38 John 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.” 39 But 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. 40 Whoever is not against us is for us. 41 For 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. 43 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. 45 And 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. 47 And 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, 48 where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.
49 “For everyone will be salted with fire. 50 Salt 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.” (NRSV)
Salted with Fire
Sometimes it’s difficult to not get jealous. Jealousy hits us in all kinds of ways over all kinds of things. As a writer—and an avid reader—I used to get jealous when I would read a book that was poorly written or had weird mistakes in it. I read a book last month—a popular Young Adult dystopian fantasy—that included this conversation in the story: “How many dead?” “Ten so far…Three in the shooting, eight in the explosion.” Now, you know from some of my previous sermons that I don’t claim to be great at math, but I’m fairly certain that you can’t get TEN from THREE plus EIGHT. But somehow, they did.
If you’ve ever seen my writing blog, you know I’m the kind of person who nitpicks over details like this. Part of me thought, how in the world did this person get published when all I seem to get are rejection letters? I think I’m a pretty good writer, maybe better than some of these Young Adult fantasy writers who’ve been published. Jealously can sneak in so easily. It can hit us when we think something isn’t fair. It can hit us when we see someone succeeding where we’ve failed. Sometimes it’s so subtle that we don’t even realize we’re jealous until we do or say something that reveals our jealousy.
The disciples are having one of those days. They found some person casting out demons in Jesus’ name, so they told him to quit. The person wasn’t one of their own. They weren’t following Jesus like the Twelve were. This person was an outsider. What did this random person think they were doing, casting out demons in the name of Jesus as if they were part of their crew?
The disciples knew copyright infringement when they saw it. That was their thing. They owned Jesus. They were the ones who were allowed to use Jesus’ name to do deeds of power, not this other person; not some upstart who didn’t belong, who hadn’t been properly called by Jesus as one of the inner-circle!
Of course John and the other disciples put a stop to it! The arrogance of that usurper! How dare they elbow in on their territory!
I think the disciples were jealous. Do you know why I think they were jealous? Listen to what happened just a few verses earlier in the same chapter.
“Jesus asked them, ‘What are you arguing about?’ Someone from the crowd responded, ‘Teacher, I brought my son to you, since he has a spirit that doesn’t allow him to speak. Whenever it overpowers him, it throws him into a fit. He foams at the mouth, grinds his teeth, and stiffens up. So I spoke to your disciples to see if they could throw it out, but they couldn’t.” (Mk. 9:16-18, CEB).
The disciples of Jesus tried to cast out a demon, but they couldn’t do it. They failed. They had to listen to Jesus scold them by saying, “You faithless generation, how long will I be with you? How long will I put up with you?” (c.f. Mk. 9:19, CEB). The disciples probably felt two inches tall. Then, they come across some random person—an outsider, of all things—succeeding where they had failed. You bet your lifesavers they were jealous!
When they put a stop to the person who was casting out demons, I imagine they were rather forceful. The disciples probably chewed them out with the berating of a lifetime. Sometimes we forget that the disciples were people a lot like us. We get angry when we’re jealous, and so did they. The disciples probably stopped the person casting out demons by cutting them down to the two inches they were feeling.
Now that they were feeling satisfied—and probably quite justified—they went back to Jesus and casually reported what they had done. They had preserved their community. They had kept the power of this Jesus thing where it rightfully belongs: with them.
It reminds me of a certain denomination of the Christian Faith which reprimanded one of its pastors for participating in an interfaith prayer vigil after the Sandy Hook school shooting. The same denomination suspended one of its pastors for participating in the interfaith prayer vigil at Yankee Stadium after 9/11. The reason is because they don’t think the rest of us are quite legitimate. They can’t allow their pastors to be seen with other pastors because it might look like such joint-participation is giving legitimacy to the rest of us.
They’re right. We’re wrong. They’re the insiders, we’re the outsiders. They, like the disciples, would call it righteousness. Somehow, I think Jesus would call it something else.
The response of Jesus surely surprised the disciples. Don’t stop him! Can’t you see we’re on the same team? He was casting out demons in MY name! Didn’t that make you recognize him as one of mine? Whoever isn’t against us is for us!
If the disciples had Twitter back then, #facepalm would have been trending high.
The disciples seem to have asked the question, ‘Who do you think you are?’ when they told the person casting out demons in Jesus name to stop. But Jesus essentially asks the disciples the same question because they told the person to stop. ‘Who do you think you are to put this kind of stumbling block in front of a person doing deeds of power in my name?’ The Jesus who doesn’t let the smallest deed done in his name go unrewarded, even something as insignificant as offering someone a cup of water to drink, would never demand that someone to stop if they were doing more amazing things.
