Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Insipidity and self-importance

It is no mystery that Jesus often spoke in mysteries. When his speech alludes to Old Testament passages, He provides a dimension that should enlighten and constrain our interpretation of the passage. The second half of the ninth chapter of Mark’s Gospel appears on casual reading to contain several disconnected thoughts. A footnote in the 1966 Jerusalem Bible claims, for instance, “It appears that v. 50 cf. Mt 5:13, has been inserted here for no other reason than the recurrence of the word ‘salt’.”

Really? Imagine the self-importance of the translator – God’s editor –presuming that because he doesn’t understand something in Scripture that it just doesn’t belong there.

While chapter divisions in Scripture are arbitrary, there are apparent sections. Mark 9 is divided into three segments. The first section recounts the Transfiguration. The second deals with the healing of a demonized boy, and the third section, verses 33-50, addresses the disciples' sense of self-importance. The disciples argued among themselves who among them was greatest. When Jesus asked them about their discussions none wanted to admit to their petty competition. Jesus rebukes them saying, “If anyone wants to be first, he shall be the last of all, and the servant of all.” Mark 9:35 (AB)

Jesus then offers an illustration of what he means. Embracing a child he tells his disciples, “Whoever should receive one of such children in my name, receives me; and whoever should receive me, receives not me, but the one having sent me.” Mark 9:37 (AB)

John, remembers someone whom the disciples had not received. He tells Jesus, “We beheld a certain one in your name casting out demons, who does not follow us; and we restrained him, for he does not follow us.” Whether John was seeking clarity or justification is uncertain, but Jesus tells his disciples, “Do not restrain him! For there is none who shall do a work of power in my name, and be able to quickly speak evil of me. For he who is not against us, is for us.” Mark 9:38-40 (AB)

The disciples were obviously absorbed with their status as followers of Christ that they felt justified and even responsible to dictate the behavior of strangers. Their arrogance was so extreme that they commanded someone friendly to the cause of Christ to cease and desist performing miracles in the name of Jesus.

Rather than telling his disciples how to treat people, as he had with the child, he presents the logical converse, saying, “For whoever should give you a drink of a cup of water in my name, for you are of Christ, amen, I say to you, in no way should he lose his wage.” Mark 9:41 (AB) Earlier Jesus told his disciples that if they received a little child in his name, they received him and the one who sent him. Here he explains that strangers who likewise show the disciples favor will certainly be rewarded. Jesus presents scenarios wherein the disciples are both giving and receiving favor.

By rebuking the one casting out demons in Jesus’ name, the disciples responded to favor with disfavor. Jesus commanded them to share God’s grace both as givers and receivers.

Jesus follows his instructions with a series of warnings. Using the same child as an illustration he says, “Whoever should cause to stumble one of the little ones trusting in me, it is good to him rather if a millstone encompass around his neck, and to be thrown into the sea.” After instructing the disciples to receive a child in His name, he illustrates the severity of causing a child to stumble. He does not specify how the child would be caused to stumble, but in the context he confronts the disciples’ arrogance.

Next, Jesus again presents a logical converse. Instead of picturing the disciples causing a child to stumble, he presents three scenarios whereby something might cause the disciples to stumble. Rather than pointing to external sources for the disciples’ hypothetical stumbling he chooses three very personal things. He says,

  1. If your hand should cause you to stumble . . .
  2. If your foot should cause you to stumble . . .
  3. If your eye should cause you to stumble . . .

Jesus points out that while a disciple might cause a trusting child to stumble, should a disciple stumble, he would have no one to blame but himself. Jesus tells them, It better to enter into life crippled, lame, or one-eyed than to be “thrown into Gehenna, into the inextinguishable fire, where their worm does not come to an end, and the fire is not extinguished.” Mark 9:48 (AB)

Many of the disciples were fishermen. Without a hand, or a foot, or an eye, their potential in first century society would be severely impeded. Moreover, once maimed, a Jewish man became somewhat of a pariah. According to Leviticus 21, a Levite with a deformity or injury was disqualified from service in the tabernacle. Surely, Jesus words must have seemed bizarre to his disciples. The very things that they might imagine as impediments to God’s acceptance were actually impediments to their salvation.

Jesus is speaking figuratively. Our hands, feet, and eyes do not cause us to stumble. Nevertheless, our pride does. Jesus was telling his disciples that anything about them that caused them to feel superior to even the lame or blind, they should forsake to gain life. When Jesus speaks of Gehenna, he alludes to Isaiah 66:24,

And they shall go forth, and shall see the carcasses of men, the ones violating against me. For their worm shall not come to an end, and their fire shall not be extinguished. And they will be a sight to all flesh.

Isaiah 65 and 66 speaks of the time of the Messianic kingdom where “. . . wolves and lambs shall graze together; and the lion shall eat straw as an ox.” Isaiah 65:25 (AB) At this time, those resisting God will be punished. By quoting Isaiah in the context of Mark chapter 9, Jesus demonstrates the severity of the disciples' pride. By comparing them to the living dead forever burning outside the city, he implies that their pride is the same as rebellion against God.

Jesus then addresses the disciples’ confusion over their proper place. They had been arguing about who among them was greatest. Jesus concludes his discourse saying,

For all shall be salted with fire, and every sacrifice shall be salted with salt. The salt is good; but if the salt becomes insipid, by what means shall you season? Have salt in yourselves, and make peace with one another.

Here Jesus alludes to Leviticus 2:13, “every gift offering of your sacrifices shall be salted with salt. You shall not discontinue salt from the covenant of the LORD with your sacrifices.” Most of the sacrifices of the Old Testament were consumed by the priests and the giver. The salt on the sacrifice made it savory or pleasing.

In Mark 9, Jesus is telling his disciples that they will all be tried by fire. They will all make sacrifices. The salt of the sacrifice demonstrates their willingness to endure trials for the sake of Christ. The salt makes the sacrifice pleasing. Jesus tells them, however, “if the salt become insipid, by what shall you season? Have salt within yourselves, and make peace with one another.”

The disciples' imagined self-importance was making their service to Christ insipid or flavorless. While a casual reader might presume to think that Mark 9:33-50 is a disconnected narrative, Jesus is actually teaching one central thought – the consequences of pride.

  • The disciples’ pride was an impediment to others’ faith.
  • It was an impediment to the disciples’ relationship with God.
  • Moreover, the disciples’ pride made their service meaningless.

The disciples had been arguing about who among them was greatest but Jesus tells them, “Have salt in yourselves, and make peace with one another.”

As I was discussing this passage with Lisa, she heard the words “Have salt within yourself” and was stunned by the imagery that Jesus used. In the New Testament, yeast or leaven always refers to the sin of pride. Some scholars believe that Matthew 13:33 and Luke 13:20 depart from this pattern, but they miss Jesus’ warning in these passages entirely. What Lisa knew about salt that I did not know, is that salt is an impediment to yeast.

In the Old Testament, leavening was banned from the sacrifices; however, salt was required.

In other New Testament passages, Jesus commanded his disciples to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees (an obvious reference to the destructive power of self-importance.) In Mark 9, Jesus tells them to have salt in themselves and make peace. He warns them to cast off their pride and take upon themselves humility and sacrifice.

The disciples were displaying the affects of leaven. They were becoming puffed up. Jesus rebukes them, saying, put a little salt on that insipid pride.

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