Week of Sunday 27 September - Pentecost 18
Gospel: Mark 9:38-50
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.’
The podcast of this post is here
Violence is the insistence on being first at the expense of others. Violence is the antithesis of what Mark calls being "great," (Mark 10:43) because it refuses to serve, and therefore, refuses God. We are in a conversation which began last week, and which the lectionary cut short.
How did we get here?
John writes that "there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written." (John 21:25) Why then, in such a short Gospel as Mark's, are this week's violent foot chopping and eye plucking sayings included? Are they the heart of the Good News of God's Kingdom where "they will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain?" (Isa 11:9)
You only put this material into a gospel if little ones are being caused to stumble. The "shocking hyperbole" is a sign that Mark knows of shocking failures of hospitality and love among those who bear the name of Christ.
If we were to clip this scene out of the movie Mark to upload to YouTube, Jesus would be seen speaking while a child sat in his lap. The context is set before this week's reading begins:
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.’
And although "he left that place," (Mark 10:1) his next subject is divorce which, on the reasoning above, was also an issue for Mark's community. My colleague Michael Trainor said at a recent seminar that the early congregations were strongly rooted in households. And we can see this in Mark 9:33; the conversation about the way of faith began when "he was in the house."
We might venture that the best of faith's nurturing comes within the intimacy and constancy of the household, and as that household is hospitable to the people around it, even down to the simplest acts of hospitality like a glass of water. How much is our congregation such a household?
Hell: Part One
We also know that the household often hides the worst violence of our society. Given that the conversation starts with children, and ends with divorce, it is hard not to see within this call to hospitality and service, (Mark 9:35) a coded conversation about child abuse.
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. (Bill Loader I have added the emphasis.)
When I first read Bill's words some years ago, I thought this was a forced interpretation. As I have replayed memories, and listened more carefully to the stories of those I meet, I think that sexual abuse of children is the primary experience of this text. Mark is using the horror of that experience as a warning: "You know what the fundamental inhospitality that is child abuse does to us— has done to you, even! — this is also what any abusive grasping leadership and community life does to all of us." The absolute care of the child on Jesus' knee is to be symbolic of our care for all of us.
Bill says, "What happens in families is often mirrored in communities." A colleague, still almost disbelieving years later, once related how some of the staff they supervised had discovered and reported sexual abuse of children in a small community. The community— not just the families concerned, but the community— erupted in hostility against them. The community is families and households, and the families and households we are… will determine our community. And our church.
Mark places Jesus' teaching on children, hospitality/service, abuse, and community into the context of fear. This is behind the concern over "someone casting out demons in your name… [who] was not following us." Our inclination, which he calls us to transcend, is to close ranks against the outsider, even one using the name of Christ.
Walling ourselves off is a fear response that tries, fruitlessly, to wall off the things already inside ourselves which we fear. There is no point in walling off the outsider; all that action shows us is that what we fear is already working within us. The community Mark is writing about, is hostile to others claiming the name of Christ, but we have already seen that the real problem, and the real enemy, is themselves: Don't fear the outsider; fear what you may do to yourselves.
Hell: Part Two
"Abuse [is so serious that it] must be dealt with radically." I have strengthened Bill's sentence because I know that even the minor abuse of my childhood has often exercised a controlling effect on my life. The immense good in which I grew up, "a solid, reassuring presence; calm, measured, and organized; ready with sage advice when asked, but never in a hurry to force it upon you" is still sometimes overwhelmed by childhood events outside my family home.
Bill goes on to say, "Notice the underlying concern is not to burn the abusers, but to rehabilitate them, indeed to take this initiative about oneself."
One of my colleagues said recently that we usually underestimate the perverse and devious intelligence of sexual predators. And the damage they do to those among us. A whole congregation may be groomed and manipulated over years, by someone with this illness. Do not take these people lightly.
But this text is not about "us" dealing with "them." Mark appeals to me as a potential abuser of my household and church to deal with me. It would be better for me to have a millstone around my neck and be thrown into the sea, than to abuse others.
