Last month Claire and I visited Hoover Dam and took a tour of the inside of the dam. Walking around in a few of the maize of tunnels inside the dam, we often encountered this sign: “Notice: authorized personnel only beyond this point.” Only authorized people would be allowed to be in those dangerous places. We mere tourists were not trained or approved to do certain things or be in certain places. Since we were not authorized we were kept out.
The disciples may not have had a sign that said this, but it certainly reflected their attitude in today’s passage. Someone that they felt was unauthorized was doing what the disciples alone were trained and commissioned to do and they tried to stop him. Jesus’ response to them shows that when it comes to doing the work in the kingdom, we must make room for more than just those we think should be doing it. Let’s read Mark 9:38-50.
I. The problem is one of an “unauthorized exorcism” as we see in verses 38-42.
As Jesus and the disciples continue their journey to Jerusalem, John raises an issue to Jesus. John said, “Teacher, we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.” The disciples been sent out by Jesus on their mission earlier which made them feel like they were the ones to do the work and bring the teaching of the kingdom. So John’s statement assumes that this stranger, who was casting out demons in Jesus’ name, was not authorized to do this and so the disciples stopped him. He was not even a member of Jesus’ twelve followers and then he had the nerve not to listen to the disciples when they told him to stop.
The irony is that just prior to this the disciples themselves had been unable to cast out a demon because they were doing it with a lack of faith relying on their own power. The response of the Twelve to this stranger who was actually doing what they failed to do only points to the disciples’ own weakness and lack of understanding.
And this unknown person grasped that an essential part of Jesus’ mission was the confrontation and defeat of Satan. His use of Jesus’ name shows that he knew that it was Jesus who made what he did effective and that makes him a true believer in Jesus. His action was an effective witness to the presence of the Kingdom of God. Imagine this scenario regarding how Faith Church helps Tusculum school.
Jesus sees that kingdom work was being done and his name was being proclaimed. Jesus’ statement, “ Do not stop him. For no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me” has subtle humor in it. In this remark Jesus gently contrasts the effectiveness of the stranger with the ineffectiveness of the disciples when it came to casting out evil spirits. Jesus is also saying that by using his name the man recognize Jesus’ authority. Third, Jesus affirms the point that opposition to Satan unites one to Jesus and to his mission. In verse 40, Jesus makes it clear that if anyone is working for the cause of the kingdom, he cannot be working against Jesus and the mission at the same time.
Moreover, Jesus says that effective actions in the kingdom are indeed very broad. In fact, Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to the Messiah will certainly not lose their reward. The offering of a cup of water is an act of hospitality as well as an example of the humble service that the disciples were encouraged to do in verse 35. It becomes a significant act when the water is offered to a man in Jesus’ name.
That is why Jesus solemnly promises that the one who declares himself for Jesus by this simple hospitable action will not lose his reward. He will have a place in the Kingdom of God with the disciples and with Jesus. There are no distinctions between trivial and important tasks in the kingdom. There is only faith and obedient service which are shown in devotion to Jesus.
II. Jesus then warns about the little ones in verse 42.
Jesus says, “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea.” Now remember that in verse 37, Jesus had designated his disciples as “the children” who were to be received in his name. Here the designation of “little ones” is extended to any other followers who may cast out evil spirits or offer a cup of water in Jesus’ name. This is a stern warning not to cause anyone else to stumble, regardless of who they are or what they are doing in the kingdom.
In such a case, their punishment will be so severe it would be better for a man if he had been drowned before he could have committed such a serious offense. This vivid and graphic reference to the millstone around the neck and being thrown into the sea would not have been lost on the disciples. They undoubtedly had heard of this punishment inflicted by the Romans on some leaders of the insurrection against Rome under the Zealot leader, Judas the Galilean.
We need to hear this admonition carefully today. We must be certain that we don’t judge others who are serving God in his kingdom and who may be weaker in their faith or not as knowledgeable or has less training. If we discourage anyone who is working for the Lord in any way, we are in danger of this severe judgment. We may think we are doing it right or in the proper way, but if the kingdom is being furthered and the gospel being proclaimed, we must open our minds to that.
