By Ched Myers, for the 18th Sunday of Pentecost (Mark 9:38-50), originally posted on September 24, 2015
This week continues our journey through the second cycle of Mark’s discipleship catechism. Here John boasts that the disciples shut down the work of an exorcist who was not “following us” (9:38). Under these narrative circumstances, never was the “royal we” more inappropriate! Jesus’ attempt to deconstruct hierarchical power is met with the crudest of assertion of “franchise entitlement.” But is not this a poignant (if sardonic) portrait of how we Christians so often look at our faith traditions as membership clubs?
Behind Jesus’ rebuke (9:39) is, as is so often the case in the gospels, a story from the Hebrew Bible. In Numbers 11:24-30 two young men who were not “officially ordained elders” in the community of Israel are exercising the prophetic spirit. Joshua objects: “My Lord Moses, forbid them!” (Num 11:28). Moses’ response is germane to Mark’s point here:
Are you jealous? If only the whole people were prophets, and God gave the Spirit to all of them! (Num 11:29)
“Powerful practices,” argues Jesus similarly, should be welcomed wherever they occur; indeed, those “not against us are for us” (Mk 9:39f). By expanding the “us” Jesus undermines any attempt by the church to claim an exclusive authority over the practice of justice and compassion. He understands the relationship between the power of monopoly and the monopoly of power! To sharpen the point, he reminds “Christians” (or as Mark puts it, “because you bear the name of Christ”) that they will often be on the receiving end of such works of mercy (9:41)!
Jesus’ hardest words, however, are reserved for those who might “scandalize” the “little ones who believe in me” (9:42). The construct is again the conditional subjunctive, warning that all of us are potential offenders; the verb and its object are also important. To “scandalize,” usually translated “to cause to stumble or fall away,” means to impede or to make indignant; it’s root connotation is “to jump up” or “snap shut,” referring to the piece of wood that kept open a trap for animals (see Rom 11:9). This alludes to how our acts, habits or social structures can function to “entrap” others, resulting in their dehumanization, marginalization and even death. The mikrōn represent the vulnerable in any given relationship, personal or political. Sin was always relational in antiquity, and the welfare of the “least” was Jesus’ moral barometer.
The “sea” and the “unquenchable fire” (9:42f) remind us of the torment of “water and fire” inflicted by the demon of silencing (see 9:22). Two powerful metaphors are deployed here, underlining the seriousness of this issue. The first has an interesting echo later in the N.T.:
- …it would be better for you if a great millstone (Gk mulos) were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea (thalassa). (9:42)
- Then a mighty angel took up a stone like a great millstone (mulinon) and threw it into the sea (thalassan), saying, “So shall Babylon the great city be thrown down …” (Rev 18:21)
The Revelation image conjures the old story of the demise of Pharaoh’s army in the sea (Ex 14), which will also be the fate of “Babylon” (a.k.a. Rome). This grim metaphor means to be strident: disciples should take great care not to reproduce the pathologies of an oppressive society! 
The second image underscores this with one of the most disturbing metaphors in the gospel tradition: the invitation to self-amputation. Mark seems to be combining two Pauline images: that of the community as “body” (see “hand, eye, foot” in I Cor 12:14-26, common in ancient rhetoric) and the principle of not causing the “weaker member” to be scandalized (see Rom 14). The “fires of Gehenna” in turn, alludes to the ancient public dump in Jerusalem, which was always smoldering (the valley of Hinnom, south of the city, where dead animals and other unclean refuse were burned, was reputed to be a site where children had been sacrificed to Moloch, see II Kg 23:10). We would do well to re-image this as trash heaps today in the Third World where the poor try to scavenge a living, while we in the First World nurture a throw-away society.
These strange and troubling images are equally avoided by modern liberals and fundamentalists (one should never give credence to a two-handed biblical “literalist”). But they become both comprehensible and compelling to our ears if we employ the analogy of a battle with substance abuse. A recovering addict knows in her flesh the searing truth that kicking a habit is very much like cutting off a part of oneself, and such “amputation” is life-saving surgery on the cancer of our illusions and appetites. “Any struggle with addiction … involves deprivation,” writes Gerald May in Addiction and Grace, “every false prop is vulnerable to relinquishment.” Recovery is a life-or-death discipline, and Jesus’ metaphor captures that urgency.
According to Mark’s Jesus, our greatest individual and social addiction is the will to dominate. Disciples are called to defect from what society may see as natural, such as all the ways “little ones” are routinely victimized by patterns of hierarchy and exclusion. To do this is to be perceived as “defective” (like the amputee) by the dominant culture; but these strange sayings argue that it is better to be deformed than to conform to what oppresses more vulnerable members of the body politic. (See further my comments Who Will Roll Away the Stone?, pp.175ff, and the Conclusion to The Biblical Vision of Sabbath Economics).
In a world of violence, domination and institutionalized inequality, our discipleship choices are stark. We either live in the “hell” of addiction (9:48 alludes to the very last line in the book of Isaiah) or we embrace the “fire” of recovery (9:49). Salt, used medicinally in antiquity, suggests that the goal is healing (9:49), which must include reconciliation within the community of faith (9:50).
 The allusion to God’s judgment on empire suggests that it is systems of dehumanization, not persons, that need to be done away with; after all, the great crime of Babylon/Rome was to turn human beings into commodities (Rev 18:13). On the millstone image, the women of Thebez used such a stone to crush the head of the self-appointed tyrant Abimelech in Judges 9:53. And interestingly, the Roman annalist Suetonius (ca 120 C.E.) notes that Caesar used millstones tied around the neck to drown certain opponents. For more on this see our comments on the longer discussion in Matthew 18 in Ambassadors of Reconciliation, Vol 1, pp. 56ff.