If you have been following along in Mark, you have seen the increasing intensity of the call to discipleship. You have noticed Jesus’ explicit embrace of the cross as the necessary way that lays before him and anyone who follows him. And here—not long after the ground-shaking event of the transfiguration—Jesus confronts the insularity of the community of followers that he has gathered around him. It is an event that seems so petty and small given what happens around it, yet there it is. A man is healing in Jesus’s name. The disciples cannot stand it so they tell him to stop.
It is comforting for me that Jesus’ ministry spawned copycats. With the cheap imitations of “successful” ministries in our day, it is nice to see that Jesus’s method was seized on and imitated by others when they, too, were confronted with demons. Are the disciples are worried about Jesus’s brand here? You don’t want to dilute the market with healers and exorcists! Or will people think this guy speaks for them as he does things that don’t jive with the healer from Galilee? Jesus is not stressed. He knows that his ministry is in the hand of his Father, just like everything else.
We are all tempted to single out this passage and hold it up as an example of community cooperation or even friendly relationships between Christ’s people and those who want the same things that they want. But the passage gives us two halves and the second refuses that interpretation. In the first, the disciples are told not to stop the man who heals in Jesus’s name. In the second they are told not to cause “one of this little ones who believe in me to sin”. Famously, there are millstones and threats of punishment in hell/Gehenna for those who lead the small, weak and ignorant astray.
This passage has been read as a description of the burning pits of hell by many people and if you have read more recent scholarship, I am sure you are aware of the way that this reference to Gehenna is to the Valley of Hinnom, which had been a place for the sacrifice of children to Molech but was desecrated by Josiah (2 Kings 23:10), cursed (Jeremiah 7:31, 19:2-6) and turned into a burning trash heap for centuries. The worm never dies and their fire never goes out. It is always tempting to become consumed with the question of whether hell is and what hell is and how we might avoid it. But what are these threats actually about?
As I read it, Jesus is simply saying that if you allow sin to exist in your life unchecked, without being willing to take radical action against even yourself, then it will lead to a situation in which, like gangrene, sin has overtaken your body and threatens the integrity of the whole (v. 43-47). This has a tendency to spread beyond just you. It tends to spread to the weak and the poor, those whose faith is quick to falter, those who are highly sensitive to hypocrisy and might see the sin of a follower of Christ as a reason to abandon Christ and his Church.
You see, the disciples want to protect the world from someone who does good in Christ’s name but does not carry the appropriate credentials. Jesus wants to protect the weak from those who would abuse the authority given to them in the Church to become “the greatest” while casting aside everyone they pass along the way. It may get even more specific than that. This is a word to the social and political “climbers” who ignore and abandon the churches they serve in order to move up the ranks. If you see that in yourself, cut it off. This is a word to the verbally, physically, emotionally and sexually abusive pastors and priests out there. Gehenna is not going to be a nice place for you.
Judgment Day is coming and the God of the fatherless and the widow will bring salt and fire to discover what is true in you and what needs preserving. If you have not cut off that gangrenous hand or foot or eye, don’t expect that you will be brought into the presence of God whole.
Rather, be salt in this world. Live peaceably with one another. Share what you have—even if it is only a cup of cold water—with anyone and everyone who belongs to Christ. This is the kind of simple discipleship that Jesus calls us to.
Most of us are out of the practice of preaching fire and brimstone. And yet when sexual and other kinds of abuse is constantly in the news and clergy are sometimes the worst of the offenders, I am willing to say that our people don’t need another sermon series on community cooperation. Our people need to know that you can look an abuser in the eye and call them to repentance with the knowledge that if they do not repent, there will be hell to pay. I don’t mean (ironically) using hell to bully anyone into belief, but speaking the clear and simple truth of a world that is just because God will bring judgment as well as a world that is fair and kind because God stands by his little ones, even if only in a cup of cold water.