised as to who will remain an ally of Jesus in the time of trial. John, Peter, and the others in the inner circle will not so qualify.
Mk. 9:40-- This proverbial saying has its opposite in Matthew 12:30, a word of equal dominical authority. We have here an instructive example of the importance of contextual analysis and the pitfalls of polemical proof-texting.
Mk. 9:41 "whoever gives..."-- Suddenly now we're no longer dealing with a work of the Kingdom as impressive as exorcism, or with the bearers of the Messiah's name as ministers. In this saying, reinforced by the solemn amen lego hymin, Jesus moves into that world where his followers will be dependent upon the hospitality of others, where their work for the kingdom will be as recipients rather than as dispensers of charity. There is, I believe, an important thematic parallel with judgment passage in Matthew 25, where the critical function of Jesus' little brethren is to be the test of other's compassion.
Mk. 9:42-- Now indeed the focus shifts explicitly to concern for the "little ones" of the community. The warning is to the big ones, whose abuse of their status will lead the small to sin. The shift in focus parallels the beginning of this teaching section (9:33-36), but now Jesus' passion for the sake of the mikroi erupts in a rhetoric of wrath and violence. Note also that the crime condemned is not "personal" misdoing but rather causing another to sin.
Mk. 9:43-- The horror and reality of evil is now underscored with imagery of similar violence. The corruption of human life and relationships is worse than amputation.
Jesus' gut-felt concern here is of course for the whole of the community, but it may well be that his words are also to be taken to have a particular kind of communal application, namely to counsel excommunication ("cutting off"), as opposed to execution or assassination, as the way of dealing with those who would the community astray. Such metaphorical use of the language of limbs and body is, after all, not uncommon in early Christianity, and the problem of how to deal with offenders against the community has often proved a particularly difficult one for any counter-cultural movements, whether violent or radically non-violent.
Mk. 9:45 "hand... foot... eye"-- Each of these bodily members has been traditionally taken as the sign or locus of a different set of criminal acts, and it may be that the inclusion of all three is not just a rhetorical intensifier but a way of making sure that, for example, sins of the hand like embezzlement and fraud are taken as seriously as those of the eye, i.e. those which involve sexual misconduct.
Mk. 9:47-- The opposite of Gehenna, one might note, is not described as paradise or heaven, but as the basileia tou theou, and, in the parallel of the previous verses, as he zoe. The precise degree of realization in Mark's eschatology may long be debated, but the immediate effect of this language is to recall the Kingdom and the Life which the gospel proclaims to be at hand in the present kairos (Mk. 1:15).
Mk. 9:48 -- The confusion over the numbering of this pericope's verses arose because of later manuscripts' attachment of this verse also to the parallel locations in the preceding verses.
Mk. 9:49-50 -- The imagery of salt is resonant with themes of community and peace. One of the Old Testament symbols of the covenant (Lev. 2:13, Num. 18:19, II Chr. 13:5), it is also a token of hospitality, as well as literally a preservative and enhancer. Here Jesus connects those very positive themes and images with the purgative and threatening flames of judgment. Fire is not just the Stichwort which explains the appearance of these words in this location, it is also an image of that seriousness and urgency which marks Jesus' warning to his followers. The peace of the community depends on an awareness of accountability, on a sense of the terrible cost of betrayal. Here, then, is a sharp warning to the community, but with that warning also a reminder and an exhortation to "be at peace with one another."
3. STRATEGY: Mark 9:38--50
It would certainly be possible to pick up any one of the particular points among these apophthegmata of Jesus and to preach it in its current parochial and global relevance. Such might indeed be the most faithful application of the text in many situations.
I would, however, like to suggest an option which might be helpful to a number of confused Christians and questioners today. These sayings of Jesus may prompt a hermeneutical question: Just how are these words to be understood? How are we to hear Jesus when he is willing to cast the millstone- weighted offender into the sea, or when he counsels self-mutilation rather than sin? For that matter, how are we to hear the Word of God, when it pronounces judgment and the fires of Gehenna?
Some will of course deal with those questions by filtering out the words of threat and judgment, but such deafness or indifference is not an option for those who care about Christ, about the scriptures, and about the meaning of our lives. For them, the danger is rather that these words are heard exclusively as legislative pronouncements from eternity, spoken from on high. (The practice of some Bible publishers in using red letters to highlight the words of Jesus seems to me an illustration-- and aggravation-- of this way of reading and hearing.) There is an urgent necessity to hearing Jesus speaking in the narrative context of the gospel, speaking to real human beings with his own real love, fear, and anger.
This is to say that the sayings of Jesus are to be heard as rhetoric in the best and deepest sense of that word. They intend to warn, to threaten, to convince, and to inspire. They are words of caring about what happens to people, to the whole community and especially to its most vulnerable little ones. They are words of passionate fear about the harm that is done by the exclusivity and pride of "disciples" who have missed the point. Even if they come to us in the form of a poorly edited collection of pithy remarks, these words bespeak a burning desire to get through to those whom they address. In this sense, there may actually be some value to "red letter" editions of the text, for Jesus' words are often to be read as full-blooded or aflame (though sometimes refreshing waters or a gentler warmth should then also be suggested by the printer's ink.)
All this is to say that the word of wrath and judgment is real and urgent, but it does not make of Jesus, or of his God and ours, a figure of either general or narrow judgmentalism. These words, like the parallel warnings in the reading from James, are pointed. They are words of the deepest caring for us and for our little ones, and they are intended not to doom, but to save. (With the rest of us also, "Go to hell!" is sometimes spoken as a word of exasperated caring to those about whom we care deeply.) Jesus himself gives us an image for the corrective and challenging purpose of these fiery words: they are salt to preserve us, and to keep us in the way of peace.
Exegete: Rev. John Stendahl
Lutheran Ch. of the Newtons, Newton Centre, Massachusetts
Michael and All Angels
September 29, 2009
Daniel 10:10-14; 12:1-3
Psalm 103:1-5, 20-22 (20-21)
Prayer of the Day
Everlasting God, you have wonderfully established the ministries of angels and mortals. Mercifully grant that as Michael and the angels contend against the cosmic forces of evil, so by your direction they may help and defend us here on earth, through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God whom we worship and praise with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, now and forever.
Alleluia. Bless the | Lord, you angels,
you mighty ones who | do God's bidding. Alleluia. (Ps. 103:20)