In my name: it would be better

in-jesus-nameCauses of Sin. 42 “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. 43 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. 44 …. 45 And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life crippled than with two feet to be thrown into Gehenna… 4647 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, 48 where ‘their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.’ (Mark 9:42–48)

In seminary exegesis courses one is taught to look for details that indicate a change of scene, location, or other markers to indicate the boundaries of a particular pericope (a technical word used in exegesis meaning “narrative” – and a word that auto-correction keeps wanting to change to “periscope,” which, given my history serving on nuclear submarines is kinda’ interesting.). There are no such markers in the text. It is a safe bet to assume Jesus in still in Capernaum, surrounded by the Twelve, with a child in their midst (9:33-37). The expression “little ones” may well also include those given a cup of water because their bear the name of Jesus (v.41).

Some scholars note that these are likely a series of independent saying about sin that are inserted here. That might well be true, but the question still lingers, “Why were they dropped in here?” I would offer that there is an implied return to the idea of what it means to serve: “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.” Christian service always has a point of pointing to Christ as the foundation of all service. What could be of greater disservice than to point another towards sin? The opening saying is clear as it sharply denounces such behavior and its resulting consequences. The underlying expression for “to sin” is more literally, “to cause to stumble” or “to scandalize” (skandalizo). This might point to more than simple sin in its varieties of kinds, but more pointedly to a loss of faith. This loss of faith is the sense of the expression’s use in 4:17 and 14:27,29. It is this latter understanding that might be better suited to the consequences. If loss of faith implies loss of the eternal reward of the Kingdom, then the Christian disciple, who is at root of this loss due to their service, suffer the same fate.

Because of the expression “one of these little ones” we easily think of the child references in vv.33-37, but what about the unnamed exorcist “who believe[s]?” How did he or she respond to the disciples trying to stop them from ministering in the name of Jesus? Were the words scandalizing? Were the words used in that attempt as severe as the ones Jesus now uses as he teaches the Twelve? Just as Peter rebuked Jesus and received a direct and pointed reply, so too John and the disciples in this scene.

The punishment by drowning while being weighted down might have been known to the disciples. Acts 5:37 notes the insurrection of the early Zealot leader, Judas the Galilean. The Roman historian Suetonius and the Jewish historian Josephus, both report Judas and his follower’s execution by such downing. But what follows v.42 moves from history to hyperbole.

Among Christians that might argue how literally to interpret Scripture, one would be hard pressed to find a group that would take vv.43-48 as a literal command of God. But I would offer that all understand the underlying message: each man and woman is a concrete moral agent who is responsible for their actions and the consequences of those actions. This is the realism expressed in this very Semitic thought. The radical demand that the hand or foot should be amputated or the eye plucked out, gruesome as those demands are, point to the intrinsic differences between physical life and the absolute value of imperishable life given by God alone. Jesus calls for the renunciation of possessions and family (Mark 10), as well as life itself (8:34) if these things stand in the way of following Jesus. In this same way, Jesus calls for the complete renunciation of a sinful life and activity. These expressions are not a call for radical, mutilating actions, but the continued call for sacrifice to set aside those things that keep you from God. This is emphasized as Jesus moves into the personal: “If your hand…” and “If your foot…” It is a direct plea and teaching for his disciples.

“These sayings challenge us to examine the quality of our discipleship. Is following Christ at the core of our being, something too precious to be surrendered lightly? Or is our Christianity merely a matter of taste and convenience, something we shelve at the slightest difficulty or inconvenience? Belief that is easily set aside cannot be the faith that Jesus calls for among his disciples.” (Perkins, 641)

Notes

Mark 9:43 If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. Jesus now follows with three illustrations that take the same form. If a hand, foot, or eye is a cause of sin, one should “cut it off” or “pluck it out.” The remark is rhetorical (note that Deut 14:1 prohibits self-mutilation). On tracing sin to different body parts, see Job 31:1, 5, 7; Prov 6:16–19; Rom 3:1–18.

Mark 9:43 Gehenna: Gehenna 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.

Mark 9:43 the unquenchable fire. In 9:48, Jesus states that in Gehenna, the “maggots never die and the fire never goes out.” Judith 16:17 gives a Jewish view of judgment as endless conscious torment, since the condemned weep forever. See also Sir 7:17, where fire and worms await the dead. Some argue that Mark’s image is of a fire that burns endlessly, not of a body that burns endlessly. Judith does not read that way. See also 1 Enoch 27:2; 54:1–6; 90:26–27; 4 Ezra 7:36–44, which do appear to teach annihilation; see 4 Ezra 7:61, where the dead are extinguished by fire, so also 2 Baruch 85:13–15. In contrast, Sibylline Oracles 2:283–312 foresees eternal torment.

Mark 9:44, 46, 48 where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched. Mark 9:44 and 9:46 are part of a textual problem since many key manuscripts do not include them. The parallelism with the end of v. 48 that vv. 44 and 46 reflect might suggest that the verses belong to Mark, as then all three illustrations would be virtually parallel in wording. It is harder to explain how the verses dropped out, if they were original, so it is likely that 9:44, 46 were not originally part of Mark. However, 9:48 is original to Mark, itself a modified citation of Isaiah 66:24.

Sources

  • K. Beale and D. A. Carson, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI; Nottingham, UK: Baker Academic; Apollos, 2007).
  • Alan Cole, Mark: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1989)
  • John R. Donahue and Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Mark, Sacra Pagina v.2 (Collegeville, MN: Michael Glazer / Liturgical Press, 2001) 282-91
  • Wilfred Harrington, Mark, The New Testament Message, v.4 (Collegeville, MN: Michael Glazer Press, 1979)
  • William L. Lane, The Gospel of Mark, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974) 342-50
  • Philip Van Linden, C.M., “Mark” in The Collegeville Bible Commentary, ed. Dianne Bergant and Robert J. Karris (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1989) 922-23
  • Pheme Perkins, The Gospel of Mark, vol. 8 of The New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville, TN: Abington Press, 1994) 638-41
  • Ben Witherington, The Gospel of Mark: A Social-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001) 271-74
  • David Turner and Darrell L. Bock, Cornerstone Biblical Commentary, Vol 11: Matthew and Mark (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2005) 483
  • Brian Stoffregen, CrossMarks Christian Resources, available at www.crossmarks.com/brian/

Dictionaries

  • Gerhard Kittel, Gerhard Friedrich and Geoffrey William Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1995)
  • Horst Robert Balz and Gerhard Schneider, Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1990)

Scripture – The New American Bible available on-line at http://www.usccb.org/bible

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