John said to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.
“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell., And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.
“For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” Mark 9:38-50.
Jesus had a funny habit. He often encountered those who would try to draw a boundary between the holy and the unholy, between the sacred and the profane, between the clean and the unclean. Whenever he ran into these boundaries, Jesus would step on the other side. He did it with lepers. He did it with tax collectors. He did it with prostitutes and those who were sick and lame and even the Gentiles. He even crossed the boundaries drawn around the Sabbath. He did it so often that we begin to wonder if there’s a message in there. And in today’s Gospel, He does it again.
In the first section of this passage, the disciples express their concern that someone outside their circle has also engaged in the healing ministry. It’s at least worth noting that this passage in Mark follows the scene in which the disciples were squabbling among themselves about who was the greatest. Mark 9:32-34. That story ended with Jesus taking a small child (another outsider in that society) into his arms and explaining that those who welcome such a child actually welcome Jesus and his Father. In today’s reading, Jesus continues teaching his disciples about letting go of their sense of self-importance and widening the circle of holiness far beyond themselves.
We hear the echoes of John’s criticism (he was “not following us”) too often as we hear Christians speak of other believers, other denominations, and other faiths. Jesus wants to “welcome” the children; John is concerned with those who are “not following us.” Jesus affirms even the simplest act of kindness, a cup of water, done in His name.
Jesus sharply contrasts those who offer kindness, who encourage, with those who get in the way of someone’s journey to the Father. Those who scandalize these little ones or cause them to stumble, Jesus teaches that Gehenna awaits them. (Gehenna, the Valley of Hinnom, was a ravine south of Jerusalem where child sacrifices to Moloch had taken place. Jeremiah 7:31; 32:35.) After King Josiah destroyed the altar to Moloch, it became a continuously burning trash, used as a metaphor for the torment of the wicked.
Jesus teaches that we must rid ourselves of whatever causes us to stumble, even if it’s our hand, our foot, or our eye. I don’t think Jesus is advocating self-mutilation. He’s telling His disciples to separate themselves from anything that interferes with their path to the Father. He advocates a clear focus on the things that bring us closer to the kingdom of God, even if we must shed ourselves of ourselves.
The closing paragraph may seem strange to our modern ears. At the time, however, both salt and fire were used medicinally. They were used to treat wounds; thus, Jesus is saying that everyone will find their healing, their wholeness. To “share salt” with someone, to share a meal, carried with it the implication of fellowship. The expression “have salt in yourself” meant “be at peace with yourself.” Salt was also used as a preservative and carried with it the implication of permanence. Jesus thus encourages His disciples (and us) to find our healing and reconciliation by making peace with ourselves, and with our brothers and sisters.
I pray we find that peace, not by excluding others from the circle of holiness, but my looking for God and His kingdom in all times and all places.
James R. Dennis, O.P.
© 2012 James R. Dennis