Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at
Check out the many other resources for pastors and churches, individuals and small groups at, especially the Reading Guide and Study Guides to the Gospel of Mark
Check out the full (and ever expanding) list of Revised Common Lectionary Exegetical Notes

Mark 9.38-50 
Proper 21 - Year B

Other texts:

The text for this week is made up of eight different sayings. They are connected to each other by thoughts or words, but as the diversity of the placement of the parallels suggests, each of these was an independent saying that Mark tied together.

For or against us (Mk 9:38-40) // Lk 9:49-50; Mt 12:30; Lk 11:23)

This text presents some great ironies. In the verse just before it, Jesus had just said, "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me."

Now the disciples are trying to stop (not welcoming?) someone who is acting in Jesus' name. The only other context where this word -- "try to stop" (koluo) -- is used is 10:14 where the disciples "try to stop" little children from coming to Jesus. In response to this, Jesus declares: "Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive (dechomai = "welcome" -- four times in 9:37) the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it."

Another irony is that this unnamed man is casting out demons in Jesus' name -- something that earlier in this chapter, the disciples were unable to do (9:18, 28). (Although the twelve were casting out many demons in 6:13.)

The verbs in this scene imply continued or repeated actions

The picture these present is that this guy kept on casting out demons while the disciples kept trying to stop him. It wasn't a one-time event.

Note also that their complaint against him is that "he was not following us." They know that he is acting in Jesus' name. The problem is that he doesn't belong to our church, our group. Witherington (The Gospel of Mark: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary) writes: "In short, this passage may tell us more about how the Twelve saw themselves as the only ones authorized to do such things than about the unknown exorcist" [p. 271].

I have been part of an online discussion about whether or not non-ordained people should preside at communion. Are we being a bit like these disciples? Are we maintaining a traditional practice that has been good for the church?

Another irony might be the distinction between insiders and outsiders. Jesus had said to his disciples in 4:11: "To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; in order that 'they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand; so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.'"

At this point in the story are the disciples "insiders" or "outsiders"? They don't understand what rising from the dead means (9:10). They are unable to cast out a demon (9:18, 28). They don't understand Jesus' passion/resurrection prediction (9:32). They argue about who is the greatest (9:34). Does their lack of understanding make them the "outsiders," while this unnamed exorcist may be an "insider," even though he doesn't belong to the group?

Jensen (Preaching Mark's Gospel) quotes an unnamed professor of theology who once said: "Whenever you want to draw lines in order to mark who is outside the kingdom and who is inside, always remember: Jesus is on the other side of the line! Jesus is always with the outsiders!" [italics in the original, p. 149.]

Schweizer (The Good News according to Mark) lists requirements from a number of ancient writings used to determine whether or not an independent ecstatic really possessed the Spirit and belonged to the church of Jesus -- or in other words, are they "insiders".

According to Matthew 7:16 and Didache 11:8-12 (end of the first century), ethical conduct is required. According to 1 John 4:2 it depends on a clear doctrinal confession, and according to the Shepherd of Hermas (beginning of the second century; Mand. 11:7-16), a wholesome relationship to the whole congregation is required. According to Pseudo-Clement (end of the second century; Hom. 2:10), the fulfillment of what has been prophesied is required. According to Pseudo-Paul (beginning of the third century; 3 Cor. 3 ff.), acceptance of the authority of the apostles is required. Paul has given the clearest answer in 1 Corinthians 12:1-11, where he states that there are many kinds of astonishing phenomena and experiences of "God" even in the heathen world (v. 2), but that possession of the Spirit is shown by the acknowledgment of Jesus as Lord (v. 3) and by a willingness to serve others (v. 7). Accordingly, the mighty acts of the Spirit are always taken seriously, especially by Paul, but in themselves they are not adequate criteria by which to judge whether an individual is performing these acts to proclaim Jesus or is working against him. [p. 195]

What criteria should we use to determine if someone is "of Christ" or not? Where does active church membership fall within requirements for being "of Christ"? What if, rather than "active church membership," we call it "being a part of the body of Christ"? Can one be "of Christ" and not be an integral part of the "body of Christ"?

