Be At Peace: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary for Nineteenth Week after Pentecost
Nineteenth Week after Pentecost (Year B): Mark 9:38-50
1) This is the fifth installment of a twelve-week chronological walk through several chapters in the Gospel of Mark.
2) This week’s passage follows immediately on last week’s, continuing Jesus’ train of thought about true greatness and becoming a “servant of all” (Mark 9:35). He’s admonishing his disciples to seek greatness not in conventional power or prestige, but rather in serving everyone, even those lacking in social standing - such as the “little child” he takes up into his arms (Mark 9:36). It’s as if he’s saying, God stands with the lowest and least, everyone left outside the boundaries we draw. So go and do likewise. Reach out to them. If you welcome one such child, you welcome me... (Mark 9:37). In this week’s passage, Jesus extends this radical hospitality to include religious rivals, too.
3) It’s likely that Mark’s community - those for whom Mark originally wrote - knew only too well the rivalry and conflict between the various groups seeking to follow Jesus in the fledgling days of the early church. Accordingly, in this story Mark portrays Jesus as rejecting in the strongest terms the disciples’ penchant for infighting, directing them instead to focus on fixing their own failings and cultivating a posture of being “at peace with one another” (Mark 9:50).
1) As so often happens in Mark, the disciples just don’t get it. Jesus, holding a child in his arms, has just been teaching them about true greatness; about seeking humility, not superiority; about being “servant of all,” not “first of all.” And how do they respond? With a report that reveals their religious arrogance! Someone else is casting out demons in Jesus’ name, “and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us” (Mark 9:38). Note the phrasing: “not following us.” In a perfect illustration of Christian hubris, the disciples equate “following Jesus” with “following us.” If they’re not with us, they must be against us.
2) Jesus responds with a strikingly open, inclusive vision of discipleship. Remember, in Mark, Jesus arrives as a healer and liberator confronting the demonic, death-dealing powers that be. That larger battle is what matters most, and coalitions among groups with different styles and creeds will be necessary along the way - or so Jesus’ response suggests. Don’t stop him, he says. Even people who aren’t walking with us, if they heal in my name, will be our allies in the long run. And then Jesus opens the circle even wider, including not just those who “bear the name of Christ,” but also those who don’t (i.e., non-Christians) but who provide disciples with the most basic assistance - they, too, “will by no means lose the reward” (Mark 9:41). It’s a results-oriented approach to the larger battle, as opposed to a clannish one; Jesus’ emphasis is on fruitful action, not membership or process or “doing things the way we do.” In short, against the disciples’ if-they’re-not-with-us-they’re-against-us mentality, Jesus counters, “Whoever is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:40).
3) And then Jesus takes things a step further. It’s as if he says, You were just arguing on the road about who’s the greatest, and now you presume superiority over others acting in my name. Listen: quit the infighting, elitism, and arrogance. You’re setting a terrible example, for each other, for the crowds, and especially for newer disciples, younger ones in the faith. (Remember, he’s still holding the “little child” in his arms!) So stop the finger-pointing and start getting your own house in order, or else your hypocrisy will cause the little ones to stumble - little ones like this child, yes, or like the stranger you mention, the one casting out demons in my name. For God’s sake, be hospitable! Set a good example! Focus on shoring up your own weaknesses, not criticizing others. Do you find yourself tempted toward worldly greatness or religious arrogance? Cut those tendencies out, swiftly and completely - and don’t hesitate! “If your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out!” (Mark 9:47).
4) Jesus’ vivid hyperboles here underscore at least two things: first, the threats don’t arise from the outside - they arise from within. It’s my hand, my foot, my eye that’s the source of difficulty, not the disciple walking beside me on the road, much less some other group or religion. As far as others are concerned, my focus should be on welcoming and serving them, not judging them or forcing them to follow us. And second, Jesus’ hyperbole underscores the stakes here. Gehenna (the word translated “hell” in this passage) was a smouldering city dump just outside Jerusalem, where trash was gathered and burned. Jesus’ message is clear: infighting, elitism, and arrogance are formidable, self-destructive dangers, and so we should continually guard against them - rooting them out if necessary - with vigilance and resolve.
5) This self-discipline will not be easy. But neither is it avoidable: “For everyone will be salted with fire” (Mark 9:49). Salt was a preservative in the ancient world; it was also sometimes added to sacrifices in order to help purify them. The poetic idea here, then, is that by the grace of God, a disciple’s trials - including the trials of self-discipline - will ultimately have a seasoning, preservative, refining effect. And in turn, disciples are called to serve as “salt” for creation (i.e., seasoning, preserving, refining), as well as to “have salt in yourselves” (i.e., to be seasoned, supported, refined) - all for the sake of being “at peace with one another” (Mark 9:50).
6) With this phrase (“be at peace with one another”), Jesus culminates the teaching session that began in last week’s passage. Against the disciples’ arguing on the road over who is greatest, and against their assumption of superiority over those “not following us,” Jesus points toward genuine “peace with one another” as the goal toward which discipleship’s humility, servanthood, hospitality, and self-discipline should lead. In other words, Jesus wants his disciples to cut out the arrogance, yes, but the end goal is “being at peace with one another” - and ultimately modeling that peaceful way of life for all to see, including the child in his arms.
1) Jesus is calling his disciples to model a genuinely peaceful way of life for the sake of the “little ones” - both children and those who are “younger in the faith” than the inner circle of disciples. By “peace,” please note, he doesn’t mean abandoning the movement’s signature move of confronting and opposing death-dealing forces; on the contrary, it’s in the interest of that that larger battle that he exhorts his disciples to quit the counterproductive infighting and arrogance. Rather, by “peace” he means a humble, hospitable bearing toward fellow disciples and outside groups alike. Even those who don’t “bear the name” of Christ - in today’s terms, even “non-Christians” - are potential allies in the struggle against those death-dealing forces. So long as a given person or group isn’t explicitly “against us,” if they work toward healing and restoration of the world, or even simply assist others who are doing so, they are “for us.”
2) The contrast between a) this expansive, inclusive, cooperative approach and b) our public life today (including our religious life!) is difficult to miss, making this the perfect week to reflect on how we, too, can quit our infighting and build bridges across embattled trenches of division. And though the trenches in this story are primarily between groups seeking to follow Jesus (today we would say, “conflict between Christians” - of which we have plenty!), Jesus’ language in this story also opens the door to the topic of interreligious relations. In the first place, Jesus’ underlying principle here - call it “inclusive collaboration” - can be readily applied to Christian relations with members of other religions or no religion at all. And in the second place, Jesus explicitly says that not only those who “bear the name of Christ” but also those who merely assist them, even in a quite simple way (“whoever gives you a cup of water to drink”), will be rewarded. In short, for Jesus, even non-Christians can and will be part of this healing, liberating movement.
3) Finally, in a week dominated by news related to sexual assault, this week’s passage presents an occasion for reflection on the importance of self-discipline along the path toward being “at peace with one another.” Elitism and arrogance lead to a multitude of sins - and sexual misconduct is front and center among them. We all share responsibility for this cultural epidemic, of course, but men in particular must step forward today and help create environments in which male sexuality specifically, and human sexuality generally, can be formed and reformed in life-giving ways. Imagine if churches became centers of conversation about how best to do this for the sake of our sons and daughters - including the very youngest, the “little ones” we carry today in our arms.