His words, “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,” don’t make a lot of sense until we realize Jesus is scolding the disciples on behalf of the one who was casting out demons. The disciples, because they acted out of jealousy, might have done real damage to that person’s faith.
What if that person were driven away from faith in Jesus? What if they threw up their hands and said, ‘Well, if that’s how this Jesus thing is, you can forget it!’ Followers of Jesus aren’t supposed to act that way. But sometimes we do. If we’re honest with ourselves, we have to admit that our jealous hearts can judge each other with a level of talent equal to the rest of the world.
Instead of building up and adding to our community, our instinct can be to circle the wagons and keep others out. We’re just as good at protecting our turf as anyone else.
Then, Jesus dives into what I consider my proof-text for those who claim they only interpret the Bible literally. If any of your body parts cause you to sin, chop ‘em off. Admittedly, I haven’t seen many self-proclaimed Biblical literalists walking around with self-inflicted amputations.
Now, there’s a lot of speculation about what Jesus means in this part of the text. It’s hyperbole, for sure, but what’s his point? Part of me thinks Jesus is telling the disciples, judge yourselves, first. He’s saying, ‘If you’re going to hurt someone or damage their faith for something as stupid at jealousy, first punish yourself for your jealousy. And while you’re at it, punish yourself for every other sin you’ve ever committed. Then we’ll see how you feel about putting that stumbling block in front of others. So go ahead! If you think the kingdom of God comes through behavior like this, if you think the Good News of God’s salvation is about judgment, then chop off your hands, your feet, and cut out your eyes.’
The thing is, this whole Jesus thing—the Christian Faith, God’s redemption and offer of salvation—it’s never been about judgment. It’s never been about fencing others out. It’s never been about protecting our turf, or guarding our comfort zones. It’s not even about comparing ourselves to what others are doing, or measuring their successes and failings against our successes and failings.
And I can tell you that as a pastor, it’s so easy to fall into this trap. It’s so easy to see the size of another church’s membership roll or worship attendance and feel jealous. Maybe you feel some of that, too, as parishioners.
Like the disciples, it isn’t easy to fail at something only to watch someone else succeed in the exact same endeavor.
As a writer, it’s easy to watch other writers get published and feel jealous because my books aren’t.
Let me tell you what I’ve learned about writers. We are a community. No matter what we write or how we write, no matter which of us are published or not, we are a community. And the majority of us are pretty awesome. We root for each other and celebrate each other’s accomplishments, because we share common goals and common struggles. We all know that getting published is huge. It’s difficult, it’s stressful, and it’s nerve-wracking.
Every time I send a query letter, I’m a ball of anxiety. I check my inbox every five minutes hoping someone has responded.
That book I mentioned, the one with the math mistake? I didn’t really care about the mistake. I really liked the book. In fact, I can’t wait for this author to publish her sequel. I liked Book One so much that I’ve already ordered Book Two even though it won’t be out for six months. I’m elated for her because I know her story is similar to mine. She was nobody special, who wrote a book, worked hard, and got published. Instead of being jealous, it gives me hope for my books.
We Christians are a community, too. We ought to be rooting for each other no matter who we are or from where we come. Instead of getting jealous, we should be celebrating. Instead of laying stumbling blocks, we should be encouraging. Instead of judging, we should love.
We’re already going to be judged. Jesus says we’re all going to be salted with fire. Fire is a symbol of judgment, and salt was used as currency in the Roman world. (That phrase that someone isn’t worth their salt suggests they aren’t worth what they’re being paid. In fact, the word salary comes from the Latin word for salt).
What I think Jesus is saying is our worth is going to be judged, in fact—to a degree—our worth already has been judged. God found us worthy enough of God’s love to send his Son to redeem us from sin. But if we engage in petty jealousies and lay stumbling blocks in front of others, like the disciples were doing, what good are we for the kingdom of God? It’s like salt that loses its saltiness. God has judged us to be worthy, but what good are we if we throw away our God-given value?
Jesus tells us to have salt in ourselves, but how do we do that? I think the clue is in the final six words of verse 50: “be at peace with one another.” We have salt in ourselves when we don’t engage in the kind of jealousy the disciples engaged in by stopping someone from working in the name of Jesus. I think we have salt in ourselves when we live at peace with one another.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!
(Scripture quotation marked NRSV are from the New Revised Standard Version. Scripture quotation marked CEB are from the Common English Bible).