Mark 9:38-50


The good news in this parable is ... that Jesus knows we will stumble and expects us to show up in Heaven lame and scarred by the inner struggle to be true to our loyalty to God as frail and faulty human beings.

Year B

Sunday between September 25 and October 1 inclusive

Proper 21, Ordinary Time 26

Read the passage at the bottom of this post: Mark 9:38-50, The Message   or   Mark 9:38-50, The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).

Permission is granted for non-profit use of these materials. Acknowledgement in oral presentations is not required. Otherwise, please acknowledge source as, "David Ewart,"


Today's lesson has enough wisdom for a month of Sundays. What can be read in 5 minutes may take a life-time to ponder and practice before we have been inwardly formed by the voice of the text this day.

As someone once said:

You can divide the world into two groups of people.
Those who believe you can divide the world into two group of people,
and those who don't.

Jesus' disciples belong to the first group; Jesus belongs to the second.

In verses 38-41, we catch a glimpse of Jesus' disciples once again missing the point.

Has he not just said them (Verse 37):

Whoever welcomes a child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.

Yes, he has just said that.

But the disciples apparently did not hear what Jesus said. They did not hear Jesus say, "WHOEVER." (my emphasis.) Maybe they thought Jesus had said, "Whoever of you;" or, "Whoever of those who have been rigorously trained, supervised, certified and ordained;" or, "Whoever you happen to approve of;" or, ...

But Jesus draws the circle wider. His circle includes WHOEVER WELCOMES IN MY NAME.

Now here is what is tricky for those of us hearing this in the 21st Century. "In my name" does NOT mean simply a mechanical and literal speaking of Jesus' name. "In my name" means "aligned with / loyal to / bonded with Jesus' honour / status / mission and thereby also with the honour / status / mission of the One who sent him."

Jesus calls us to live in a world that is NOT us-and-them. He calls us to live in a world that is us-and-those-who-are-not-us-but-are-also-aligned-with-God's-love-for-the-world. Discerning where in the world are those who are not-us-but-are-also-aligned-with-God's-love-for-the-world will provide a helpful and powerful check on our too human tendency toward self-righteousness and complacency.

Let's practice this and report back next Sunday on those we have met who are not-us-but-are-also-aligned-with-God's-love-for-the-world.

Verses 42-48 also repeat something Jesus has just said (Verse 8:35):

For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake (or, in my name), and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.

Yes, he did just finish saying this. Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh (page 187, see footnote below) comment on verses 42-48:

These verses are a parable on recompense for moral behavior. Should one's previous activity (the hands and feet) or one's preferred way of thinking and judging (the eye) cause one to fail the tests of loyalty to God, one must put an end to such behavior. For it is better to endure the difficulties of ending them now, than to be requited with pain (in the life to come).

The punishment described in Verse 48 uses images drawn from:

And they shall go 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.
Isaiah 66:24 (NRSV)

It is crucial to remember that for Jesus, "punishment" is not God getting mad and beating up bad guys. It is simply the logical consequence of what has gone before. If you do bad things, bad things result. It's that simple.

Far be it for me to quibble with Malina, but if the verb tenses have been correctly translated into English, then this is a parable about PREVENTION not punishment: Stop doing whatever is causing you to stumble. And given that hands, feet, and eyes are a way of speaking about the whole self, the parable implies that there is no avoiding the need for such discipline. We will experience things that will cause us to stumble.

It is also important to note that this parable is a parable - it is not meant to be taken literally.

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But even as a metaphor, there more shock in it than the gruesome images, because anyone who was missing a foot, hand or eye would not be allowed in the Temple. So Jesus is saying that it far more important to be loyal to God than it is to be able to observe religious practices.

And even though it is a distinctly modern interpretation, I think the parable can also be heard as teaching:

Don't pretend everything is perfect by looking pure and whole on the outside when you're in trouble inside. It is better to make your troubles known and get help to stop them now than to lead a seemingly perfect life only to later reap the hellish consequences you have been hiding from.

The good news in this parable is not that Jesus expects us to show up in heaven completely intact, pure and unblemished. But rather that Jesus knows we will stumble and expects us to show up lame and scarred by the inner struggle to be true to our loyalty to God as frail and faulty human beings.

There is an important difference between purity and loyalty. This parable is a call to loyalty not purity.

Verses 49 and 50 are almost incomprehensible in themselves and are nonsensical conclusions to what has gone before. The great variety among different translations suggests that even the experts aren't sure what to make of these verses.

The only link seems to be the reference to "fire." And since that fire was a reference to the torment of hell, then perhaps a reasonable paraphrase might be:

Everyone is salted with inner torment. But don't let that overwhelm you; or cause you to lose your spirit. Be at peace.

David Ewart,,
Short, easy to use, faith inspiring explanations of the meaning of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John for your sermon, homily, bible study, or reflection.

Note: Historical background information in this post is drawn primarily from Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, pages 186-187; and the writings of Amy-Jill Levine, et. al. 

Mark 9:38-50 (NRSV)

   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." 

New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Note: Verses 44 and 46 (which are identical to Verse 48) are lacking in the best ancient authorities.

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Mark 9:38-50 (The Message)

   38 John spoke up, "Teacher, we saw a man using your name to expel demons and we stopped him because he wasn't in our group."

   39 Jesus wasn't pleased. "Don't stop him. No one can use my name to do something good and powerful, and in the next breath cut me down. 40 If he's not an enemy, he's an ally. 41 Why, anyone by just giving you a cup of water in my name is on our side. Count on it that God will notice.

   42 "On the other hand, if you give one of these simple, childlike believers a hard time, bullying or taking advantage of their simple trust, you'll soon wish you hadn't. You'd be better off dropped in the middle of the lake with a millstone around your neck.

   43-45 "If your hand or your foot gets in God's way, chop it off and throw it away. You're better off maimed or lame and alive than the proud owner of two hands and two feet, godless in a furnace of eternal fire. 47 And if your eye distracts you from God, pull it out and throw it away. 48 You're better off one-eyed and alive than exercising your twenty-twenty vision from inside the fire of hell.

   49 "Everyone's going through a refining fire sooner or later, 50 but you'll be well-preserved, protected from the eternal flames. Be preservatives yourselves. Preserve the peace." 

Scripture quotations from THE MESSAGE. Copyright © by Eugene H. Peterson 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.
Note: Verses 44 and 46 (which are identical to Verse 48) are lacking in the best ancient authorities.

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