Literal translation and comments about v. 39b

For there is no one
who will do (future tense)
a deed of power (dynamis)
in my name
and who soon afterwards
will be able (dynamai future tense)
to speak evil of me

The future tense of "will do" may have a present sense "is doing" (as in most translations) or an aorist subjunctive sense "would do". However, I think that the key interpretive focus of this sentence is not "deed of power" but "in my name." It is not the doing of miracles that leads one not to speak evil of Jesus, but the doing of them "in Jesus' name."

The word "name" occurs frequently in chapter 9:

"In Jesus' name" seems to indicate the motivation by which one does something -- welcoming a child, casting out demons, doing deeds of power. Bearing the name of Christ and acting in Christ's name seems to indicate belonging to Christ or acting as a representative of Christ or perhaps even, being Christ's presence.

However, Mk 13:6 states: "Many will come in my name and say, 'I am he!' and they will lead many astray." How do we know if those who act in Christ's name really belong to Christ or are leading us astray?

One way that the early church tried to assure the people that their ordained leaders were truly acting "in Christ's name" was that all pastors had to be ordained, and thus certified to be orthodox by bishops; and all new bishops needed at least three older bishops to certify that the new ones were orthodox in their beliefs and actions. (Certainly such a "safe-guard" for orthodoxy didn't always work.)

When we look at v. 40 and its parallels, we have some opposing views.

What about the "luke warm" people who are neither for nor against Jesus? How should we treat the unchurched majority in our neighborhoods? Do we need to try and convert these people who, because they are not for Jesus, must be against him and need to be converted? Should we leave them alone because, since they are not against Jesus, they (unknowingly) must be for Jesus? (However, God may want us to tell them the news that they are serving Jesus or that Jesus is working through their lives even without them knowing or believing it.)

One possible resolution is to note that the first two are concerned with "us," while the second two are concerned with "me," i.e., Jesus. Being with or against Jesus is not the same as being with or against us. Edwards (The Gospel according to Mark) summarizes: "Theologically speaking, the church should be unambiguous in its proclamation of Christ but tolerant of those who differ from it" (p. 291).

Cup of water (Mk 9:41 // Mt 10:42)

Tables get turned with this verse. The disciples are the ones being served in Christ's name. Perhaps related to the previous scene, Jesus is suggesting that they put themselves in the position of the one in need. Do hungry people care who provides them with food? Or even if it is in Jesus' name or not? They just want the necessities from whoever may give it to them (and for whatever reasons they might have for their benevolence).

I don't know the significance of this fact, but I find it interesting. The only other time potizo = "give to drink" is used in Mark, it is when someone fills a sponge with sour wine, puts it on a stick, and gives it to Jesus to drink when he is hanging on the cross (15:36), although it is not clear whether or not Jesus actually drank from the sponge.

Perhaps by this kind action, the benefactor is showing that s/he is not against us, which makes him/her for us and eligible for the Christian reward.

This text blurs the distinction one might make between "insiders" and "outsiders." It makes it difficult to know how we should relate to those "outside" of the Christian church, but who are helpful towards us. Do we need to convert them? Do we thank God that they, in spite of their beliefs, have been given a reward that will not be taken away?

It is difficult for me to know what Mark meant by reward, since this is the only time he uses that word in his writing. Usually it refers to what one has earned (either positively or negatively). Does this verse speak of salvation by works? There is some recognition by the helpers that the "thirsty" belong to Christ. There is also a sense that the benevolence is not done with the expectation of the reward. This promise is given to the disciples -- the receivers of the drink of water -- not those providing the drink. Because the promise is told to the receivers, it seems to be concerned about the believers' attitude and actions towards the helpful unbelievers more than a promise that the helpers hear. Especially during times of persecution, what should the believers' attitude be towards unbelievers who are helpful?

