Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost | Mark 9:38-50
The Stones That Weigh Us Down
Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts based on the Gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary. A study in practical theology.
John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone throwing out demons in your name, someone who does not follow us, and we forbade him because he does not follow us.”
Mark gives us such odd things. Why have John say this to Jesus? Why not just ascribe it to the disciples in general—they came and said this to Jesus?
Perhaps, if early church tradition is correct and Mark was Peter’s disciple, it is simply because Peter remembered it that way, and Mark recorded what Peter had told him. Perhaps we are meant to see that John, later famous for preaching love, was once not so keen on love himself. Perhaps we’ve got it wrong, and John was not complaining about the rogue exorcist; maybe John came tattle tale to Jesus and threw the other disciples under the bus for rebuking the fellow.
We see that the unnamed exorcist is managing what the disciples have just failed at doing. Perhaps they did not rebuke him for being an outsider, but for succeeding where they themselves had failed.
You have to love the disciples. They are so much like us, so prone to selfishness and to failure.
Jesus throws them some encouragement, telling them that just giving someone a cup of water to drink can be an act of faith. They may not have cast out demons, but surely they could manage a cup of water or a crust of bread.
Then Jesus goes off in a different direction. In Mark’s Gospel, he is always the Jesus they know and the one they do not.
It is better to tie a great stone around your neck and be thrown into the sea, he says, than to lead a child astray. It is better to cut off your foot or your hand, he says, or to tear out your own eye, if they cause you to go astray—better your body be maimed than your spirit. It is hyperbole, we hope, throwing out images that are over the mark, clear exaggerations, and such astounding word-pictures that we cannot forget them.
In hell the worm never dies, he tells them. In hell the fire is never quenched. It is not at all clear that the hell Jesus describes is a future thing, a one day place. He invited people to join him presently in the kingdom of God. If the kingdom of God is at hand, why should hell have to wait? We may walk, maimed or whole, in either.
Looking at a person’s face, can we see the landscape of his soul? Sometimes we might. Sometimes joy or pain is so etched in faces we see that we know where the souls behind them are walking. Hell is where our doubts gnaw at us. Hell is where our regrets burn us. We cannot say what is within another person, and who knows how many souls try to walk a narrow valley between water and fire?
We are lost ourselves. How can we help but lead others astray?
There is so much symbolism in salt: purity, preservation, consecration, friendship. But do not forget the great salt sea, deep and ever moving and as treacherous as the people lost beneath its waves, held there by the weight of regrets like millstones.
We might start cutting things off, like the notion that we are smarter than we are, or better than our neighbor, or more deserving than the strangers at our doors. We might throw away eyes that only see faults. We might throw away feet that step on hope.
We might let go of the stones we throw. In the end, they only weigh us down.