First Thoughts on Year B Gospel Passages from the Lectionary

Pentecost 18

William Loader

Pentecost 18:  27 September Mark 9:38-50

Already 9:33-37 had ministries and leadership in mind. Now in today’s passage we find more teaching concerning leadership, rather loosely strung together. In 9:38 ‘John’ reports an attempt by himself and presumably other disciples to shut down the activities of an exorcist, who was using Jesus’ name in exorcism. Why John? Perhaps because Mark was thinking of his reappearance (with James) in 10:35 concerned with positions of power in leadership. Intended or not, there is a certain consistency here; John is not alone now or then.

It sounds like a copyright issue, a demarcation dispute. It was very reasonable: how could we have Jesus’ name being used like this without any control? We are familiar enough with people who have to be in control, have their finger on everything that is going. Was it that? It is quite extraordinary that what seemed very reasonable does not win Jesus’ support. Was it something that happened during Jesus’ ministry or does it reflect tensions within the early church? Jesus’ argument appears to be that someone who uses his name is not likely to badmouth him in the next breath.

Is it more than that? Is it perhaps that Jesus has no problems with copyright about his name because his view is that miracles of exorcism are a good thing? Exorcism belongs to another world of reality for most of us, but, if we press the point, we could reach a conclusion along these lines: as long as people are being liberated from what oppresses them, that is what matters. Let’s affirm such activities! Perhaps that lies at the bottom of it. It is, in any case, a principle worth affirming and which coheres well with Jesus’ teaching elsewhere and with the present context of Mark. Jesus is not an egotist obsessed with protecting his reputation, but someone who cares about people. It does not matter if the love comes from his hand or the hand of another, as long as it comes. There are many people, using the name of Jesus or not, with whom we can join hands in the concern to set people free from what oppresses them: inside religions, outside them, everywhere.

Mark 9:41 shifts the attention to the disciples and their ministries, but it is broader than that. It is talking about members of the community. They will become vulnerable. They will need support. Blessed be those who support them! They will need more than a cup of water, but even that counts. Mark 9:42-48 gives us more about ‘these little ones’. It appears to refer still to members of the community. So people can support them (9:41) or they can harm them (9:42-28). How? Possibly the dramatic sayings about causing little ones to stumble referred originally to the young, to real children. Hearers of the day would be all too familiar with exploitation and violation of the young – not least sexually. Hands, feet and eyes often belong to sexual imagery, often euphemistically (i.e.. foot used for penis). Matthew uses the imagery in a directly sexual context in 5:29-30.

Sexual abuse is always a possibility in community. It may be concentrated on children. If Mark has sexual abuse in mind, his focus is not just on children but on all members of the community, ‘the little ones who believe in me’. It is interesting that the wider context is about use and abuse of power and that it leads on to discussions of marriage and divorce. Abuse must be dealt with radically. Notice the underlying concern is not to burn the abusers, but to rehabilitate them, indeed to take this initiative about oneself. The focus may be abuse in a wider sense as well. Mark’s Jesus is realistic about the potential for people in leadership of, and within a community to create havoc. What happens in families is often mirrored in communities.

The graphic imagery needs careful treatment. It is not indicating that we should want to drown paedophiles with millstones. Yet passages like this can inspire hate, which, when confusing paedophilia with homosexuality, leads ultimately to gay bashing and worse. Paedophiles are just as likely to be hetersoexual. Being heterosexual or homosexuakl has nothing to do with being abusive. Paedophiles, like any other people engaged in abuse, including perpetrators of much more common abuse, such as hoarding wealth and depriving the needy, are not to be written off but to be confronted and loved back into humaneness. The traditional image of burning in hell fire features in the dramatic sayings which follow. Here, too, the imagery of excising limbs and plucking out eyes is not to be taken literally. The Hell motif is also a serious danger. Those who take it literally, perhaps as many did from the beginning, can produce an image of God as the ultimate abuser, determined to stop loving and engage in physical torment of wrongdoers with no time limit, an abhorrent notion. Then talk of God's love is reduced to a reference to out of character behaviour of only temporary import. Being a good deity or a good human being never justifies such violence.

When religion embraces such violence in its image of deity its adherents will inevitably emulate what they believe. Within the biblical tradition there are, indeed, streams of thought which exploit fear in this way and they stand in tension with the insights of love. In fact such violence lags way behind what most secular societies recognise as basic human rights. A passage like this one, while targetting abuse, has the potential therefore also to promote abuse if not handled with care and critical engagement. Belief in a day of judgement arose from cries for justice: that the poor will be lifted up; that the abusers will have to face the reality of what they have done. Imagery surrounding it, however, has the potential to promote the opposite of what the notion intends, namely hate and violence. Left unaddressed, the imagery of the passage may speak for itself in ways that are not good news.

Mark ends with the image of salt. It is not so much that salt ceases to be salt but that it becomes contaminated by additions over time, dirt, stones, etc, so that it becomes useless. He links salt with peace. In the context salt is an image of integrity and wholeness. Being at peace with one another is about wholeness in community – not about hushing things up. Wholeness is also about living in such a way that you don’t have to lose limbs.

The passage for today has the potential to raise many issues and touch painful experiences. Here context is important. We may preach in a way in which people will feel the knife and be driven further into despair, either as abused or as abusers. Telling the truth in gentleness may open significant issues which will need pastoral care, but we need to temper our preaching according to the caring available and not leave people with issues which cannot be dealt with.

Leadership is close to the bone for many of us. There are still many worrying ‘Johns’ at a time when there are probably more people out there in touch with Jesus’ vision, even if not his name, than ever before. They need a drink of water and so do we.

Epistle: Pentecost 18: 27 September James 5:13-20