Walk This Way, Mark 9:38-50, Lectionary 26-b, 9/27/15, LMLC
Is it more like a poetry anthology or an essay? Today’s gospel lesson presents us with three rather distinct parts: a discussion of how we should treat someone outside our group who is doing good things, a rather gruesome description of lopping off body parts if doing so will result in greater faithfulness, and a picturesque call to be salty and touched by the fire of the Spirit. But how are these pieces related?
An anthology prints poems, one after the other, with no suggestion that they are related—each has its own integrity and intention. An essay, in contrast, is unified by a central point. As we were taught in English 101 a good paragraph has a theme sentence and all the others support it. So, is today’s gospel lesson more like a poetry collection or an essay? Are these discrete sayings of Jesus, each making its own point or thesedifferent teachings connected to one another, unified by an underlying theme?
Perhaps they are both. It seems to me that each of these sayings has its own purpose (and Jesus probably originally spoke them at different times and places), but Mark has pulled them together to hold several ideas in creative tension. So let’s look very quickly at what each of these blocs says individually and what they show us when seen as a whole.
Our text begins with an encounter between Jesus’ disciples and a nameless exorcist. We only know two things about this guy: he is using the name of Jesus to perform his healings and he is not in the inner circle of Jesus’ disciples. In so far as anyone has credentials as on official disciple this exorcist has none, but he clearly has game. He is accomplishing good things and giving Jesus the credit. Still, the disciples try to stop him. Are they jealous? Do they fear that he was just using Jesus? Do they have genuine fears that actions without knowledge of Jesus’ teachings could bring the whole movement into disrepute? We don’t know. We do know they come to Jesus expecting a little affirmation for safeguarding the brand, “Lord, we told that jackleg preacher to stop calling himself one of yours.”
But to their great surprise Jesus tells them to leave the guy alone, “Whoever is not against us is for us.” In order to understand Jesus’ attitude it’s helpful to remember where we are in the bigger story. Twice Jesus has told the disciples that his fate is going to be less then immediately glorious, that he is headed to Jerusalem to suffer and die before rising. Twice he has emphasized that following him is first and foremost about being willing to take on that attitude of service. Twice they have failed to get the point. Here, they continue to think in terms of what Jesus can do for them; they keep jealously guarding their status as his inner circle.
Jesus, however, is less concerned with labels and credentials than with results. Whether or not this nameless exorcist has full knowledge, Jesus seems to say, he is doing what I do; he is bringing healing to the suffering. So ease up; in a world of so much darkness, anyone who bears witness to the light is to be valued and welcomed.
At the very least, this calls us Christians to work very hard to get beyond our tribalism to join with anyone who calls Jesus Lord to be about the works of justice and mercy he did. But I think it goes even further.
Last week I heard a news story of Christian and Muslim relief agencies working side by side to address the refugee crisis which is enveloping Europe and the Middle East. I can imagine Jesus saying, “That’s what I’m talking about. Get beyond the discussion about God to asking how you can show God to your neighbor.” In his attitude toward this nameless exorcist Jesus models an expansive, gracious attitude which we do well to emulate. If Jesus welcomed allies in his struggle against darkness and shouldn’t we?
The second bloc in our text seems to be a deliberate counterpoint to the first. If Jesus seems expansive in his attitude toward the unknown exorcist; he sounds harsh and uncompromising in his call that we live with total commitment. “Better to sink into the sea than to put up a barrier to another person following me; better to cut off a hand or a foot than to compromise your faith.” If the words regarding the exorcist are directed to conservatives who think they have God all wrapped up in their theological and cultural formulas, these take aim at liberals who have a hard time believing anything is worthy of their total loyalty.
Some have taken these words of Jesus quite literally ttention and make his point, there have been times when interpreters have taken these words quite literally. The church father, Origin, famously became a Eunuch in an attempt to purge himself of sexual temptation. Most, however, see Jesus using exaggeration in order to grab his hearers’ attention and make his point. Literal self-mutilation is a bit extreme, but we dare not too quickly explain away the challenge of Jesus’ words. The point which Jesus makes, I think, is that some things—even things we dearly love—must be sacrificed if we desire to follow him. The beer commercial tagline, “You can have it all” is a lie. There is a cost to discipleship, a cost which may seem as painful as cutting off a foot.
At the risk of trivializing Jesus’ words let me offer a less grisly image which he could offer in our own context: “If double fries prevent you from meeting your training goal, cut them out, for it is better to live without 5 Guys Cajun fries than to be sucking wind in the marathon you’re trying to win.”
Of course, what is at stake is more than a race and the cost is more than french fries. Sometimes the cost is money, but it can be public approval when we stand with Jesus against hatred. What gets cut may be our discretionary time when we give to others. The hard edge of these words is that discipleship demands that nothing, absolutely nothing, can be more important than following where Jesus leads. The question which this text poses, the one which is every bit as troubling as contemplating literal mutilation, is “What am I being called to cut out of my life, to sacrifice, in order that I may follow Jesus more faithfully?”
Graciousness toward those outside our narrow community, a demanding call to sacrifice whatever is necessary, both are found in today’s text. Is there a way to bring these two teachings together. It seems to me that our third section unifies the other two: “Salt 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.”
Be salty, says Jesus. Salt, like any good metaphor, can mean a variety of things, but at the very least it suggests being distinctive, standing for something. Nothing is as useless as salt which has no taste, salt which makes no difference when it’s sprinkled on food. Jesus does not go to the trouble of gathering a community so that it can be a mirror of the surrounding culture. Like salt in the soup, folks should notice our presence.
Some would say that the great problem of Christians in our society is that they are distinctive—but distinctive for the wrong things. Ask many young adults what is distinctive about Christians and they will say we are distinctive for our opposition to science, our nostalgia for a mythical golden age when everyone went to church, our bunker mentality in the face of a changing world. It may not be fair, but that is the perception, that we are distinctive in what we oppose.
The saltiness to which Jesus calls us is the distinctiveness of loving when it is easier to hate, of seeking reconciliation wherever there is conflict, of standing for those who have no voice. People should notice that we are different, but not so much because of our passionate belief that we are right, but because we are committed to being people of peace in a world too often driven by fear and anger.
This is how our three lessons come together—these words about a nameless exorcist, amputation, and saltiness. We are called to be both gracious and distinctive. We are single-minded, but single-mindedly committed to expanding the gentle reach of the one we confess as Lord. Wherever we discern the love which Jesus embodies making a difference we rejoice and give thanks for the expansive reach of God.
French theologian Jacques Ellul articulates the complex challenge we have to be both distinctive and gracious, “Christians were never meant to be normal. We’ve always been holy troublemakers, we’ve always been creators of uncertainty, agents of a dimension that’s incompatible with the status quo; we do not accept the world as it is, but we insist on the world becoming the way that God wants it to be. And the Kingdom of God is different from the patterns of this world.”
Like Jesus’ disciples long ago, trudging toward Jerusalem, we are on a journey with Jesus. This week may we hear loud and clear our marching orders which call us to both courage and gentleness: “Have salt in yourselves and be at peace with one another.”