This week’s gospel lesson from the Revised Common Lectionary is Mark 9:38-50. I have updated my earlier exegesis and initial comments from three years ago, which you can find here.
I see two ways of reading this text. One can read it in what I call “Bible real time,” as an occasion when Jesus’ disciples were forbidding a demon-caster from helping others in Jesus’ name because he was not “one of us.” Or, one can read it in “Bible writing time,” when Mark’s community was helping others and being impeded by the Jerusalem church because they were not considered “one of us.” In each case, those who were helping others – by casting out demons, offering a cup of cold water, etc. – were participating in the Reign of God. That is exactly what Jesus has been proclaiming through the message, “The Reign of God is here. Change your way of thinking and believe in it!”
The key elements of this story, in my mind, are the phrases, “Those who are not against us are for us,” and the final conclusion, “Be at peace with one another.” Whether it is the disciples and the demon-caster or the Galilean church and the Jerusalem church, those phrases give the dispositions that befit disciples.
The troubling aspects of this text – maiming oneself, asbestos fire that does not quench, etc. – are probably what make this a queasy text for preachers and hearers alike. The Hebrew Bible prohibits self-laceration, so I think we can easily de-literalize the story in that regard. And, of course, we are accustomed to Paul’s way of describing the church as a body, and even Paul’s occasional reference to “cutting off” someone who is sowing discord. I believe the self-mutilating language here refers to cutting off what we might call the “Committee on Orthodoxy” which is ever vigilant in trying to prohibit those who don’t belong to us from doing works of service in the name of Christ. See my comments on the exegesis link above for how I think this applies to the Galilean/Jerusalem church controversy behind this text.
The fire is an interesting reference, since we automatically assume that it is eternal hell-fire and that kind of preaching has done more harm for the body of Christ than good in my opinion. Rarely do hell-fire preachers have the humility to take “whoever is not against us is for us” literally. I would advise that we see the salt and fire as references to offerings and purification. I do not know enough about the practices of temple sacrifices to be too specific about this, but certainly persons from the Jerusalem-centered church would speak this language, even after the destruction of the temple. My guess is that one of the tensions between the Jerusalem and Galilean churches (and a parallel tension between Galilean- and Jerusalem-based Judaism) is that the Jerusalem-centered church hangs on much more to the rituals of the temple, as a way of keeping faith alive despite the Romans’ destruction of the temple. For them, the ongoing rituals are an act of defiance and a declaration that God is undaunted by Rome’s capacity to destroy. But, I suspect that Galilean Judaism (including Jesus, and subsequently Galilean Christians following Jesus) practiced a much less ritualistic piety, simply because of their proximity apart from the temple over the years. That is what shapes my exegetical comments.