Monday, May 11, 2020

Mark 9: 33 - 50

A long time ago -- Christian tradition says about three years -- Jesus met Peter and James and John and most importantly Andrew by the beach; and Peter took them home to visit his sick mother-in-law. It looks as though Jesus never left. Peter's house just becomes "the house"; the place where Jesus lives when he's not on "the boat". Peter's boat, very likely. After their long walk -- maybe a twelve days round trip -- to the north, they come back. For the very last time. It would probably be fanciful to call this a farewell discourse, the last seminar Jesus gives in Galilee. But Mark is definitely a Gospel of two halves -- the Capernaum section and the Jerusalem section. And this is where the first half finishes.

and he came to Capernaum:
and being in the house he asked them,
"what was it that ye disputed among yourselves by the way?"
but they held their peace:
for by the way they had disputed among themselves,
who should be the greatest.
and he sat down,
and called the twelve,
and saith unto them,
"if any man desire to be first,
the same shall be last of all,
and servant of all."

The disciples are having an argument about "who should be the greatest". The fact that they are embarrassed makes it clear that they were talking about which was the greatest of them -- who was the best disciple. Perhaps Peter's announcement that Jesus is going to be King has set them thinking about who is going to have the top job in the new administration.

Jesus's response is that people who want to be big will end up small; people who want to be in charge will go right to the bottom of the heap. He doesn't extend the metaphor, and say "and therefore, the person who wants to be a servant will end up in charge." That's certainly the inference we are supposed to draw, but he doesn't it draw it for us at this point. 

and he took a child,
and set him in the midst of them:
and when he had taken him in his arms,
he said unto them,
"whosoever shall receive one of such children in my name,
receiveth me:
and whosoever shall receive me,
receiveth not me,
but him that sent me."

I don't know about you, but I remembered this passage incorrectly. I thought that Jesus was contrasting the humility of the child with the arrogance of the disciples. The disciples were bickering about who was the greatest, and Jesus pointed to a child and said -- he's the greatest, because he's little and insignificant. But in fact, Jesus uses the child to make an unrelated point. If you want to be kind to Jesus, be kind to little kids; and if you are kind to Jesus; you are also being kind to God.

and John answered him, saying,
"master, we saw one casting out devils in thy name,
and he followeth not us:
and we forbad him,
because he followeth not us."
but Jesus said,
"forbid him not:
for there is no man which shall do a miracle in my name,
that can lightly speak evil of me
for he that is not against us is on our part."

It isn't clear how John's question about sectarianism is a response to Jesus' statement about welcoming children. Possibly we could infer that John is saying "Does that mean that we have to accept absolutely everybody?" The Greek doesn't seem to require us to say that John answered Jesus. "John said" or "John declared" would work just as well. If Jesus has been preaching for as much as three years, it is not all that surprising that there are people who regard themselves as his followers who are not part of the main body of disciples. And Jesus is fine with this. The miracles -- the works of power -- are the test. If the other guy is really able to call demons to heel, then there isn't likely to be anything seriously wrong with his teaching.

I suspect most of us would take the opposite view. If we heard that someone was running a faith-healing mission, we'd want to know what their theology was before we talked about the validity or otherwise of their miraculous cures.

"for whosoever shall give you a cup of water to drink in my name,
because ye belong to Christ,
verily I say unto you,
he shall not lose his reward."

This seems to go back to the verse about welcoming little children. People who welcome kids "in Jesus' name" also welcome Jesus; people who give the disciples something to drink "because they are of Christ" will get rewarded by God. 

These verses are all about inclusiveness. If you want to invite Jesus into your house, invite some kids in. If someone you don't know is performing works of power, good for him. If someone gives you a glass of water, then they'll get rewarded. 

But it isn't universal, unconditional inclusiveness. You have to invite the children in Jesus name. You have to be doing the miracles in the name of Jesus. The glass of water only earns browny points if its been given to you because you are followers of the Messiah.

