Mark 9:38-48. If Your Eye Causes You to Sin…

The Gospel reading for the 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time is Mark 9:38-48, excluding verses 44 and 46. Today’s passage contains two separate pericopes from Matthew that appear to have been combined in Mark.  Yet we do have a thread that holds the entire reading together. In this passage Christ suggests to us that rather than concern ourselves with what others are doing, we should make sure that we neither sin nor scandalize others by our own behavior.

“Do Not Prevent Him”

“John the Apostle” Titian, 1542.

The scene is set as John the Apostle tells Jesus that he and some other disciples tried to discourage a stranger from working in Jesus’ name. Confronted by this matter, Jesus tells John not to prevent strangers from trying to do good in the name of Christ.

Oddly, there are other accounts in the Book of Acts (19:13-16) where strangers are taken to task for similarly working in Jesus’ name. So why does Jesus dismiss John’s concern here? Perhaps because John is both young and a favorite of Jesus. Jesus does not view John, who is about fifteen, as someone who ought to confront his peers. But on a more theological level, the timing for a confrontation is bad. As Jesus progresses towards Jerusalem and his date with destiny, there is no need for a disciple to pick a fight with a stranger. Jesus could use all the friends and supporters he can muster. As Jesus tells John, for whoever is not against us is for us.

Good Works Emphasized

Today’s passage contains a reference to good works and faith. If one reads this section closely, it is actually quite fascinating to see what Jesus is trying to do. Consider first Mark 9:39:

There is no one who performs a mighty deed in my name
who can at the same time speak ill of me.

Then look at how Jesus transitions the observation about mighty deeds in Mk 9:41:

Anyone who gives you a cup of water to drink
because you belong to Christ,
amen, I say to you, will surely not lose his reward.

Jesus explains to the Apostle John, first, that no one can perform a mighty work (such as an exorcism) who is not working on Christ’s behalf. In other words, the proof is in the success of the action. If someone accomplishes the work of Christ, then that person is simple making manifest their faith in Christ – such a person works with the de facto power or authority of Jesus. But Jesus then re-directs the message towards all of his disciples. He insinuates that “mighty works” are not something that all of us are called to bring about. Our faith, which is very important, does not have to manifest itself in mighty works. The simple act of offering another Christian a cup of water is (or can be) a worthy act of charity and grace, worthy of justification.

Why does this passage appear to be so different, theologically, from Paul’s letter to the Romans? In Paul’s letter to the Romans, Paul addresses divisions among Christians of Jewish and pagan origin. He tells the Roman Christians (of Jewish background) not to become obsessed by the works of the old law. However, in this passage, Jesus addresses two matters. First, good works are evidence of faith in Christ, and Christ rewards those who, because of their faith, labor on his behalf. Secondly, Jesus alludes to the challenge – even the danger – of publicly bearing witness to the faith. This passage is situated close to the end of the ministry of Jesus. In a very short time, it will be very difficult for the disciples to bear witness to the faith.

In chapters 13-16, we are told that the disciples abandoned Jesus as the political pressure to arrest and punish him grows. As Mark tells us in chapter 14 verse 50, then everyone deserted Jesus and fled (also Mt 26:56). Consider what Jesus says to the disciples in Mark 13:9-10,

But take heed to yourselves; for they will deliver you up to councils; and you will be beaten in synagogues; and you will stand before governors and kings for my sake, to bear testimony before them. And the gospel must first be preached to all nations.

When Jesus says that ‘anyone who provides even a cup of water to someone who belongs Christ, he will not lose his reward,’ he is encouraging the disciples to stand fast and hold firm in their faith. He is asking them to support each other during a coming time of trial. And that  – yes – such faith-driven good works are worthy of grace and justification.

Whoever Causes a Little One To Sin

As I had mentioned last week, Mark splits the story in Matthew 18:1-9 (“The Greatest in the Kingdom”) in two. In Mark 9, the discussion of the Greatest in the Kingdom begins at verse 33. It is then interrupted at verse 38 by the apostle John’s question. In verse 42, Jesus returns to theme of doing good and avoiding scandal. He warns the disciples not to scandalize the innocent or the “little ones.” More broadly, he advises us that if one wants to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, better to cut off the hand or pluck out the eye that causes one to sin, rather than lose one’s soul.

Gehenna

Jesus concludes the passage with a stark warning to his disciples. He tells them to avoid sin at any cost, as it is better to do so and go to heaven, rather than be lax about vice and go to Gehenna, where the worm does not die and the fire is not quenched. In this passage, Jesus quotes the last verse of Isaiah, 66:24, nearly verbatim. Some scholars believe that the dual reference to the Valley of Hinnom suggests that it was a dump outside of Jerusalem where garbage burned continuously.

Either way, Jesus asks his disciples to be mindful of the cost of discipleship. Discipleship is not merely a personal faith in Jesus: discipleship also entails supporting each other, as well as avoiding sin and scandal.

Gospel Mk 9:38-43, 45, 47-48

At that time, John said to Jesus,
“Teacher, we saw someone driving out demons in your name,
and we tried to prevent him because he does not follow us.”
Jesus replied, “Do not prevent him.
There is no one who performs a mighty deed in my name
who can at the same time speak ill of me.
For whoever is not against us is for us.
Anyone who gives you a cup of water to drink
because you belong to Christ,
amen, I say to you, will surely not lose his reward.
“Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin,
it would be better for him if a great millstone
were put around his neck
and he were thrown into the sea.
If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off.
It is better for you to enter into life maimed
than with two hands to go into Gehenna,
into the unquenchable fire.
And if your foot causes you to sin, cut if off.
It is better for you to enter into life crippled
than with two feet to be thrown into Gehenna.
And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out.
Better for you to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye
than with two eyes to be thrown into Gehenna,
where ‘their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.'”
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