The next in my series of papers from my Gospel of Mark class, this is not my most interesting paper… But what more can you say about a chapter in which the disciples repeatedly make the same mistakes you do every day? 🙂
Overshadowed by the glory of the revelation in the previous chapter, Chapter 9 of the Gospel of Mark seems almost discouraging by comparison. Immediately after the transfiguration (vs. 2-13), Jesus and the disciples descend the mountain—physically and, sadly, spiritually—and discover the crowds mocking the fact that the disciples could not cast out a particularly violent demon (vs. 14-29). This is immediately followed by the disciples being chastised for arguing who will be the greatest in heaven (vs. 30-37), and then rebuked again for forbidding someone who was not of their group from casting out demons in Jesus’ name (vs. 38-41). This trio of apparent failures prompts Jesus to deliver one of His most-remembered—if not most misunderstood—teachings: “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off!” (vs. 42-50)
Although this merciless chapter can be hard medicine to swallow, it is only because most Christians can clearly recognize their own faults being displayed by the disciples in this passage. In context, Jesus is unraveling some of the disciples’ misconceptions about the reality of the Kingdom—a task He has been laboring at since the first chapter, but one that has become even more imperative now that the Kingdom has been formally revealed. Extrapolated and applied to our modern-day religion, however, the disciples’ missteps mimic several key problems that frequently plague churches today, including:
- Confusion about “End Times” prophecy (vs. 11-13)
- Perseverance regarding more difficult spiritual battles (vs. 17-19)
- Seeking personal recognition and fulfillment through religion (vs. 33-34)
- Divisions in the church and condemning someone who comes from a different “background” or “denomination” (vs. 38-41)
The list goes on. By ending this section with the aggressive teaching about cutting off hands and plucking out eyes, John-Mark attempts to convey the urgency Jesus no doubt exuded when He spoke. The Kingdom has come, and it is imperative that any disciple “get out of the boat,” adapt to the new teaching, and be prepared to commit body, soul, and spirit.
But in spite of this harsh warning, a thread of hope intertwines through this passage. Though John-Mark is upfront about the costs, he nevertheless uses the “rod of correction” to guide his readers into a deeper understanding of the reality of Kingdom living. The final warning (“What shall be done when salt loses its saltiness?”) also contains two other admonitions: “You are the salt of the earth” and “Live at peace among yourselves.” (vs. 50)
These two statements come like balm to soothe the discouraged disciple after the burns of the previous passages. Though citizenship in the Kingdom requires diligent commitment, it also comes with great purpose and immense rewards. Those who truly step into the reality of Kingdom living will become the “salt of the earth,” heralds to advance their Lord’s domain. And among themselves the Kingdom citizens will find peaceful, loving, fulfilling community, a true family that transcends all social and physical bonds.
Although no expense can be spared in His mission, Jesus clearly wants the disciples to remember that, despite the initial difficulty, the Kingdom is worth the fight. And by ending this passage on this hopeful note, John-Mark is obviously praying that his readers will also see the benefits and commit to the cost.