27 September 2015

Mark 9:38-50

“If 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.” (v. 44)

Psalm: Psalm 19


Chapter 9 of Mark's Gospel is largely concerned with the power of the name of Jesus over the forces of evil, balanced with the failure of the disciples to grasp what his kingdom is all about. Jesus reveals his power and glory, while the disciples stumble and fall. In the previous few verses (verses 33-38) they've argued among themselves about who is the greatest. To show them the sort of greatness-in-humility required, Jesus holds up a little child - an example to them all. Then John proudly tells Jesus how they tried to stop a man from casting out demons because he was not 'one of them'. The very thing the disciples had failed to do earlier in the chapter (verses 14-29), an 'outsider' is caught doing 'in Jesus' name'. Well, better put a stop to that! Again, Jesus gently assures them they've got it all wrong: even a cup of cold water given because of him is a commendable thing (verse 41), especially amidst the opposition Jesus is facing - both in the political sphere and the spiritual realm.

Next, we move on to a number of striking images (verses 42-50): firm warnings against sin, but words that we might secretly wish Jesus had never said! Drowning with millstones, self-mutilation, and visions of eternal damnation. Where do you start?!

Firstly, these warnings seem to be instructions for those who are taking their discipleship seriously. Jesus expects his followers to want the highest standards for themselves. The first warning concerns the very children Jesus has already been talking about: "these little ones" (v. 42) - quite simply, don't cause them to stumble, don't cause them to sin, and certainly don't put any barrier between them and Jesus. If you do, the consequences will be a millstone around your neck. Whether this is 'divine retribution' or simply the self-punishment of your conscience, the upshot is: it's bad, don't do it! Jesus seems to be saying some things are worth avoiding at all cost. For the true disciple, simply the knowledge that you're so far from God's will should be warning enough.

Right! Deep breath and on to hell…

Hell is rightly a controversial concept (a hot topic!) because it seriously shapes the view we have of God. It's difficult to even talk about it without deeply ingrained ideas from movies, cartoons, jokes and, of course, church! It's an idea that's been highly developed over thousands of years (sometimes with quite dubious motives), and the 'true biblical' understanding is hard to find under all the mess. The word often translated 'hell' in this passage is actually 'Gehenna', a common name for the Valley of Hinnom - a ravine outside Jerusalem with a dark and disturbing history.

Back in Jewish history, 700 years or so earlier, King Ahaz had turned to idol worship, making images of foreign gods. This turning away from God reached a disgusting and abominable low when he sacrificed some of his own children - burning them in the Valley of Hinnom (2 Chronicles 28:3). Some years later, King Manasseh decided to follow in his grandfather's footsteps, murdering his own son in the same horrendous way (2 Chronicles 33:6). 'Gehenna' became a synonym for the worst sin imaginable - the place the human heart was capable of reaching when it had abandoned the one true God. King Josiah, two generations later, is remembered as a great reformer who rediscovered the Scriptures and returned the people to God. He declared that the Valley was an unclean place (2 Kings 23:10), and Gehenna remained a memorial of the hideous heathen worship once practised there, and of what could become of God's people if they turned away from him. In Jesus' day it had become a stinking, smouldering rubbish heap. I have no doubt that Jesus' words are to be taken very seriously here. Sin must be avoided at all costs, wherever possible, if you are serious about your discipleship. The fate of Gehenna is a possibility for us all, but by the grace of God - and many in this world are already there, in shadowy and shameful 'living hells', often at the expense of the vulnerable. With Gehenna in mind, can we really be so confident about traditional teachings that God would sacrifice God's own created children in eternal fire? I think most certainly not. But God doesn't want us to arrive at 'hell' by other means.

So, Jesus says, at whatever cost, at whatever sacrifice, if something is causing you to move further and further away from God, "cut it off". Even very essential parts of us are not as important as your 'eternal' well-being - the real life that is on offer. These are metaphors, of course: Jesus doesn't want us to actually cut off parts of our bodies. But he does want us to take drastic action against things that are leading us away from him, away from justice, away from love. In the end, this is about attaining 'life', not avoiding hell. The true disciple should desire nothing more than the fullness and goodness of life that God has in store, on earth as it is heaven. When you love God with all your heart, simply knowing that you're going against God's will should be punishment enough, and God's forgiveness like a soothing balm. Hell, or not, becomes irrelevant.

"For the love of God is broader
than the measures of the mind;
and the heart of the Eternal
is most wonderfully kind."
(Frederick William Faber) (StF 416)

To Ponder:

  • Are there any aspects of your life - habits, distractions, relationships - that are leading you away from the fullness of life God has in store for you? Is there anything you need to "cut off"? And how might you do this?
  • In our teaching and understand of 'hell', has the Church been missing the point? To what extent do we still talk and think and stumble like the first disciples, when faced with the glory of God's love that is in Christ?
  • Many commentators have tried to explain the last two verses about 'salt'. What do you make of these three sayings?

Bible notes author

The Revd Andrew Murphy

Andrew Murphy is married to Emily and they have two children, Phoebe (aged 4) and Benjamin (aged 18 months). Andy is the superintendent minister of the Market Harborough Circuit (a small circuit in the south of Leicestershire, and over the border into Northants). Previously, Andy’s ministry was based in Barwell in the Hinckley Circuit for eight years. And before that, he trained at the Wesley Study Centre in Durham, close to his home-town of Consett. Andy has a passion to help God’s people grow in faith, and occasionally writes hymns, sketches and songs. Spare time includes trips to play parks, watching Disney films or Postman Pat, reading Mr Men books, visiting Middle Earth, and reminiscing over the good old days of supporting Newcastle United. In the picture, Andy is the one in blue (and the snowman’s name is Olaf)!