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Visions from The Catacombs, Week Before September 27, 2015

Mark 9:(33-37) 38-50

33Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. 35He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 36Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

38John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” 39But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. 40Whoever is not against us is for us. 41For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.

42“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. 43If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. 45And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. 47And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, 48where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.

49“For everyone will be salted with fire. 50Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

What I Am Learning:

In the previous paragraph, Jesus tells them that his leadership is going to be embodied in this way: he will go to Jerusalem and be killed as a revolutionary. He will rise after three days. In so doing, he will confront the system and symbol of terror by the Roman Empire - the cross. In his resurrection, God will empty the cross of its coercive power to keep the the People of Israel from living out love for God, self, neighbors and neighborhoods. God will not let death, terror and all its friends constrain God's people and God's way of mutuality from spreading throughout the world. God will not let the death and terror of the domination culture to distort the humanity of all involved.

The issue in this passage is how the human need for status and the domination culture's control of people interact.

Human beings need affirmation that our lives, our existence is good.

Domination culture takes advantage of this need by offering affirmation to human being on a sliding scale: The more power and wealth you have the more you are a good human being, the less power and wealth you have the less ideal you are.

Jesus offered a totally different answer to the need for this affirmation: that we are God's holy and beloved children, affirmed by God and called to participate in God's culture of mutuality - the reign of God.

The disciples thought that Jesus is going to Jerusalem to change the leadership, and they are competing to see who gets to be vice-messiah and the line of succession. Jesus' response was to take a child, who had no status in 1st century Palestinian culture, and he identified himself and then God with that child.

In doing so, Jesus sought to destroy the culture of competition for status. There is only one status: child of God. Jesus was not going to Jerusalem to change out the leadership there. He was going to change the nature of the game.

The disciples saw others casting out demons, that is, bringing healing to people in the name of Jesus the messiah. The disciples thought that this unauthorized healing should be stopped as it was unauthorized by Jesus and thus in competition with him and his followers. Further, as an insightful pastor pointed out this week, earlier in Mark the disciples can't cast out a demon. But these strangers were able to. How embarrassing to them! Jesus' response was that anyone who moves toward the God's reign and participates in God's healing work is on the same team.

Again, Jesus seeks to destroy the culture of competition for status in terms of insiders and outsiders.

Then we get two complex paragraphs. Ugh!

But when we understand the origin of the words, we don't have to say "ugh!"

The word translated "hell" here is gehenna. This word refers to the valley of Hinnom near the old city of Jerusalem. This was a place were some Hebrew people offered child sacrifice to God. This practice was rejected by the People of Israel and the prophets. So what they did was to put the city dump there. That's right, gehenna was the city dump where the worm never dies and the fire never ends.

What Jesus seems to be saying is that the competition for status in a domination culture is as bad as child sacrifice.

Indeed, how many children and other vulnerable people around the world are killed every day so that humans can compete for power, for marketshare, for shareholder value and status through money and power?

How often is there religious justification for doing this?

Further, Jesus talked about cutting off hands and feet. Please do not think he meant this literally. A person could not serve as a priest if they were missing a limb. Jesus seems to be saying that the religious leaders of his day, by participating in this competition for honor, were making themselves unworthy of leadership.

Of course, he said the same thing to the disciples.

Lastly, Jesus talked about salt that has lost its saltiness. Salt was used to increase the temperature of manure fires and and in sacrifices. Salt used in manure fires would lose its catalytic power after a while and would be thrown out. I think he was saying that all our lives are offered in love and service to God (salt used in sacrifice), and that to spend our lives on vain competition for status (salt in manure) is truly worthless.

This passage, while very unclear for us, would have been understood by the majority of first century Mediterranean people. The lived in a culture of collective or group competition.

But like them, we live in a culture of competition. Our culture could be understood as a one of individual competition. We value winners, the rich, and the powerful. Of course we hate them too, but our hatred is often based not on what they do but on the fact that we do not have what they have.

I think Jesus is inviting us to see that trying to justify or affirm our lives by meeting our culture's standards is a form of slavery to that culture. Domination cultures seek to capture us as slaves by creating

  • systems of status that keep people in competition with each other
  • behavior norms that distract people from love and justice
  • social conventions that make telling or hearing the truth difficult

Jesus offers something very different. Our lives and our existence in this moment are justified, using Paul's terms in Romans, by the God beyond our idea of God.

This means we are invited into both a freedom from domination culture's systems, norms and conventions and free to love because we have been so affirmed and loved by God.

This is the freedom of the Christian, I think, that Luther lived out of and wrote about 500 years ago.

May we live and move and breathe in this freedom which is God's free gift to us.