SEPARATED OR JOINED?
Mark 9: 38-50
The Problem Presented to the Reader of Mark’s Gospel
It is usual to complete the reading of the Gospel with the phrase “This is the Gospel of our Lord.” One must do a double-take to say that after reading today’s appointed lesson, however! What can it possibly be saying to us? How are we to take it seriously? What can it possibly mean for us?
The reading seems disjointed on the one hand, going, as it does, from someone doing marvelous works in the name of Christ to a warning against offending “little ones” while on the other hand it is so demanding that it requires people to cut off their hands and feet and tear out their eyes lest they obstruct others from being faithful until one is hard-pressed to quite know what to make of it, much less what to say about it.
All this, in the meanwhile, is sandwiched in between an account on the one hand of an argument among the disciples concerning who counted most among them, being censured in turn by Jesus’ setting a child in their midst and being told that one would be measured in greatness by the way one treats such children, and on the other hand a quarrel between Jesus and the Pharisees concerning the lawfulness of divorce procedures.
Nothing seems to hold together – at least on the surface – either in terms of the reports surrounding the words of our text nor within the text itself with its seemingly rambling disjointed subject matter. We must face this simple fact from the beginning if we are to derive any instruction for our Christian life at all.
Therefore One Must Carefully Sort Things Out When Considering What Mark Wrote
To begin with, two things are very significant in the very opening verse of the text to which our attention is turned on this day. The phrase “in your name” is absolutely vital as one attempts to unravel the text and the word “us” is a key word in that same verse.
First of all, therefore, one must take note of this: the man whom the disciples were trying to silence was not even pretending to exercise power over the demons he was casting out as though his actions were being performed in demonstration of some kind of personal energy. He was “casting out demons in your (Jesus’) name”! Nor was he performing these works as though the power to do so originated anywhere else save in the name of Christ.
We are not told how he knew about the power residing in Jesus – nor even whether he had ever even met Jesus! We know only one thing: he was exercising power over the demons in Jesus’ name.
Jesus doesn’t blink an eye at the report! It was as though he told the disciples “More power to anybody who exercises the power found in my name to employ godly effects! Why would anybody want to put a curb on someone doing good and holy works?” This is the way he said it: “Do not stop him, for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. For the one who is not against us is for us. For truly, I say to you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ will by no means lose his reward.” The person exorcising demons in Jesus’ name would most certainly find no reason to turn against the one in whose name those exorcisms were taking place! More than that, even – anyone who does even the smallest work toward Christ’s people will be eligible for a reward!
That certainly brought the disciples up short – as it very likely brings us up short also. We – very likely much as the disciples – expect to hear it said the other way around – namely, that “Whoever is not with me is against me,” as Matthew reports a better-known saying. (ch. 12:30) Matthew, however, was speaking of those who were obstructing godly works, while here Jesus is speaking of one who is furthering godly works. No matter what, though, it was virtually a chiding of the very people who thought they were about to be commended – perhaps even praised – for bringing something to the attention of Jesus that they were sure he would sternly contest while lauding them for bringing it to his attention.
The second thing to note is the simple word “us.” They thought of themselves as “having a lock” on the things that Jesus said and did. They were the “inside club” of Jesus’ admirers. All others were merely “hangers on,” “outsiders” as we would speak of them. Several things must surely have been involved in their will to keep Jesus’ words and actions to be what we would today call their own “password” for anything connected to him.
On the one hand, they still clearly understood Jesus’ coming kingdom was to be an earthly one in which he would throw the Romans out of Palestine and institute a fully Jewish realm under the direct authority of God with Jesus as God’s princely power sitting on the throne. That is evident from events just preceding those recorded in our text when they argued about who would have a preferred position in this coming kingdom. They equally clearly considered themselves to be heirs to special places in that kingdom. Therefore this fellow casting out demons in Jesus’ name was perceived by them as a direct challenge to their own future.
On the other hand, we must recognize that they undoubtedly felt the need to protect Jesus from people who were “using” him to their own benefit. Jesus sometimes seemed to be so self-confident of his own personal place in the order of things that he appeared to be quite unmindful of challenges to his place. He needed protection from himself as the disciples had made clear when they tried to keep unwanted people such as the parents of little children from interfering with his schedule (Matthew 13-15) and wanting to hold the Syro-Phoenician woman at arm’s length. (Matthew 15:21-28) It is very possible – even likely – that they were doing that very same thing in “trying to stop him” from using Jesus’ name to cast out demons.
Our will to chastise the disciples for things such as this must be immediately impeded by our own participation in doing the same thing. It is not difficult at all to recognize these same characteristics among us Christians in a variety of ways today. It may be a “competitive spirit” disguised as a concern for the truth between denominations or between – or even within – congregations; between “those like us” and “those who are different”; between “what I prefer” and “what I do not like” in worship styles or in administrative styles; between the worship lives of people from different cultures or the way Christ’s name is used in many contemporary churches as they carry out a wide variety of evangelistic or confessional forms of witness or service. Without trying to minimize the need to maintain a conscious and serious effort at being careful about the ways that the name of Christ is used (for it can, indeed, be abused or misused), we are called upon in this text to remember that “no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.”
Of Special Concern: The Vulnerability of the “Little Ones”
In fact, we are very clearly warned against offending anyone who calls upon the name of Jesus to do the works approved by him. “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.” Just who are these “little ones who believe in me”?
Because Jesus had taken a child into his arms a short time before this as an example of those who are highly prized in the kingdom of God, some think of these “little ones” as children. But the scope of Jesus’ admonition here goes far beyond young people.
