Millstones, Sex and Power
Week of Sunday September 27
Gospel: Mark 9:38-50
33 Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the way?' 34But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. 35He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.' 36Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.'
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.' 39But Jesus said, ‘Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me. 40Whoever is not against us is for us. 41For 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.
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. 43If 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. 45And 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., 47And 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, 48where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.
49 ‘For everyone will be salted with fire. 50Salt 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.'
cf Matthew 5:27-30
27 ‘You have heard that it was said, "You shall not commit adultery." 28But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.
This middle part of Mark (chapters 8:27 - 10:52) is about what it means to part of the community of Jesus; specifically the Jesus who dies on a cross. This is made clear in last week's reading, for example.
Two things are happening in this week's gospel.
Firstly, Jesus talks about who really is the greatest. After the disciples have been arguing about this, Jesus says
‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.' 36Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.'
The normal notions of hierarchy are turned upside down. The child was the lowest person on the social spectrum.
Like Magdalene, I missed the obvious about the discussion of who is the greatest:
.... someone pointed out to me what probably should have been obvious: Jesus has predicted his own death. He is the leader. After his death, who will be the leader in his place? A discussion ensues, and then an argument, over who is "the greatest." No wonder they were struck silent.
Magdalene pointed it out to me!
Despite this startling turning upside down of convention, John, who will later ask to be seated at Jesus right hand (10:35ff) is still obsessed with hierarchy and belonging. He tells Jesus of the "other" Jesus follower who was casting out demons. I love John Petty's comment about this.
Jesus had just spoken of receiving children "in my name," yet John uses that same expression to gripe about some guy who was doing what the disciples themselves could not do!
He goes on to say
Moreover, Jesus had just spoken of "welcoming" of children--the word "welcome" occurs three times in one verse, a strong word of inclusion--and now John wants to exclude on the basis of the exorcist not being "one of us."
Petty's comment shows us the continuity of Mark through this section. The "gripe" about the other exorcist is not what my study bible called a "digression" from the theme of children.
Some Greek texts also had the phrase "he was not following us" twice , which indicates the strength of the exclusion that people wanted to institute. (Metzger pp 101 A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, UBS 1975)
This first reading the text is about the upside down hierarchy of the church. More correctly, one we begin to understand the implications of the child in our midst, it becomes the non hierarchy of the church. This even has implications for the way we relate to those outside of our little group who also claim the name of Jesus.
In this reading, "children" are the "little ones" of the church. We are all precious little ones in the non-hierarchy of the Jesus community. It would be better if a millstone were hung around our neck and we were thrown into the sea than to put a stumbling block in the way of these little ones.
There is also a second reading.
My Harper Collins Study bible startled me with its comments on Mark 9:42-48
These sayings concern male sexuality in relation to the practice or the temptation to practice the sexual abuse of children and other sexual transgressions. 9:42-48
In the Jewish context of the time, "adultery of the hand" was masturbation, because it wasted seed. (This reminds me of my friend Catie's budgie Onan, so called because he spilled his seed upon the ground.) "Adultery of the foot" was what study bible quaintly calls "adultery in the usual sense." The eye causes us to stumble when we look covetously and inappropriately at another person.
It is very clear that Matthew sees the sexual content of this part of Mark. Chapter 5:27-30 is an explicitly sexual use of Mark 9. Therefore we cannot ignore the sexual overtones in Mark.
Sexual abuse is an issue of power. It is based on a hierarchy where one has power over another.
Divorce in Jesus time was also an abuse of power; often leaving the women destitute, and rarely available, if at all, to Jewish women. Mark mentions divorce after this week's reading (10:1-11) using the device of questions from the Pharisees, but Matthew makes it much more specific. In Matthew Jesus raises the question as a part of his speech about abuse. (5:31 "It was also said....)
We are in panic mode in our society, regarding the danger of sexual molestation of children. Two recent articles at OnLine Opinion highlight the fact that most abuse is by people known to children; ie on a statistical basis, the highest danger of abuse for church children is from within their own families, and from people in the church.
Myths, stereotypes and pedophiles
Australians in denial about child sexual abuse
This panic needs to be avoided in our churches. I do not mean that child sexual abuse should be denied, or that action should not be taken to expose abuse. Indeed, I would argue that Mark's use of children as his example of right power, and power abuse correlates very well with our pastoral experience that child sexual abuse is often horrifically damaging to people.
But it is clear that Mark is also referring to sexual abuse more widely; i.e. divorce. And that he is talking about the abuse of power, which creates a hierarchy of power in the church. Power is for service, not for lording.
So to preach against sexual abuse and not see the wider misuse of power in the church would be a mistake. It would also be a mistake to remain silent about the sexual issues here.
We should note that he refers to sex in terms of power, not in terms of "dirt" or purity. Relating to sexual abuse in terms of dirtiness helps no one; least of all the victims.
‘For everyone will be salted with fire. 50Salt 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.'
Clearly these saying follow on from the mention of unquenchable fire earlier. Note that it is not "hell" as per Dante that Mark speaks of but Gehenna, a valley outside of Jerusalem which symbolised ongoing punishment. (See Gehenna)
I am not clear on the full meaning of the three sayings about salt, but their context clearly suggests we do not tolerate abuse of power, and that we seek to cleanse it. If we of all people lose our taste, how will we be seasoned; we are meant to be salt for others.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!