But then Jesus flips it round. The converse is true as well.

and whosoever shall offend one of these little ones that believe in me,
it is better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck,
and he were cast into the sea.

and if thy hand offend thee,
cut it off:
it is better for thee to enter into life maimed,
than having two hands to go into hell,
into the fire that never shall be quenched:
where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.

and if thy foot offend thee,
cut it off:
it is better for thee to enter halt into life,
than having two feet to be cast into hell,
into the fire that never shall be quenched:
where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.

and if thine eye offend thee,
pluck it out:
it is better for thee to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye,
than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire:
where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.

Some years ago, when the Web was still called Usenet, I suggested that using the expression "Old Testament" pejoratively was deeply anti-Semitic.

You know the kind of thing. "I heard a vicar talking about how God is worried about sexual immorality and will punish bad people -- he's a bit Old Testament, isn't he!" "People in the middle ages used to hunt and kill witches: that was because they were following the Old Testament and didn't understand there'd been a new edition."

At the time, I was pretty much laughed out of court; calm down, Andrew everyone said, you can't go around casually accusing people of anti-Semitism. (This was before Jeremy Corbyn.) 

I think that today just about everyone would agree that the idea that the Old Testament God is a God of wrath and punishment and the New Testament God is a God of love and mercy really is an anti-Semitic trope. The more strongly you believe that Christianity superseded Judaism, the harder it is to draw that kind of a wedge between "Old" and "New" Testaments. The supposedly vicious Old Testament God is Jesus' dad.

And here is Jesus talking about hell. And not a metaphorical hell either; not the absence of the presence of God or living a miserable, pointless life on earth. No, he appears to be talking about a nasty, painful hell, where you are roasted and eaten alive. There is nothing like this in the Old Testament. Jewish people rarely preach about this fiery hell of eternal torture. If you really wanted to draw the distinction, you would have to contrast the long-suffering, tolerant Old Testament God with the angry, fiery New Testament one. 

Our folklore and our hymns are inclined to paint a picture of a sweet, spiritual Jesus, in contrast to the supposedly monstrous Jewish God. "Gentle Jesus, meek and mild," wrote Charles Wesley. "Loving Jesus, gentle lamb...thou art pitiful and kind." "Jesus thou art all compassion. Pure, unbounded love thou art." This is so obviously not a description of the rather mysterious and terrifying figure in Mark's Gospel that many of us have been tempted to flip to the other extreme -- to counter Gentle Jesus Meek and Mild with Harsh Jesus, Overbearing and Severe.

What we have here is unquestionably a rant: and yet it comes in the context of a discourse which began with Jesus taking a child in his arms and saying "be as kind to this child as you would be to me."

The first transition is very clear. If you are kind to children -- or to weak people, or to anyone who needs it -- then good things will happen to you. Conversely, if you are cruel to children and weak people, bad things will happen to you. We don't have to say that the punishment will literally be more unpleasant than drowning. But we do have to say "You will have no chance at will definitely, definitely, definitely come to a bad end."

The word Mark uses for "offended" is skandalizó. It means "cause to stumble" or "put a stumbling block in the way of" or simply "trip up." In the parable, some of the seeds were "tripped up" by the thorns they were planted near; the people of Nazareth were "tripped up" by Jesus's teaching. So it means, if anything: don't put obstacles in the way of children. Don't set traps for them. Making young people stumble is the worst thing you can do.

Everyone is probably on board with that. But Jesus suddenly extends the message. Don't trip children up. And if anything trips you up: get rid of it. Whether it is your hand, your foot or your eye...

It really isn't helpful to try and apply this literally, although plenty of people have. (You can take "if thy hand offend you" as a dire warning about masturbation; but which dire sin might you commit with your feet?) Clearly, we are in the realms of poetic hyperbole. Jesus is not saying "some of you are literally going to have to chop off your own hands." He is saying "being tripped up is the worst thing that can happen -- do literally anything to avoid it."

The Himon is a valley near Jerusalem where (we are told) they used to burn the refuse. So what Jesus repeats three times is:

"It is better to enter into life maimed, or crippled, or blind than to be thrown into the valley of Himon where the inextinguishable fire is never extinguished and the everlasting worms last forever."

The part about fire and worms comes from Isaiah, referring to the destruction of the bodies of God's enemies:

“And they will go out and look on the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; the worms that eat them will not die, the fire that burns them will not be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind."