The sayings in verses 42-50 seem to be grouped together by catch words -- "causes of sin" (skandalizo vv. 42-47), "fire" (pyr vv. 48-49), and "salt" (halas vv. 49-50).

Millstone (Mk 9:42 // Mt 18:6; Lk 17:2)

The NRSV blurs a connection between v. 42 and v. 41. Literally each one begins:

The NRSV's shift to second person in v. 42 -- "if any of you" makes it sound like Jesus is addressing this to the disciples. Both verses are addressed to the way "outsiders" might treat the "insiders" -- assuming "little ones" refers to disciples.

In contrast to those who give a cup of water to the believers, there are others that seek to cause them to stumble/sin (skandalizo). In contrast to the reward the benevolent will not loose, the malevolent will suffer a fate worse than wearing "cement shoes" and being thrown into the river.

skandalizo occurs in this verse and often in the next section, but it first occurs in the explanation to the parable of the soils. The seeds that have no root, "when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away [or stumble] (4:17). It could be that our text is directed against those who bring the trouble or persecution.

During times of persecution, these texts would give hope to the believers. Those unbelievers who were good to them and those who were bad to them during this life will get theirs proper "rewards" in the end. There is a bit of apocalyptic flavor here.

Hand, foot, eye (Mk 9:43-47 // Mt 5:29-30; 18:8-9)

A sermon title I've used with this text is "What Do You Do with the Ax?" I've thought of holding up an ax and walking up and down the aisles and asking for volunteers: "Does your hand cause you to sin? Let me take care of it -- chop, chop -- all gone!" "Do your eyes look at things you shouldn't see? I can solve that problem -- chop, chop -- all gone!"

I've thought of that object lesson, I've talked about it in a sermon, but I've never actually done it. I'm afraid that it might be a bit offensive to some people.

There is a subject change with these verses. Jesus is now talking about your hand and your foot and your eye. He is no longer talking about them as in the previous two sayings, but you (singular).

skandalizo (vv. 42, 43, 45, 47) has as its literal meaning, "to cause to stumble". The original meaning of this word group skandal- was "trap" -- or more specifically a trap's tripping mechanism. skandalethron was the stick on which the bait was placed, that when touched, tripped the trap. Metaphorically, this was applied to words which could "trap" one's adversaries.

Only figurative meanings are used in the NT. The active verb can mean:

  1. to cause someone to no longer believe (or to believe what is false)

  2. to cause someone to sin

  3. to cause someone to experience anger and/or shock because of what has been said or done -- to offend

Which of these meanings is intended in these verses?

In 9:42, since the word "to believe" is used, I would think that the sense of skandalizo would be "to cause not to believe."

I think that the same meaning is intended in vv. 43, 45, & 47. The result of the "stumbling" is that one is headed for hell (gehenna). The "sin" that leads to hell is unbelief or false beliefs. It is not just some little misdemeanor against God.

At the same time, I could argue that Jesus' words indicate the seriousness of any little sin. Whatever causes us to act contrary to God's will needs to be dealt with and dealt with harshly. Our relationship with God has to be more important than our most important body parts.

I think about other body parts Jesus might have mentioned that might be more relevant to most of our sinful behaviors. What if your tongue causes you to stumble? Have we ever uttered a swear word, an unkind word, a four letter word? Do we need to cut out our tongues? What if your brain causes you to stumble? Have we ever had a sinful thought, a lustful longing, a desire to kill? Do we need a lobotomy?

One approach I have used is to point out that every part of our human body is sinful. Every part leads us astray and away from God. What does Christ demand that you do with your sinful parts? They must be cut out, removed. If we were to do that with our whole bodies, we would die. Christ demands our deaths. However, Christ also provides for our deaths through our baptisms into his death (Romans 6:3-11; Galatians 2:19-20; Colossians 2:11-12, 20; 3:3-10). Rather than the "chop-chop" with which I began this section, we can talk about the "splash-splash" of death and new life through baptism.

