Mark 9:38-50 (EHV)
38 John said to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone driving out demons in your name. We tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”
39 But Jesus said, “Do not try to stop him, because no one who does a miracle in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil about me. 40 Whoever is not against us is for us. 41 Amen I tell you: Whoever gives you a cup of water to drink in my name, because you belong to Christ, will certainly not lose his reward.
42 “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to fall into sin, it would be better for him if he were thrown into the sea with a large millstone hung around his neck. 43 If your hand causes you to fall into sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed, than to have two hands and go into hell, into the unquenchable fire, 44 ‘where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.’ Is 66:24 45 If your foot causes you to fall into sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame, than to have two feet and be thrown into hell, 46 ‘where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.’ 47 If your eye causes you to fall into sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye, than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, 48 ‘where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.’ 49 For everyone will be salted with fire. 50 Salt is good. But if the salt loses its flavor, how will you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”
Dear heavenly Father, send your Holy Spirit on us so we may not cause others to sin, but be salt for the earth through the saving works of your Son Jesus Christ. Amen.
Every now and again Jesus says something which can be easily misunderstood.
For example, Jesus seems to suggest that, as long as people use the name of Jesus, they’re ok, even if they’re not Lutheran.
He seems to suggest we should cut off our hands and feet, and pluck out our eyes, especially if these body parts are causing us to sin.
He also seems to suggest we need more salt in our diets, which will somehow help us to be at peace with each other.
But this doesn’t seem right, does it? So how are we to understand what he’s saying to us?
Well, last week we heard Jesus tell his disciples he was to be handed over into the hands of men, be killed, and rise again. But shortly afterwards his disciples started arguing about which of the disciples was the greatest. In response, Jesus took a child into his arms and said if anyone receives a child like this particular one in his name receives him, and if they receive him, they also receive the one who sent him. The greatest will always be a servant of the one who did the sending.
Then we come to today’s text where the eager (but slow-to-learn) disciples (who were trying to figure out who was the greatest among themselves) were trying to control who’s allowed (or not allowed) to work in Jesus’ name.
They told Jesus of someone they didn’t know (and probably didn’t approve of), who was casting out demons in Jesus’ name – the very thing they failed to do the last time they tried (as described earlier in the chapter)!
It was a classic case of ‘us’ and ‘them’ where, if you’re not one of ‘us’, then you must be one of ‘them’. And, if you’re one of ‘them, well, you don’t belong to ‘us’ and therefore you’re not entitled to share our privileges!
So, despite what Jesus had already told them about serving humbly and receiving little ones into their midst, it seems they’re still thinking of themselves as the greatest, which means they thought themselves in a position to judge and exclude those around them, especially if these ‘other’ people didn’t meet their approval or fit their standards!
In response, Jesus told them if someone’s doing something in Jesus’ name, that person won’t quickly speak evil of Jesus.
This means, even if they’re not in the right ‘in crowd’ with special disciple-approval, and even if they don’t do things precisely our way, Jesus says, as long as they’re not against us, then they’re for us. After all, this isn’t your church or my church. It’s Jesus’ church. Let him be the Lord and Judge and Saviour of who can or can’t do things in Jesus’ name, even if they don’t always do things in the orthodox manner.
Then we come to a strange set of sayings which seems to suggest Jesus encourages self-mutilation.
If we were to take Jesus literally, it seems he’s telling us to cut off any body parts which sin, including our hands and feet. But, if this is truly the case, then Christian churches would be full of maimed people without hands or feet or eyes or ears because we’re all sinners. If we had to literally cut off every part of us which sins, there wouldn’t be much of us left!
Unfortunately, some Christians have wrongly interpreted this to mean it’s better to get rid of enthusiastic ‘happy-clappy’ Christians who don’t do things the orthodox way, or it’s better to get rid of the old wood of die-hard traditionalists who stand in the way of enthusiastic changes, or it’s better to get rid of anyone who offends people in our congregations so that we may be a perfect little content and peaceful community. But that’s not what Jesus is saying here, in fact it’s almost the opposite!
So, what on earth is Jesus saying?
Well, he’s using exaggeration to make a comparison. He’s making a powerful point to slow-learning, dim-witted disciples who just don’t seem to ‘get it’ and who continue to use power games of judging, dividing, and exclusion in their faith community.
Let’s look at it this way:
What’s one of the worse things that can happen to a musician, artist, woodworker, or mechanic? They could lose their hands. If someone who uses their hands for their enjoyment or work were to have their hands cut off, it would seem like the worst thing that could happen to them!
Similarly, if a sporting person were to lose their feet, or a person who loves to read or watch movies were to lose their eyesight, this would seem to be the worst thing that could happen to them!
But Jesus makes the point there is something worse than losing one of these important limbs or senses or faculties.
So, what could possibly be worse than losing any of these things? Causing someone to sin or stumble in faith!
