Mark 9: 38-50
Exploring the Scripture:
The Gospel of Mark was likely written before the other Gospels—four collections of sayings grouped together because they share common words and ideas. The author is unknown but the Gospel of Mark was written around 64 CE. The Gospels contain a series of teachings about discipleship and the importance of humility and harmony. At first glance the sayings seem to be unrelated, even disjointed, but with careful study we discover they have a common theme: Harmonious, peaceful relationships are central to authentic discipleship. This section of Mark’s Gospel stresses the importance of relationship (covenant) and denounces vying for power, status, or importance.
This passage is arranged in three sections. The first four verses (vv. 38–41) directly follow the discussion among the disciples about who is the greatest. Previously, the disciples had been arguing among themselves and were reprimanded by Jesus.
In verses 38–41, the concern is not who among them is the most important but rather are the disciples more important or more “authorized” than others? They complain that someone who is not one of them has been performing exorcisms in the name of Jesus. Jesus replied that just as they are not to vie for status or place among themselves, they also should not draw boundaries around who can use Jesus’ name and who cannot; who is considered in and who is out. All who act for good in the name of Jesus are worthy.
In the next section, verses 42–48, Jesus cautioned against causing others to stumble in faith. The “little ones” referred to are not children but new or not yet mature disciples. The disciples must take care to set examples of peaceful relationships. The original recipients of the gospel would have understood severing-limbs and plucking-out-eyes language as metaphorical. These references reinforce a cultural understanding that self-sacrifice is preferable over injuring another.
Early Christians would have also known that “hell” or “Gehenna” was a valley just outside the southwest wall of Jerusalem. Centuries before it had been a place pagans used for rituals including child-sacrifice. At different times in the history of Israel, Jewish kings had both outlawed and tolerated these rituals. In Jewish writings the valley was a place of punishment and death for the unrighteous.
During the time Mark’s Gospel was written, the valley was the city dump. It was a place of maggots (worms) and unending fires and smoke and had a horrid reputation with both Jewish and Gentile Christians. This graphic passage is not meant to be taken literally but it does cause the reader to understand the importance of the message. It is better to live harmoniously with others than risk broken relationships that injure the body of believers.
This passage concludes with two verses about salt (vv. 49–50). Salt was a precious commodity used to season and preserve food. Israelites were commanded to include salt with all their religious offerings. The offering of salt represented the essence of the covenant relationship between God and Israel. Salt had additional cultural meanings as well. There are several Greek writings that compare salt to the taste of hospitality and friendship. Christians are to keep their saltiness, to practice relationships of hospitality, friendship, harmony, and peace.