Violence against the perpetrator—lynching is only the most extreme form-- is not qualitatively different from the violence they do to us. If I abuse a little child, the damage I do to them and to myself is so great "it would be better for [me] if a great millstone were hung around [my] neck and [I] were thrown into the sea." But if I lynch even a paedophile, the damage I do to myself is so great "it would be better for [me] if a great millstone were hung around [my] neck and [I] were thrown into the sea."
Life, Love, and Kingdom
The child abuse recalled by Mark is a grotesque metaphor for any abuse. Abuse denies life. If I abuse you, I deny you your life. And I deny myself life.
Walter Casper says Jesus calls the kingdom of heaven life: it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. (Mark 9:43, Casper, W. Jesus the Christ A&C Black pp 73) This life, says Casper, is salvation. He says of salvation that
Everyone can now know that love is the ultimate, that it is stronger than death, stronger than hatred and injustice. The news of the coming of the Kingdom of God is therefore a promise about everything that is done in the world out of love. It says that, against all appearances, what is done out of love will endure for ever; that it is the only thing which lasts for ever. (Casper, W. Jesus the Christ A&C Black pp74)
To metaphorically "cut off my own hand" might be an act of love to the community and an act of salvation for me. To cut off another's hand is always violence, a walking away from life and kingdom. It is my donning a millstone which will not easily be removed. To enact such violence as a community is to place millstone upon millstone between community and kingdom.
Hell: Part Three
What happens if we turn the extreme language of this text into violence against the perpetrators of abuse within the household or the community?
The saying, "… where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched," is a verse taken from Isaiah 66:24. It promised that at the end, when salvation came, those in the city would go out and see the bodies of those who rebelled against God.
And the hell which this describes is an metaphor taken from Himmnon, the valley next to Jerusalem, where the bodies of child sacrifice were burned. (eg Jeremiah 7:30-33) When Jesus says cut off your hand rather than risk hell, it is a warning: if you do these things, you risk being the scapegoat, the one who is sacrificed by the community in its own disgust at itself. (See, for example, Paul Nuechterlein on this passage.)
What is this wall of millstones between community and kingdom, between God and me, if I seek to cleanse myself by violence to others?
After reading Isaiah 62 this morning, I have not been able to escape photos of my father and his companions after a particularly brutal and terrifying battle in World War II. Trapped Japanese soldiers had launched a dawn suicide attack; they called the place "Hellfire Corner." My father and his unit were little more than a minute's sprint from the centre of this terror and had no ammunition with which to defend themselves.
The photos show them standing around the bodies of the dead. There are a few disengaged smiles—one can imagine a few bravado comments and black humour— but the violence which has saved them has left them lost. They are just standing; no one knows what to do; the photos are strangely empty. It has been a shallow salvation which could cost more than it has saved.
My dad deliberately and thoroughly walked away from the glorification of war and violence.
At a working breakfast a few days ago, California Dreaming began playing in the café background. The bloke at the next table told us he had seen Momma Cass at Woodstock. "I had that thousand yard stare," he said, "and they shipped me out of Vietnam to California. I hitched a ride in a combi and ended up at Woodstock!" His eyes shone as he told the story.
He went back to his breakfast, absent mindedly shovelled in, as he copied the details of American attack helicopters into a foolscap notebook. His script was precise, stylised, and colour coded. He was working on the sacral page of an illuminated manuscript from medieval times. The thousand yard stare was still there, as he sat at breakfast in Vietnam, 40 years later in North Adelaide. I wondered by what grace my father had walked away and cast off the millstone.
If we perpetrate more violence, and more abuse, our salvation will be a shell shocked standing around the bodies, weighed down by the millstones of violence. To be free is to take up the most vulnerable, especially the little child, and to be determined to give them a place of safety. It is to walk away from violence and to serve others. Violence is self serving. If we will not be last of all, if we will not walk away from violence, we breakfast in hell. But when we serve, the choke of the millstones begins to fail, and freedom begins.
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!
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