Next Sunday is the 26th Sunday in Year B of the lectionary cycle with the Gospel reading be taken from Mark 9:38-48. As in the gospel of last Sunday, this gospel also continues the teaching and preparation of the disciples. In the gospel, it seems as thought the preparation is still a “work in progress.”
In seminary exegesis courses one is taught to look for details that indicate a change of scene, location, or other markers to indicate the boundaries of a particular pericope (a technical word used in exegesis meaning “narrative” – and a word that auto-correction keeps wanting to change to “periscope,” which given my history serving on nuclear submarines is kinda’ interesting.). There are no such markers in the text. It is a safe bet to assume Jesus is still in Capernaum, surrounded by the Twelve, with a child in their midst (9:33-37). The expression “little ones” may well also include those given a cup of water because they bear the name of Jesus (v.41).
42 “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe (in me) to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were put around his neck and he were thrown into the sea. 43 If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed than with two hands to go into Gehenna, into the unquenchable fire. 44 …. 45 And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life crippled than with two feet to be thrown into Gehenna… 46…47 And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. Better for you to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into Gehenna, 48 where ‘their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.’ (Mark 9:42–48)
Some scholars note that these are likely a series of independent sayings about sin that are inserted here. That might well be true, but the question still lingers, “Why were they dropped in here?” I would offer that there is an implied return to the idea of what it means to serve: “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.” Christian service always has a point of pointing to Christ as the foundation of all service. What could be of greater disservice than to point another towards sin? The opening saying is clear as it sharply denounces such behavior and its resulting consequences. The underlying expression for “to sin” is more literally, “to cause to stumble” or “to scandalize” (skandalizo). This might point to more than simple sin in its varieties of kinds, but more pointedly to a loss of faith. This loss of faith is the sense of the expression’s use in 4:17 and 14:27,29. It is this latter understanding that might be better suited to the consequences. If loss of faith implies loss of the eternal reward of the Kingdom, then the Christian disciple, who is at root of this loss due to their service, suffers the same fate.
Because of the expression “one of these little ones” we easily think of the child references in vv.33-37, but what about the unnamed exorcist “who believe[s]?” How did he or she respond to the disciples trying to stop them from ministering in the name of Jesus? Were the words scandalizing? Were the words used in that attempt as severe as the ones Jesus now uses as he teaches the Twelve? Just as Peter rebuked Jesus and received a direct and pointed reply, so too John and the disciples in this scene.
The punishment by drowning while being weighed down might have been known to the disciples. Acts 5:37 notes the insurrection of the early Zealot leader, Judas the Galilean. The Roman historian Suetonius and the Jewish historian Josephus, both report Judas and his follower’s execution by such downing. But what follows v.42 moves from history to hyperbole.
Among Christians that might argue how to interpret Scripture, one would be hard pressed to find a group that would take vv.43-48 as a literal command of God. But I would offer that all understand the underlying message: each man and woman is a concrete moral agent who is responsible for their actions and the consequences of those actions. This is the realism expressed in this very Semitic thought. The radical demand that the hand or foot should be amputated or the eye plucked out, gruesome as those demands are, point to the intrinsic differences between physical life and the absolute value of imperishable life given by God alone. Jesus calls for the renunciation of possessions and family (Mark 10), as well as life itself (8:34) if these things stand in the way of following Jesus. In this same way, Jesus calls for the complete renunciation of a sinful life and activity. These expressions are not a call for radical, mutilating actions, but the continued call for sacrifice to set aside those things that keep you from God. This is emphasized as Jesus moves into the personal: “If your hand…” and “If your foot…” It is a direct plea and teaching for his disciples.
“These sayings challenge us to examine the quality of our discipleship. Is following Christ at the core of our being, something too precious to be surrendered lightly? Or is our Christianity merely a matter of taste and convenience, something we shelve at the slightest difficulty or inconvenience? Belief that is easily set aside cannot be the faith that Jesus calls for among his disciples.” (Perkins, 641)
Pheme Perkins, The Gospel of Mark, vol. 8 of The New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville, TN: Abington Press, 1994) 638-41