"Hell" is an interpretative gloss by the translators of the King James version. If Jesus had been saying that the souls of the people who had been scandalized by his teaching would burn forever in the afterlife, he would have been introducing a new and novel doctrine. No-one reacts as if this is what he is doing. So we should read the passage on its own terms. And on its own terms it is still pretty strident. 

"If you cause a child to stumble, you have no hope at all. And if anything is causing you yourself to stumble, get rid of it. Think of the worst thing you can imagine. Think of what happens to God's enemies. Falling away from me is worse than that."

for every one shall be salted with fire,
and every sacrifice shall be salted with salt.
salt is good:
but if the salt have lost his saltness,
wherewith will ye season it?
have salt in yourselves,
and have peace one with another.

And finally, three more astonishingly obscure sayings. 

Salt is being thought of here as a disinfectant, not as a preservative or a seasoning. In the Torah, sacrificial animals have to be sprinkled with salt to make them acceptable to God. So the sense seems to be "Everyone is going to go through the fire; every sacrifice has to be purified; but there is no way of purifying a purifying agent. So you need to be pure yourselves; and you'll do that by living peacefully together."

It's a funny conclusion. It's like we've started from some general points; built up to a huge, thunderous climax about and fallen away to a general teaching. Don't try to be great; that will make you insignificant. Welcome small, unimportant people, that's the best way of welcoming me. Don't be exclusive; if someone says they are my follower, they probably are. If someone is kind to you they count as my followers too. But making someone else stumble is certain doom! And the worse thing you can do to yourself is let yourself stumble!! That's even worse than maiming yourself!!! People who stumble will be piled up and burned in the valley of Himon!!!! Everyone is going to be burned; so purify yourself first. And the way you do that is by living in harmony."

and he arose from thence, 
and cometh into the coasts of Judaea 
by the farther side of Jordan:

For three years, Jesus has been staying with Peter and preaching in Capernaum, and the villages around Capernaum. But now he gets up, and starts on the long walk back to the Jordan, where he was baptised; and to Judaea, where his enemies live.

"And he got up, and went to the borders of Judaea."

End of part one. Intermission.

I'm Andrew. I like God, Doctor Who, Star Wars, Wagner, folk-music and Spider-Man, not necessarily in that order. I have no political opinions of any kind.

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Gareth McCaughan said...

A couple of quibbles, one slightly serious and the other less so.

You say "there is nothing like this in the Old Testament" but then a few paragraphs later are pointing out how this is practically quoted from the Old Testament, in Isaiah. (If you take it, as many Christians have done, to be introducing the idea of an afterlife of eternal punishment then indeed that would be something there's nothing like in the OT, but you say -- and, for what it's worth, I agree -- that that is surely not in fact what Mark's Jesus means.)

As for dire sins committed with the feet -- dare I remind you of how "feet" is used euphemistically in the OT from time to time? (I don't think that can actually be relevant here, because of the immediately-following bit about how it's better to enter into life lame, etc.)

Andrew Rilstone said...

Thank you.

(I remember The Vicar saying he was always relieved when someone said "I didn't agree with your sermon" because that meant at least one person was listening)

Yes -- what I was trying to say was "the idea that bad people burned eternally in the afterlife" isn't an OT idea; but that what Jesus was quoting was a passage which said "bad people will certainly come to a terrible end". I will fix that when I get around to it.

The point about cutting your own feet off would be particularly interesting if Mark had the saying about becoming eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven. But he doesn't.

Thanks again for feedback.

Scurra said...

Regarding that whole "Old Testament God" business - it's also worth noting that this "Zeus" (old man with beard living on a cloud) figure only really applies to Genesis and Exodus. After that, with the possible exception of a couple of weird stories involving Elijah & Elisha, the God of the Old Testament seems to me to be quite clearly the same one as the one of the New Testament - all political indignation and brotherly love.

SK said...

the God of the Old Testament seems to me to be quite clearly the same one as the one of the New Testament - all political indignation and brotherly love.

More accurate surely to say that the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament are both sometimes shockingly tolerant and merciful (much to the annoyance of Jonah) and are both sometimes pretty darn harsh (as Ananias and Sapphira found out)?

Almost like they are both describing the same being — and a being who can't be summed up in one simple, humanly comprehensible concept?