I was on my very first church assignment for a 10 week summer in East Grand Forks, Minnesota and Robert wanted to make his profession of faith. The problem was that Robert was a 12-year-old boy and a community child whose parents didn’t go to church. He had been attending Sunday School and worship for some time and wanted to make his statement that he believed in Jesus, wanted to live for Jesus and join the church. The elders discussed this but he was denied because, as one of them said, “I just can’t see him being a member of the Christian Reformed Church.” I was upset and looking back now, I should have read this passage to them for they were causing this young boy to potentially stumble in his faith. Let’s listen to Jesus’ generous spirit to this unauthorized man and remember his warning.
Jesus says that if our hands, eyes or feet are a problem, we should remove them! This explains the radical demands of discipleship given earlier in Mark 8:34-38 of denying ourselves and taking up our cross in order to follow Jesus. Here Jesus demands the complete sacrifice of the sinful activity of the person. To be clear, this is not a demand for physical self-mutilation. Rather, whatever in our life that tempts us to be untrue to God must be decisively discarded, even as a surgeon amputates a hand or a leg to save a life. And it is important to understand that Jesus is speaking of eternal consequences here. In Jewish sources Gehenna was associated with the horrible eternal fires of hell. Entrance into hell means eternal spiritual ruin in the starkest terms.
Jesus next speaks of a different kind of fire; being “salted with fire.” In the Old Testament, the Temple sacrifices had to be accompanied by salt as is seen in Leviticus 2:13. The disciples must be seasoned with salt, just like the sacrifice. This will take place through fiery trials as seen in 1 Peter 4:12. Through these things, God will purge away everything that is contrary to his will. Jesus’ word offers perspective on the Christian’s suffering in life. Romans 12:1 says that our lives are sacrifices to God and the things we go through may be the salt that makes our lives a sweet sacrifice to God. Hardships in our health, our finances, and our work places can be the salt that God calls us to suffer through.
Sadhu Sundar Singh was a Indian Sikh who was converted to Christianity and became a missionary to his people in India. One can imagine the hardships he endured as a Christian in that predominantly Hindu culture, but he eagerly bore them. He wrote, “Those who seek to follow the spiritual life are like salt in the world. Salt crystals cannot give flavor to food unless they dissolve. If we dissolve the salt in a pot, it disappears but it does not cease to exist. Indeed, it can then give flavor to thousands of grains of rice. It is the same with us. If we are not melted in the fire of love and spirit, if we do not sacrifice ourselves completely, then we cannot pass on to even a single soul the blissful experience of the spiritual life.”
Let’s look at the hardships and trials we may face as the salt that God is using to make a difference in the lives of others. That is what Claire and I try to do at every cancer appointment; and people know us and have responded to us in love by sharing some of their struggles with us. We don’t like the trials we face, but let’s seek to use them to glorify God as we live for him by showing kindness and patience to those who are around us.
Two things from the ancient world give the background to what Jesus is saying here. Salt was necessary in the ancient world because it preserved food from spoiling. And salt from the Dead Sea can lose its saltiness as the salt is leached out. Jesus’ words have both of these things in mind. Salt here describes the demanding requirements of discipleship. The disciples have a responsibility to offer life to people in the world. But Jesus warns them that they can lose that salt-like quality which can bring life for the world and peace – and not competition – with each other.
For Jesus, salt is a picture of our allegiance to Jesus and the gospel and that is the distinctive mark of the disciple. What sets us apart from one another is not our position in the kingdom or what we do but rather the quality of saltiness. What makes us stand out in the kingdom is our willingness to serve as salt.
We who are disciples of Jesus must be salty in order to influence the world. Are we salty to those around us or are we bland? When you go through your day, do people see Jesus in you? Do they see Jesus in your acts of kindness, truth and justice? Or do they see us as many others around us just getting all we can for ourselves? How can we be salty to those around us? Our salt should simply make a difference in the daily lives of those around us. It’s seen in the smile at the checkout counter, in the way we treat those who serve us in stores and businesses, and yes, in the way we drive in traffic. It’s seen in the way we live with and care for the poor and the homeless. It’s seen in the way we respond to the refugees who live in our community.
We are to be salt in a sin-filled world no matter who we are or what we look like. One of the big sellers in food stores now is sea salt. Trace amounts of minerals found in seawater remain in the salt after the water has evaporated, and is said to bring extra health benefits. The doctors of the Mayo Clinic disagree. For the most part, sea salt is sodium chloride, just like salt dug from a mine or manufactured in a laboratory. The quantity of other minerals is negligible. Salt is salt, wherever it comes from, which is pretty much what Jesus is saying. The good news is the same, no matter which disciples happen to be seasoning the neighborhood or how they are doing it.