One wonders, in fact, whether he was possibly referring to the man whom the disciples were trying to silence. Had the disciples given the impression to Jesus that the fellow was not as mature in his relationship with Jesus as were the disciples and that he should, therefore, cease his activity? I.e., was he a “little one” compared to the disciples – one whom Jesus warned them not to offend and thus drive him away, causing what faith he did have into perilously close levels of unbelief? Perhaps.
Or was Jesus referring to some whom he know who were trying to work through the question of whether to put their welfare into the hands of Jesus or not – people who were wavering on the edge between faith and unbelief? It is important, he said, to cultivate people in faith rather than putting roadblocks to their faith, thus “causing them to sin”? Perhaps.
Or was he referring to people such as the disciples themselves who on more than one occasion could not grasp what Jesus was telling them – people who wanted to walk on water, as Peter had wanted to do, but kept finding themselves sinking when they were asked to go beyond the level of faith such as they did hold, for they were still “little ones” in the faith? Had they not, in fact, shown themselves to be “little ones” when they could not cast out the demon from the young man whose father had brought him to them in the hope they could heal him. Jesus had called them along with others around at the time a “faithless and twisted generation,” telling the disciples in turn that they had not been able to heal the young boy “because of your little faith.” Matthew 17:14-20 Perhaps.
Or was he suggesting that there are dimensions of faith among which many people move from a tentative entry-point of faith on to a maturity of faith that would be based on solid commitment – “little ones” who inhabit that “between time” linking a person’s entry into faith and a more fully grown form of it? Perhaps.
Or perhaps he was speaking of “little ones” on any or all of those plains. Maybe he was using that term as a “catch-all” way of saying that there are always people who look up to others for guidance in living out the faith just as little children look to adults for guidance in what to do, for support in weak moments, for a model of what it means to be a child of God.
The problem, though, is that all of us are as vulnerable as little children at one time or another for there is always the possibility – even the likelihood – that we are subject to wrong guidance of which we are unaware, to stumbling blocks to our faith just when we need support, to counterfeit models pretending to be exemplars of Spirit-driven representations when they are actually tools of Satan himself. We are always at risk of being duped, of being deceived, of being taken in by the very same demons that Jesus was constantly called upon to cast out.
Jesus was telling his hearers – and probably his disciples in particular – that it was imperative that they remain constantly supportive of those who speak and act “in the name of Jesus” lest, by trying to maintain their own “inside group” or some “uncontaminated faction” of Jesus-followers they actually throw up barriers to faith in others who were still moving toward an “adolescence of faith” or, hopefully, to a more “mature life in Christ”. When those who are so determined to protect God’s name and fame by putting up obstacles intended to fend off “little ones” who may have a faulty understanding or who lack a discernment of God’s way in the same way the “protector” has discernment, they are actually doing severe damage to the realm of God’s reign. Trying to stop “someone casting out demons in Jesus’ name” can frequently be a very self-serving enterprise.
It would be preferable, in fact, Jesus said, to lose a hand or a foot or an eye rather than to be one who stands in the way of God’s Spirit as he builds his kingdom through people of many different kinds with many different ways of serving him and many different dimensions of honoring and glorifying God. It is very important to remember that “no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. For the one who is not against us is for us.”
The Text Addresses Us
“Everyone will be salted with fire,” Jesus added. It is a mysterious statement in many ways and it has been interpreted in a wide variety of ways. It may, however, be a way of speaking about what it will mean to be a true disciple after the fashion of the twelve. They, with one exception, of course, would all eventually be “salted with persecution” of one sort or another for their testimony to Jesus in word and life. That, in turn, will be the lot of all who put their life into the hands of Jesus. Or, as Jesus put it at another time and in another way, they, like all whom Jesus had chosen, were to be the salt of the earth, Matthew 5:13 seasoning the whole world with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Why should they expect anything other than that which Jesus, himself, would be and would endure? He who spoke these words knew what it meant to stand in the fire of judgment – God’s judgment, in fact, as he bore the sins of the world on his own shoulders on the cross. Of course, it was man’s judgment also, for it was we who should have borne that burden and it is our confession as Christians that the cross was the place where the sins of the world were most powerfully on display by virtue of the cost they required – even demanded – to be paid by the death of God’s beloved Son.
Yet it was the same cross that most powerfully displayed the grace of God, for on it he took up the burden we should have borne. He took it upon himself and bore it in a most painfully miserable way. The “salt of sin” was what made those nail holes so terrible – but it was the “salt of grace” that raised Jesus from the dead and offered to us a full relief from the fires of that place where, as the text puts it, “fire is not quenched and the worm does not die.”
We, who must, to be sure, still bear some of the pain and misery of sin through the many vicissitudes of life, are also and above all to be the ones whom the Holy Spirit uses to “give a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ”; who are to recognize, serve, encourage, support and do anything possible to give aid and assistance to further the faith and life of the “little ones” around us; thereby being among those who “cast out demons in the name of Jesus,” which is to say that we are to be people whose lives are always to be carried out and seen as a service in his name, gladly joining our lives and service in a peaceful manner to others of many means and modes who serve in his name alongside us.
To him who loved us and gave himself for us be all glory and honor, now and forever. Amen.
This message from Rev. Hubert Beck is brought to you by Grace Lutheran Church, Web and Park Street, Mountain View, Arkansas. For prayer or more information, contact Pastor Kenneth Taglauer by email: [email protected]. A Pass it On Project You may read more at email: [email protected]