(for contextual notes about this passage in the arc of Mark’s Gospel, see the end of this sermon)
Picture this: Jesus and his disciples are traveling on a hot and dusty road from Galilee – the territory in the north where he was raised and where he has been teaching and healing – to Jerusalem, the holy city in the south that is the center of Jewish faith and practice. He has deliberately set out to go there, “setting his face towards Jerusalem,” knowing full well its dangers, and the opposition he is certain to face there.
Along the way, he has revealed to his disciples that he must suffer and be put to death by his enemies, but that God will raise him to life again. These words confuse and frighten them and they repeatedly demonstrate their failure to understand not only the meaning of this prediction, but also who he is and what he has been teaching them. They seem not to have grasped at all the concept of the “kingdom” of which he has been speaking – an “upside-down kingdom” in which the first are last and the last are first, in which to lose one’s life is to gain it, and in which the greatest is the servant of all.
Just now they have been arguing amongst themselves over who will be the greatest in the kingdom which they are sure he will establish once he arrives in Jerusalem and defeats his foes. Jesus corrects them and tells them plainly that in God’s kingdom “whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then, we are told, “he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me’” (Mk 9:35-37). For Jesus, children are a sacrament of God’s presence and of his presence and are therefore to be protected and loved.
What is he saying? He is saying that in this kingdom, everyone matters. Each one is valued and loved. Each one has dignity and worth, even – and perhaps especially – the weakest and most vulnerable, like this child. These little ones are precious to Jesus, and they demand special consideration and understanding and love.
One of the disciples – this time it’s John – interrupts and changes the subject. He is concerned about a stranger who is “casting out demons” in the name of Jesus. What shall we do about it, he wants to know. “We tried to stop him because he was not following us.”
Has John been listening at all? Doesn’t he see that his question reveals the disciples’ selfish desire to control the mission and to mark the boundaries of who’s in and who’s out? Doesn’t he see that once again they have revealed their desire to be the greatest rather than the least, to be the ones with the power rather than the ones who serve? No, says Jesus, let him be. “Whoever is not against us is for us.”
Here again we are surprised and overwhelmed by the radical nature of Jesus’ openness, inclusivity and hospitality. Just when we think we’ve made our circle of inclusion wide enough, Jesus says, ‘Nope. Make it wider. Your circle is still too small and stingy. This man is actively contributing to the work we have come to do – namely, the work of mercy, love, kindness, justice, liberation, peacemaking, healing, and nurturing. He’s on our side. Let him be.’
Having dealt with this brief distraction, Jesus now returns his attention to the child in his arms. Not only are you to welcome the little, the weak and the vulnerable, he says, you are to make very sure that you do not in any way impede them by putting a stumbling block before them.
The language he uses is so strong that it makes us squirm. If any of you hinder one of these precious ones or cause them to stumble and fall, “it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea!” We’re not used to Jesus talking this way! But it shows us how urgent and essential it was for him that the disciples grasp the principles that were the foundation of the kingdom he was bringing into being.
The phrase “put a stumbling block before” is actually the Greek word skandalise, to scandalize. It’s a technical term in Mark for the rejection of the kingdom message (6:3) or for desertion of the way (14:27,29). It would be better for you, says Jesus, to cut off the hand or the foot, or tear out the eye that causes you to stumble, than to suffer the consequences of where your sin is leading you. Do not scandalize others by your words and actions; lest you cause them to stumble and fall.
Why is Jesus so graphic, so harsh? Remember that he has been speaking openly and frequently about his impending death. And it’s not just talk – he’s making his way south towards Jerusalem, away from safety and home, and towards the Cross. He knows he’s running out of time and that he has only a few more days to prepare his still-clueless disciples for what’s coming.
So he ramps things up. We can sense his growing sense of urgency in this exaggerated and violent language. His disciples are clueless, distracted, blind and deaf to his truth. “Pay attention to what’s important!” he seems to be shouting through the grisly images of hacked off limbs and unquenchable fire. “Faith is hard! So much is at stake! What you say and do, what you value and prioritize as my disciples – these things matter! Your choices have life-and-death consequences. Please don’t be stumbling blocks. Please don’t make faith harder for yourselves or for others than it already is!”[i]
This is, of course, what we call hyperbole. Jesus is using exaggerated, over-the-top language to underscore the urgency of his teaching. Not even the most rigid fundamentalist would take this passage literally! Of course we’re not being asked to make ourselves lame or blind, for heaven’s sake.
But herein lies a danger, a slippery slope. Because if we tell ourselves that Jesus didn’t really mean what he said here, then we may be tempted to disregard the seriousness with which he is taking this. We may be tempted to set this story aside as one of those that has no practical value for our age. The function of hyperbole is to magnify what’s at stake. If we dismiss it as “mere” hyperbole, we may miss out on a truth that must be heard and must be taken seriously.
And this is especially dangerous when it is a truth that we don’t want to hear – for example, the truth that we could be the cause of someone tripping up in their discipleship or stumbling in their faith. That we could be the cause of someone questioning whether or not they are truly a critical and valuable member of God’s kingdom.
