In reading Mark’s gospel (9:38-50), I realised how very weary I am of the arguments about who can enter God’s kingdom, based on our worldly assessment of their privilege, race, entitlement, gender, power, greed and religious priorities. These assessments generally depend on our own privilege and entitlements which we seek to protect as we define who is worthy and who is not.
Jesus reminds us it is a serious business to be so focused on guarding the gates to God’s kingdom we don’t see the boundaries and barriers we put in place to stop undesirables coming in, because we struggle to see our own privilege. Once we do see and try to change it, it can get us killed by our friends, neighbours and the authorities, just like Jesus.
We like to assume we can stand in for God to make the judgements; and isn’t that fun. However, then we miss the point of God’s love, the whole message of salvation offered for all people. Our recent debates about white nationalism, our sense of entitlements as individuals, and our acceptance of racial superiority and gender here in Australia are a great sadness to many Christians yet this reality is still denied.
Similarly, the disciples with Jesus trying to make sense of Jesus’ nonsensical message have also had several shocks as Mark’s gospel (9:38-50) continues to lay out Jesus’ clear message he is the suffering Messiah, rejecting worldly power, with the promise of salvation to everyone and the disciples still don’t want to understand what it is Jesus is telling them.
Peter has already tried to stop Jesus from taking the messianic path towards betrayal, torture, suffering and death. Peter seeks to persuade Jesus to choose worldly power and privilege, so they could all benefit.
The disciples bicker about who is the most important in their group. The disciples jostle for power as they argue about their individual place and positions in the new kingdom.
When this is not resolved to their satisfaction, the disciples then try to patrol the boundaries of the message Jesus is sharing to restrict its access; and in confected outrage they tell Jesus someone is using his name to cast out demons who is not part of their group. This is all so familiar. And Jesus squashes them again.
Jesus’ inclusive response is wonderful:
Whoever is not against us, is for us. (Mark 9:40)
It opens the whole world up for God’s salvation to be present for everyone, irrespective of what others might think.
William Sydney Porter, the 19th century American author, known as O. Henry, wrote a story of a little girl whose mother was dead. Her father would come home from work, take off his jacket, light his pipe, read his paper and put his feet up. When the lonely little girl asked her father to come and play with her, he would tell her he was tired and to leave him in peace. He told her instead, to go and play with the other children on the streets. The inevitable happened, as she played on the streets, she took to the streets. When she died her soul went to heaven. Peter saw her and said: ‘Master, here’s a girl who was a bad lot. I suppose we send her straight to hell?’ ‘No,’ said Jesus gently, ‘let her in. Let her in.’ And then his eyes grew stern, ‘but look for a man who refused to play with his little girl and sent her out to the streets, and then send him to hell.’ God is not hard on the sinner, but God will be tough with the person who makes it easier for another to sin, and whose conduct, whether thoughtless, lazy or deliberate, puts a stumbling block in the path of a more vulnerable sister or brother. (2001:267)
As we think about the clear warnings Jesus is giving in these verses about the consequences of preventing others finding Jesus, it is easy to stop listening because we don’t imagine hell anymore and we no longer see people maimed and disfigured, living as we do in such a privileged country.
However, if we truly hear and understand the principle Jesus is emphasising about welcoming all and being inclusive and affirming for all, then to limit, refuse and reject others who don’t fit into our categories, directly contradicts Jesus’ invitation to everyone. Jesus’ invitation is not based on worthiness or entitlement but on love and compassion.
So it is worth thinking about what our hands might do to cause someone to stumble, or our feet, our eyes and our lack of distinctiveness as followers of Christ.
What do our hands do these days? How do we put them to work in God’s kingdom? How do we contribute to wrongdoing through our work or volunteering or leisure pursuits? Perhaps its our desire for greater profits to feed our superannuation at the cost of abusing God’s creation, or mistreating God’s children through consuming the fruits of slave labour and human trafficking. Perhaps its our greediness for ever more pleasure to shut out the noise of young people demanding change in our lives as they see the consequences of our failures. Do we pressure others to do things which conflict with their moral values because they’re unemployed, or facing homelessness unable to afford the rent on our second properties?
What about our feet? Do we require people to do unethical things as they search for purpose in life and in their search for a compassionate and loving God? How do we spend our leisure hours outside of church and are our feet stumbling rather than carrying us in the direction God is inviting?
What about our eyes? What attracts our attention? The moral implications of this stumbling are wide ranging? Internet sites full of advertising, and wandering eyes encompass far more than sexual attraction. Decisions about how we spend our time, our money, our prioritizing of our lives are important. Is attraction to Christ being impeded by everything competing for our time and attention?
Jesus reminded us to watch our own behaviour as it affects other people. It is worth remembering the last time you lost your temper, or were rude to someone unable to answer back, as you wanted something done your own way or to suit you, to control someone else and to ensure your decision was accepted. What about the pride we take in our right to individualism which then puts others at risk as we have seen in recent protests? All this ignores God’s two great commandments. We belong to God’s family and are not individuals solely in control of our destiny, as we are asked to care for our neighbours as we care for ourselves and our relationship with God.
Consequently, as I follow Jesus’ words: where does the idea of hell take us? Theologian Daniel Migliore describes hell as the terrible weariness and incredible boredom of a life focused entirely on itself.
I think hell is the place created by those who live entirely focused on themselves and who then expect others to live there too.
This is not a prosperity gospel. This is not a feel-good gospel. It is not a competition with others. Christians are called to refrain actively from actions leading others to stray, and to bring a distinctive flavour to the world. Being salty is not popular, it is counter-cultural, it is life-giving and transformational. It is salvation.
Jesus has previously called his audience a ‘faithless generation’, (9:19). Now he calls out the disciples and us, on our willfully limited sense of values about others healing and living in Jesus’ name. This is about ultimate, all-or-nothing commitments. While these verses seem to offer only dire warnings to disciples about proper priorities and their small selfish vision of the kingdom of God, Jesus’ final comments in verses 9:49-50 give us hope. Jesus speaks of the benefit of following Jesus truly, and it is peace. So counter-cultural.
Have salt in yourselves and be at peace with one another. (9:50)
When all the distractions and temptations are burned away from our lives, when all the lies and misplaced priorities, greed and selfishness have been dumped, what remains is peace. Peace emerges when we welcome and accept God’s love; when we are salted, and at peace with one another.
This is not peace crafted out of violence. It is not escape from the complicated world. It is not a reward for dogged persistence or mere obedience, but in understanding we are Christ’s followers, we are free and at peace with God.
It is a peace which passes all understanding.
The Lord be with you.
Barclay, W. 2001. The Gospel of Mark. Saint Andrew Press, Edinburgh p.267.
Jarvis, C.A., Johnson, E.E. (Eds) 2014. Feasting on the Gospels. Mark. Westminster John Knox Press. Louisville Kentucky