Who Was the Real Threat to the Kingdom Community?

Mark 9:38-50 is a strange passage. At first reading, it appears to be a collection of disconnected sayings and anecdotes tied together by an arbitrary string of keywords highlighted below. Mark may have indeed received these sayings as stand-alone logia. Together, though, they answer the question, “Who was the real threat to God’s work in the life of Christ, and to the community that formed the seed of the coming kingdom?” It wasn’t the tangentially connected or the marginally aligned, those who saw and responded to only to part of what God was doing in Jesus. It wasn’t even really the evil men who would put Jesus to death, for God promised to raise his messiah from the grave. God’s victory over evil is certain.

No, the threat that most concerned Jesus was the internal threat. Those who followed the worst examples of religious piety were concerned only with themselves. There were believers within the messiah’s own fellowship who aspired to worldly greatness. Moreover, some members of the Christian community were leading their brothers and sisters astray, taking them away from the saving life of faith and causing them to fall.

How they were causing their brothers and sisters to fall, Jesus does not say. Was it false teaching? Was it worldliness, a lack of commitment or setting a bad example? Was it hypocrisy or insincerity? Was it a lack of love or a failure to build a fellowship that incorporated all believers? All can be deadly.

If the church’s mission is to seek and save the lost, every apostasy – every case of falling away from the kingdom – is a kind of mission failure (one which the church should never seek to remedy by force or threats).

Instead of looking at the threats outside the church, Jesus’ followers should look at their own lives and the quality of  the fellowship within their own community.

38 John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” 39 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. There are no words of praise for the exorcist who has aligned himself with the power of Jesus’ name but not with Jesus’ missional community. Rather, Jesus simply said that the exorcist will not imperil the mission by speaking evil of him. The immediate threat comes from those into whose hands Jesus will be betrayed (Mark 9:34). Leave the uncommitted exorcist alone.
40 Whoever is not against us is for us. A stand alone, proverbial saying, but it summarizes the point of verses 38-39. It also serves as the introduction to verse 41.
41 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. The little ones are Christ’s mendicant, itinerant disciples who depend on the hospitality of strangers, but whose presence polarizes communities. The people of the villages Jesus visits may be no more committed to Jesus’ mission than simply offering a cup of cold water to Jesus’ thirsty disciples, but God will reward them with the kingdom.

Given the violent hostility that some showed to Jesus and his band of followers, even offering a cup of water to Jesus’ disciples took courage and demonstrated a faithful response to the kingdom’s presence.

The contrast between the powerful works of the exorcist and the simple act of offering a cup of water is significant, and follows Jesus’ teaching about greatness in Mark 9:33-37. Those who follow Christ must be like servants, “little ones” of no more worldly importance than children of that era.In God’s eyes, the smallest acts are often the greatest.

If the uncommitted exorcist is doing no harm to the kingdom, the humble villagers who welcome Jesus’ disciples are actually doing good. They are helping the kingdom’s cause.

42 “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. While the uncommitted exorcist does not hurt the kingdom’s cause, there are actions that do. There are those among Jesus’ followers who will cause their fellow believers to fall away from the saving life of faith in Christ.Some of the greatest threats to the kingdom are internal to the community of believers.

This proclamation is ironic in the light of the disciples concern in verse 38. Rather than being concerned about the threat from uncommitted but relatively friendly people, perhaps the disciples ought to look at the threats within their own community.

The disciples may have needlessly opposed the uncommitted exorcist, but God stands even more strongly against the self-destructive actions of Christ’s own community.

43 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. 45 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. 47 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, 48 where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched. The disciples need to look at themselves, not others. Everyone is subject to falling into sin and away from the life of faith. Of course Jesus’ vivid language is hyperbole. Hands, feet and eyes don’t cause anyone to sin, so literally cutting them off won’t solve the problem. As Jesus’ said elsewhere, the real problem is the heart. But the kingdom does require a radical response on the part of those who hear its call. Whatever draws you away from the kingdom must be cut away. The kingdom offers eternal life in the age to come; the only alternative is eternal death.
49 “For everyone will be salted with fire. Jesus’ disciples had better be ready to make the radical choices that the kingdom demands. The fiery trials of Jesus’ death and the church’s missional environment are knocking on the door. Then the real threat to the kingdom will be obvious.
50 Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Salt harvested by ancient methods had many impurities. Sometimes the actual salt would dissolve away, leaving only a mineral residue that looked something like salt, but was not good for much. See the parallel in Matthew 5:13.

Jesus uses the metaphor to warn his disciples that falling away has serious consequences. If they lose the qualities that make them his disciples, they are not fit for the kingdom

Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” The last words on living at peace with one another returns the reader to the disciples’ concern about the Christian community expressed in verse 38, a kind of literary inclusio.

Having salt and living at peace with one another, then, entails the matters touched on in these verses: continuing the itinerant mission Jesus began, encouraging and supporting each other in the life of discipleship, responding fully to the demands of the kingdom, being prepared for the coming trials and persevering in the faith.

Jesus calls his disciples to retain the graceful provision that God has provided in Christ – to persevere to the kingdom’s final coming while serving God’s purposes in the world – and to live in peace together in the community of faith.

The disciples saw one threat to the community in the actions of an itinerant exorcist; Jesus saw many more in the actions of his followers.