Another way that we die to ourselves is through repentance. Especially when that is defined as an "I can't experience." It is admitting the helplessness of our situation -- that it terms of making ourselves better or more perfect or more holy, we are as good as dead.

A word of hope for those who succumb to skandalizo. The same word (passive form) is used in 14:27, 29 in reference to the disciples. Jesus tells them, "You will all become deserters" -- and they do, but the resurrected Jesus promises to meet them where they're at -- back in Galilee. Their relationship with Jesus did not end with falling away.

Gehenna ("hell") is derived from the Hebrew ge-hinnom = "Valley of Hinnom". There some of the kings of Judah engaged in forbidden religious practices, including human sacrifice by fire (2 Chron. 28:3; 33:6; Jer. 7:31; 32:35). Jeremiah spoke of its judgment and destruction (Jer. 7:32; 19:6). King Josiah put an end to these practices by destroying and defiling the high place of the valley of Hinnom (2 Kings 23:10). Probably because of these associations with fiery destruction and judgment, the word "Gehenna" came to be used metaphorically during the intertestamental period as a designation for hell or eternal damnation. Perhaps more than a place (the place of the dead is usually called "Hades" in the NT); it represents a state of judgment and punishment.

Although some dictionaries and commentaries state that this valley was the ancient garbage dump for Jerusalem, which burned continuously, the Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible, sup. vol. states that there has been no archaeological evidence to indicate that it was the city's refuse heap. Rather, this idea seems to have originated with David Qimhi's commentary on Ps. 27 (ca. A.D. 1200).

Perpetual fire (Mk 9:48 // Isaiah 66:24)

This brief saying alludes back to the last verse of Isaiah:

And they shall go out and look at the dead bodies of the people who have rebelled against me; for their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh [Is 66:24].

We might wonder how literal are we to take the references to the worms that never die and the fire that never goes out. First of all, the worms and fire couldn't exist together. Secondly, we don't normally take the preceding image of chopping off or cutting out body parts as literal commands. However, both make it clear that causing ourselves or others to sin is a grave offense against God -- and this is something that even believers can be guilty of doing. Perhaps, like the parent who threatens to paddle a child's behind until it bleeds if s/he doesn't stop doing what s/he is doing -- the point of the severe punishment is to have a change in behavior right now, not necessarily an accurate prediction of what will happen in the future.

This allusion also leads to the next saying.

Salted by fire (Mk 9:49)

From Schweizer (The Good News according to Mark) "The most reasonable interpretation of this verse is that the fire of God (the affliction of persecution, or of the end-time, or of the Holy Spirit?) preserves from decay like salt (with which meat is cured)." [p. 199]

Witherington (The Gospel of Mark) says much the same thing: "This then suggests that the saying has to do with how trials can actually strengthen or preserve Christian character, not merely test it" [p. 273].

Edwards (The Gospel according to Mark) says a bit more: "... salt is a preservative. In a world without refrigeration, salt preserves foods, and especially meat, from putrefying. Christians, similarly, are a preservative in society, apart from which society will become rotten" (p. 295).

It may be that a believer or a congregation that seeks to avoid any difficulties in order to "keep the peace" may, in fact, be avoiding precisely the "salt" that will preserve it.

Salting the salt (Mk 9:50a // M5 5:13; Lk 14:34-35)

How does salt loose its saltiness? It can't. Pure salt, sodium chloride, can't become unsalty; but the sodium chloride of impure salt can be leached out, especially in humid weather, and the remaining substance can be tasteless. This "salt" cannot become salty again. When the purity of our faith is adulterated, or perhaps "watered down", the pure "salt" may slowly slip away leaving us with a "tasteless" faith and it may be impossible to restore the pure one.

Why "salt"? There are numerous references to salt and its different uses in the OT. Beyond these, perhaps like the mustard seed and light, salt, though very small, can be quite powerful. One tiny crystal of salt can be tasted. It doesn't take too much extra salt to ruin a recipe.

