Gospel of Sunday, September 27: Mark 9: 38-43, 45, 47-48
At that time, John said to Jesus,
"Teacher, we saw someone driving out demons in your name,
and we tried to prevent him because he does not follow us."
Jesus replied, "Do not prevent him.
There is no one who performs a mighty deed in my name
who can at the same time speak ill of me.
For whoever is not against us is for us.
Anyone who gives you a cup of water to drink
because you belong to Christ,
amen, I say to you, will surely not lose his reward.
"Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin,
it would be better for him if a great millstone
were put around his neck
and he were thrown into the sea.
If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off.
It is better for you to enter into life maimed
than with two hands to go into Gehenna,
into the unquenchable fire.
And if your foot causes you to sin, cut if off.
It is better for you to enter into life crippled
than with two feet to be thrown into Gehenna.
And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out.
Better for you to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye
than with two eyes to be thrown into Gehenna,
where 'their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.'"
The material of the Gospels did not come down to us in a unified whole, but as segments or strands, each referred to in the commentaries as a pericope, which simply means “a section from a book” according to Merriam-Webster. In Sunday’s Gospel Mark has strung together at least three distinct chains of thought based upon the words of Jesus. Whether these were all delivered at one time or one event by Jesus is impossible to say, nor do we know if Mark received these oral accounts at one time or in a unified collection. My personal guess is that with the end of Jesus’ ministry fast approaching, and the drama of the final Jerusalem showdown and the Crucifixion rapidly approaching (Chapter 13ff) Mark is moving rapidly to final considerations of who will enter the Kingdom of God and what the overturn of the earth will look like.
As I say, there are three distinct pericopes or thought patterns this weekend, certainly a preacher’s nightmare if he is attempting to tie the bow neatly together. The same may be true for the Christian reader who faithfully prepares for Sunday by looking for an overarching theme upon which to reflect upon. There are many Sundays when there is no one “overarching theme” but rather a sequence of individual teachings, and September 27 falls into that category, three separate thought lines held together primarily around the theme of what to do (and certainly what not to do!) in preparation for the Kingdom.
The first segment involves a wonderworker who has annoyed the Apostle John by expelling demons in Jesus’ name. While we are inclined to think of John’s disposition from the fourth Gospel (John), the fact is that the Synoptic Gospels describe John and his brother James by the nickname boanerges or “sons of thunder.” It is John who demands in another Gospel that Jesus call down fire and brimstone upon unbelieving towns, and it is his mother who demands of Jesus that her boys sit at his right and left sides in the new kingdom. I guess the apples don’t fall far from the trees. The Jerome Biblical Commentary (616) comments that the inclusion of this text in Mark’s Gospel was Mark’s way of addressing “exclusivism and cliquishness” in the early Church. However, the actual origin of the saying is obscure. Personally I think the most obvious meaning is found in the phrase “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Jesus is preparing for the final apocalyptic showdown with Satan and his minions; this unknown miracle worker who expels demons and expresses an allegiance to Jesus might be a very valuable addition to “the good guys.”
In establishing the Sunday Lectionary, the Church has selected for this Sunday’s first reading the text of Numbers 11:25-29, where it is Joshua playing the “son of thunder” role. When the spirit of God settles upon seventy men conferring prophetic power, two individuals named Eldad and Medad, had not left their tent for some unspecified reason, but it soon became obvious that these two men had also received the spirit and were indeed prophesying along with the rest. Joshua was outraged and demanded that Moses make them stop. Moses correctly identifies Joshua’s jealousy, and then states what should have been an obvious truth, “Would that all the people of the Lord were prophets!”
In the second passage or pericope of the Gospel, Jesus cleverly turns John’s discomfiture on its head, by suggesting a scenario where he (John) is the recipient of an unsolicited act of kindness, the single cup of cold water, “because you belong to Christ.” I have heard many preachers focus on this passage as an example that no kind work is too small to pass without its reward. There is certainly truth in this, but the better interpretation is the importance of belonging to the Christ in these, the final days. This will become clearer in the next paragraph. In addition, other Gospel writers develop the “small works” theme with greater elaboration, such as the story of the poor woman’s gift to the temple treasury in the midst of rich Pharisees and the great cost and worth of her gift compared to the other.
The final paragraph is an excellent example of the dangers of interpreting the bible too literally. Jesus makes his famous statement about scandal: for someone who leads astray a simple believer, it would be better to be dragged to the bottom of the sea attached to a giant millstone. The JBC (617) holds that “the little ones” are (new?) members of the Christian community; it goes on to cite a Greco-Roman use of the human body as a symbol of an organization or community. The thought here is that dangerous and scandalous members of the Christian assembly must be excised or removed. While this may sound strong to present day ears, in the context of Mark’s Gospel there is a rapidly approaching judgment in which a bad witness may cause the damnation of weak and vulnerable souls.
Jesus uses the term “Gehenna” to describe what we understand as hell, but his language is much more vivid. The term had a long evolution, from a place of child sacrifice in 2 Kings 23:10, to a place of unquenchable fire from Isaiah 66:24. By Jesus’ day Gehenna summed up everything to be feared about death, particularly for the unjust. Many manuscripts include the phrase “where the worm never dies.” I will always remember this final phrase. After my sophomore year in college I made my year of novitiate with the Franciscan Order, and I lived in the novitiate—wearing the religious habit for the first time—for the canonical 366 days required. We had several elderly German friars living there with us, to impart the wisdom of age, I guess. One day several of us novices were taking recreation with the eldest of the old friars, probably close to 90; like his confreres, he had fled Germany way back before the turn of the century and his English was still an adventure. One of my classmates said something to him along the lines that celibacy must get easier in advanced years. The old brother shook his head, pointed his finger in my buddy’s chest, and said in a thickly German English: “No, brother, remember this—the worm never dies.”