A Lectionary Reflection on Mark 9:38-50 For Proper 21B / Ordinary 26B
I must confess that I sympathise with the disciples in this week’s Gospel reading. After all, just a short time before this (Vss. 14-27), they had been unable to cast an evil spirit out of a boy. Now, they are faced with a stranger who is managing to do what they couldn’t. It must have been incredibly frustrating and humiliating. They were supposed to be the ones who were close to Jesus. They were the ones who were supposed to be able to perform miracles in Jesus’ name. Who was this impostor stepping on their turf?
So, John, who always seemed to be given the job of approaching Jesus with things of which the others were unsure, reports that the disciples tried to stop this unauthorised man who was claiming the name of Jesus. How surprised and embarrassed they must have been when Jesus happily tells them to let him continue, and then goes on to say that anyone who serves a follower of Christ will be rewarded.
Jesus’ openness to this newcomer is in stark contrast with the disciples’ arguments over who among them was the greatest. The following discourse about not causing “little ones” to stumble, and removing body parts in order to ensure that they would enter life, must be viewed in the context of this openness. Jesus seems to be telling them to stop being so concerned about protecting their turf, and to be more careful about following his example of service and sacrifice. The “hell” that Jesus refers to here was probably Gehenna, the burning rubbish dump outside of Jerusalem, which was often used as a metaphor for the final destination of those who wasted their lives. It is better to lose something valuable – like an eye or a hand or a foot – and live a life of fullness and contribution, than to save our “stuff” and waste our lives in the process. Protecting our turf only ever leads us to regret and grief over wasted opportunities for joy, sharing and creativity that we could have known if we’d been less afraid, less selfish and less proud.
Then, Jesus changes his metaphor to that of salt. Salt needs to retain its flavour to be of any use, he says, and the way to stay “salty” is to maintain peace among one another. Turf wars always lead to division, bitterness and broken relationships, and in the process they keep us from making any contribution to others. The harder we seek to protect our turf, the less we embody the life-giving Gospel. So, give up the turf wars, says Jesus, and keep peace with one another. Allow your grace, your inclusivity and welcome to characterise your faith, not your self-righteousness and self-protection.
It’s a pretty logical message when you think about it. But, it’s also a hard-hitting one – and one that we really need to hear as followers of Christ as we face the temptation to protect our turf with respect to everything from prayer in schools, to the name of the Christmas season, to how we read the Bible, to…[place name of favourite turf war here].
What turf are you tempted to protect. What would it mean to give up the fight and open yourself to the stranger?