Perhaps, to stretch the salt analogy, as salt can make food taste better, so we are to "add spice to life" -- helping others improve their lives; but as too much salt can ruin the good food, sometimes too much help or pushing our faith too much, can destroy the good we are trying to accomplish. Perhaps within the context of this whole lesson, we need to judge and remove sinful parts of the body, but at the same time, if we become judgmental people, ready to condemn others who are acting in Jesus' name but who are not part of our group, we have gone too far. The salt that is meant to preserve the church has become a salt that destroys it.

Juel (Mark): "There is to be something distinctive about Jesus' followers. If not, they will prove as worthless as salt that has lost its zest." [p. 136]

A bit longer description based on the larger context is offered by Williamson (Mark Interpretation):

Disciples whose lives are not characterized by lowly service nor by openness to Christians who are different nor by care for those who are young in the faith nor by rigorous self-discipline are like flavorless salt. They have lost the sharpness which sets them apart from their environment and which constitutes their usefulness. Disciples, therefore, are to be salty Christians, in the sense in which Jesus was salt vv. 31, 35-37). They will then be at peace with one another, for they will be harder on themselves (vv. 43-48) than on others (vv. 38-41) whom they will welcome and assist in the common journey following Jesus (vv. 37, 42). [p. 172]

Salt & peace (Mk 9:50b)

A key distinctiveness of Jesus' followers is the way they relate to one another. Continuing to have (present tense) salt among yourselves means continuing to live in peace (present tense) with each other.

This line might be presented as synonymous parallelism:

have salt in/among/with yourselves
live in peace in/among/with each other

Forms of the Greek eirene ("peace") refer primarily to one's relationship with other people, rather than an individualistic, inner tranquillity. It is the opposite of being at war with others, or quarreling with others, or hindering the work of others. Primarily meaning "harmony with others," it may also take on attributes of the Hebrew shalom -- wholeness, wellness, healthiness.

The other occurrences of this verb are only found in exhortations in Paul's letters: Romans 12:18; 2 Corinthians 13:11; 1 Thessalonians 5:13.

I've already mentioned one approach to the "removing body parts" section, another way of interpreting this self-judging section is as a corporate entity. If there is a part of the body that is bringing down the whole body, sometimes the "unpeaceful" part -- the scandalizing part -- the cancerous part -- may need to be removed for the health of the whole body.

Our text began with disciples criticizing one who wasn't part of their group. That was inappropriate, but there may also be times when, for the health and distinctiveness of the group, disciplinary actions and removal are needed.

Ched Myers (Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark's Story of Jesus) summarizes this section with:

It is entirely appropriate to this nonviolence catechism that Mark's warnings against apostasy conclude with a reminder of the imperative to work for conflict resolution, the reestablishment of unity and peace within the messianic community. Throughout this subsection Mark has maintained a sophisticated dialectic between community solidarity (strong group boundaries) and nonexclusively (weak group boundaries). The good from "outside" must be affirmed, and the bad "inside" cut out. But in the latter case, "receptivity" must finally include even the apostate: as we will see, forgiveness must stand at the center of the community's life (11:25). [p. 264]

If people in our communities were asked about our congregations, would "a place of forgiveness" be part of their answer?

Witherington (The Gospel of Mark) closes his comments on these verses with:

The suggestion that the disciples should have salt in themselves and be at peace with one another likely draws on Lev. 2:13b: "Do not let the salt of the covenant of your God be lacking from your cereal offering." See too Num. 18:19, which speaks of a covenant of salt. Thus to share salt with someone is to share fellowship or even to have a covenant relationship with someone. Thus the point of "have salt in yourselves" would be that the disciples must stop disputing and have true covenantal fellowship among themselves. We have thus come full circle from the beginning of this passage, which mentions the disciples disputing in vv. 33-37. The construction of even passages like this portion of Mark 9, where a variety of sayings are joined is not wholly artless, but centers on a series of interrelated themes that keep coming up in differing ways as the passage goes on. [pp. 274]

Brian Stoffregen
Faith Lutheran Church, 1000 D St., Marysville, CA 95901