Do you find it hard to imagine that good Christian people, that the Church itself, might put a stumbling block in someone’s path that would impede their way to God? How about the thousands of people throughout the world who as children suffered abuse at the hands of clergy, and who continued to suffer as the Church denied and covered up the awful things that had been done to them? Or what about gay people who internalized the message they received from the Church that God hated them and that they had no place in the Body of Christ? What of people of color who have been long been discriminated against and marginalized by the Church? Or the poor who struggle every day simply to survive, and can’t help but notice how easy wealthy Christian suburbanites have it? Or women, striving to live into the fullness of what God has called them to be in the Church, but still too often denied opportunities to lead? Or disabled people who wonder if the Church cares enough to include them?
Is it possible that we have put stumbling blocks in the paths of such people that prevent them from knowing the deep and abiding love God has for them, or becoming what God created them to be?
Karoline Lewis, Associate Professor of Preaching at Luther Seminary in St Paul, Minnesota, points to a painful truth when she writes, “As women, we know all too well how our attempts at telling the truth are systemically and systematically dismissed as hyperbole. Sexual harassment? Isn’t that kind of an overstatement? It was just a few comments here and there. They didn’t mean anything. Claiming sexual harassment is a little over the top, don’t you think? Sexual assault? Well, it couldn’t have been that bad, otherwise she would have notified the authorities. Come on, rape? Really? Isn’t that a bit of an exaggeration? And to claim rape, well, then think about how you might ruin the poor guy’s life.
“Hyperbole becomes the convenient excuse,” Professor Lewis says, “to stop listening, to stop believing, to question the veracity of the claims, claims that take an extraordinary amount of courage to utter. When we place stumbling blocks in the paths of those trying to answer God’s call – as they and only they can hear it and live it – we are effectively silencing them. No, says Jesus. That’s what’s at stake.”[ii]
Yes, it’s hyperbole. No, Jesus doesn’t want you to drown with a millstone around your neck. No, he doesn’t want you to cut off your hand or your foot, or tear out your eye. But just because he doesn’t mean what he says literally doesn’t mean he isn’t absolutely serious about these matters. Take this message to heart, then. Don’t be one who places stumbling blocks in other people’s path to faith. Instead, make it your mission to remove the stumbling blocks that prevent people from knowing and responding to the incredible, inclusive love of God!
[i]Thomas, Debie, “If It Causes You to Stumble,” September 23, 2018. https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay
[ii] Lewis, Karoline M., “A Hyperbolic Homiletic,” September 25, 2018; http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5228
The Gospel of Mark
Part 1: Jesus’ Ministry (in Galilee)
Part 2: The Discipleship Catechism (on the way to Jerusalem)
8:22-26 Jesus heals a blind man (1)
8:31-37 The First Cycle
- 8:31 Jesus predicts his Passion
- 8:32-33 The disciples fail to understand
- 8:34-37 Jesus teaches his disciples what it means to follow him (Paradox: save life/lose life)
9:30-37 The Second Cycle
- 9:30-32 Jesus predicts his Passion
- 9:33-34 The disciples fail to understand
- 9:35-37 Jesus teaches his disciples what it means to follow him (Paradox: first/last)
10:32-45 The Third Cycle
- 10:32-34 Jesus predicts his Passion
- 10:35-39 The disciples fail to understand
- 10:40-45 Jesus teaches his disciples what it means to follow him (Paradox: greatest/least)
10:46-52 Jesus heals a blind man (2)
Part 3: The Passion, Death & Resurrection of Jesus (in Jerusalem)
The Context of Today’s Gospel Lesson from Mark 9:38-50
Mark’s Gospel is often divided into three parts, with each of the parts taking place in a different geographical location.
The first part describes the ministry of teaching, preaching and healing that Jesus carries out in the region of Galilee (the rural northern part of Israel).
The second part describes the journey of Jesus and his disciples from Galilee (in the north) to Jerusalem (in the south). Along the way, Jesus predicts his suffering, death and resurrection; the disciples demonstrate their failure to grasp the meaning of Jesus’ words; and Jesus responds by teaching them what it means to follow him, illustrating the true nature of life in the Kingdom of God by offering a paradox for them to consider. This pattern (Jesus predicts his Passion, the disciples’ fail to understand, Jesus offers further teaching to clarify their misconceptions) is repeated three times in the second part of the Gospel.
Notice that these three cycles are preceded and followed by stories of Jesus healing a blind man. In the first case, the man is not completely healed and Jesus prays for him a second time. This is a metaphor showing that the process of coming to faith in Jesus can be a gradual one. The disciples see/understand only partially now, but they will see/understand more clearly after the Resurrection. Notice also that Jesus tells the man to return home and spread the good news there. In the second story, the man is healed instantly and is invited to follow Jesus. In both of these stories, seeing is used as a metaphor for believing.
In the third part of the Gospel, Mark describes the final week of Jesus’ life, beginning with the triumphal entry into Jerusalem and leading to the crucifixion, death and resurrection.
The Gospel lesson for today, Mark 9:38-50, follows Jesus’ teaching in 9:35-37, where he takes a small child into his lap to teach the disciples about the “upside-down” nature of the Kingdom of God.
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