He says it’s better to lose a hand than cause a child to sin or stumble in faith. It’s better to lose a foot than cause a vulnerable person to sin or stumble in faith. It’s better to lose your sight than cause a person who is weak in faith to stumble in their faith.
So, what’s worse than losing a hand or foot or eye? Causing someone to sin or stumble in faith!
So, for all of us:
who want to be our own boss,
who want to get our own way,
who want to manipulate or control people around us,
who seek to belittle people through gossip or careless talk,
who use emotional blackmail to get what we want,
who reckon we know who should be allowed in and who should stay out,
who burden people’s consciences through intimidation and coercion,
who abuse and exploit the vulnerable,
who question the choices of others, or
who lie and steal and deceive in order to protect our reputations,
and by doing such things we cause people to sin so they in turn:
have sinful thoughts,
are tempted to respond with sinful words or actions,
doubt their worth as children of God,
despair of their trust in God’s love because God’s people don’t show that same love,
then that’s worse than cutting off our hands and feet or plucking out our eyes!
We often cause people to sin or stumble in faith by firstly sinning against them because we make ourselves out to be the greatest, the Lords of our own destiny, the gatekeepers who decide who’s in and who’s out, and we become our own judges, juries and executioners who seek to push around and punish those around us.
Unfortunately, we’ve lost too many to the faith as a result of the way they see and experience the way Christians treat each other, or by the way Christians seek to judge and condemn those who don’t agree with them or believe in the same things.
Our sins against them don’t justify their sinful responses any more than we can justify our own sins against them in the first place. Perhaps instead of pointing out everyone else’s faults and sins and inadequacies, we should first look at, and repent of, how we’ve sinned against them in our own thoughts, words, and deeds, and seek their forgiveness before forgiving them for the way they sinned against us.
But thankfully Jesus doesn’t leave us to despair over our sins and the way we cause others to sin. He says the answer for our sinful state of seeking to control and differentiate is fire and salt, but not just any fire and salt.
We know that fire can both refine and purify. In this case, the ‘fire’ of the Holy Spirit comes through God’s Word and Sacraments to refine and purify you.
The good news is that the ‘fire’ of the Holy Spirit comes to you in baptism to forgive you and purify you so you may be holy. The Spirit-filled Word of God is proclaimed to forgive you for all the times you sought to control and manipulate others so you could get your own way. The Holy Spirit works together with Jesus’ body and blood to cleanse and purify your tongues, your minds, and your hearts so you may be assured you’re forgiven and cleansed, and so you may live as God’s holy children in thought, word, and action.
Then, like salt adds flavour and has healing properties, as people inspired by the fire, forgiveness, and holiness of the Holy Spirit, you go out as holy and pure people to ‘salt the earth’.
While salt in biblical times could lose its properties through contamination, the way you might lose your effectiveness to heal the world and be at peace with those around you, is when the contamination of your own selfishness, greed, and jealousy, make you become stumbling blocks by causing them to sin or stumble in faith.
So, when Jesus says: “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another” (v 50), he’s reminding you to be the salt he’s created you to be. Not so that you may judge and curse people, but so that you may bless and heal the world through Christ’s forgiveness, hope and healing. You’ve been chosen and called and equipped by God through his Word and Sacraments to be the salt you’re called to be as you preserve the work of the Holy Spirit in and through you.
You’re not to be contaminated salt which offends and causes people to stumble, but you’re to be purified salt which heals through the peace and forgiveness of Christ. After all, when you forgive one another, you bring purification and peace from God into a troubled world.
Similarly, St James tells you today how you can be salt for the church and the world. He says, ‘Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, in order that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is able to do much because it is effective.’ Jam 5:16
You’re to remember that your holiness, your love for your enemies, and your power to forgive others, comes from Christ. He is salt that doesn’t lose its saltiness.
This means you’re not salt in yourself, but you receive his salt: the salt of his sweat in Gethsemane, the salty sweat of his obedience, and the salty blood he shed for you as he suffered and died to win your forgiveness.
Then, as you’re filled with his salt of holiness and purity, he’s given you power to purify and cleanse the world through your own forgiveness and prayers for each another.
So, in this way, as you learn the joy of being cleansed and free through the forgiveness and purity which comes through faith in Jesus, and by having his pure salt of cleansing and holiness, you also have the opportunity to be the holy and pure vessel who carries Christ’s forgiveness to others.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, you don’t need to cut off your body parts, or even cut people out of your life, but with the Holy Spirit’s help, as you receive the fire and salt of his forgiveness and holiness, you’re to live in such a way that you don’t put any stumbling blocks in anyone’s way which might cause them to sin or despair of their faith in Jesus, but you instead pass on the salt of the forgiveness of Christ so you may heal the world…even if it’s one person at a time. And in this way…
…may the peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, will guard your hearts and minds, as well as other people’s hearts and minds, in Christ Jesus. Amen.