Year B: Twenty-Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Being Salted with Fire

Mark 9: 38-43, 45, 47-48

(After Jesus had finished teaching the disciples) John said to him, “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 it 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.’

Everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good, but if salt becomes insipid, with what will you restore its flavor? Keep salt in yourselves and you will have peace with one another.”

(*Gehenna: was the Jewish name for the place where sinners are punished. It referred to a valley where human sacrifices were offered at a cultic shrine.)

Discussion Questions: 

  1. In this reading, Jesus is trying to encourage the disciples they should not guard their roles so much. “The work of the Kingdom is wider than their group and so is the name of Jesus.” Where do you struggle with promoting yourself at the cost of others?
  2. Jesus points to the “little ones” as having the proper consciousness. What are the “egocentric issues” that might be blocking you from moving toward a proper consciousness?
  3. Jesus teaches that the root cause of sin is not a matter of externals but is prevented by a conversion of the heart. Do you think of sin as an external force upon you, or as something coming from within you? Explain
  4. From the reflection: In what ways have you become a stumbling block to another or to yourselves?
  5. In what ways does today’s reading affirm you? In what ways does it challenge you?

Biblical Context

Mark 9:38-43, 45, 47-48
Carol Dempsey OP

Just as the young man in Moses’ camp was concerned about Eldad and Medad receiving a share of God’s spirit, so now in Mark’s Gospel, John expresses concern that someone unbeknown to the disciples is casting out demons in Jesus’ name. The fact that an unnamed, unfamiliar person is able to do this task implies that within this person, God’s spirit is alive and active.

Furthermore, to cast out demons in Jesus’ name suggests that the man was invoking the power of Jesus’ name in the rite of exorcism. To act in the name of another was to claim that person’s authority for one’s actions. Jesus has received his power and authority from God who enabled Jesus to heal. Thus, the person casting out demons becomes a conduit for God’s and Jesus’ Spirit.

Jesus’ response suggests that no one who claims Jesus’ power will ever speak ill of him, and that no one has prerogatives over others. The grace and spirit of God is given and available to all — women, children Gentiles, and those who live on the margins, namely, the poor and outcasts. The reference to giving a cup of cold water to drink emphasizes the point that no service, however minimal, will go unnoticed or unrewarded.

The last part of the Gospel features a series of sayings. The phrase “little ones” could be a reference to children (Mark 9:36-37), the unauthorized exorcist (9:38), or any weaker member of the Christian community. The warning against causing one of the weaker or marginal members of the community to abandon faith takes the form of an ancient proverb.

The danger of causing others to lose their faith next shifts to warnings about losing one’s own faith. The series of hyperbolic sayings emphasizes the goal of entering into life or the reign of God, a goal that is so important that whatever would become a stumbling block at this goal, must be cast aside.

Finally, Gehenna was physically a valley associated in the Hebrew Scriptures with the notion of the divine judgment (Jeremiah 7:30-32; 19:2, 6). By the time of the Christian Scriptures writers, Gehenna had developed into a place of destruction in both body and soul (Matthew 10:28; 23:33).

Thus, these Sunday readings invite listeners everywhere to reflect on the ways of God and the divine law. A call to embrace one’s prophetic vocation goes forth, along with an example of how to live it out. With the reign of God at hand, the time has come to move forward with anyone who is working to bring about the healing and liberation of all.

 First Do No Harm

Fr. Michael K. Marsh

 When I was in the seventh and eighth grades my family and I lived in England, on a British army base. I attended an English boys’ school. I wore a uniform, went half a day on Saturday, and rode the train to school. I played field hockey, as did all the boys in the school. One afternoon while walking to the train station, book bag in hand and hockey gear strapped to my back, I fell completely flat on the ground. I looked up and saw my two stumbling blocks, two older boys laughing as they unhooked their hockey sticks from my legs.

I still remember, from my days of practicing law, the names and faces of a couple of lawyers who always seemed to be stumbling blocks to cooperation, justice, and truth telling. At least that’s how I saw them.

I can too easily name and too quickly blame people, events, and circumstances that have tripped me up, interfered in my life, or kept me from getting what I wanted. Stumbling blocks.

My guess is that every one of you could tell stories about the stumbling blocks in your life. Who or what have been stumbling blocks for you? How did they get in the way and cause you to stumble or fall? Did you meet a stumbling block this past week? What happened?

Today’s gospel tells a story about John and the other disciples running into a stumbling block, an outsider who, as John tells Jesus, “Was not following us.”

John does not say that this guy interfered with the disciples’ work, that he had a different purpose, or that he opposed them. He simply says, “He was not following us.” Never mind that the guy was casting out demons in Jesus’ name. He was not one of them, and that seems to be their stumbling point.

I don’t know what that meant for John and the others, but I know that today it often means the other does not look or dress like us, the other does not speak or act like us, the other does not think or believe like us, the other does not do it our way. He or she is not following us. Whatever it was for John and the disciples, they felt threatened by this guy. He was casting out demons, alleviating oppression, offering a new life, all in the name of Jesus. Chances are the guy was getting a name, status, and recognition.

Last week the disciples argued among themselves about who is the greatest. This week they are complaining about this other guy, this stumbling block to their status, power, and recognition.

I wonder if this might not be a variation on last week’s argument. You remember how that ended, right? It ended with Jesus taking a child into his arms and saying, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me, but the one who sent me.” You may also remember that I said that the child is a symbol of vulnerability, powerlessness, and dependency on another.

Today’s gospel is a continuation and part of last week’s story. It’s one story told in two weeks. Jesus and the disciples are still in the same house as last week, the child is still on Jesus’ lap, and Jesus is still deepening and moving the conversation inward. John, however, wants to make the conversation about this other guy, this stumbling block. “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”

Isn’t that what we often do or want to do with our stumbling blocks? We draw lines in the sand, circle the wagons, divide into us and them, and try to stop them. I see that happening in the world today. I read it in the news. And I’ve done it. I’ve been John, haven’t you?

Jesus, however, takes a different approach. He erases the line and enlarges the circle. He isn’t so concerned about another who causes us to stumble. His concern is focused on us, not the other, and it’s twofold:

  • First, whether we have become a stumbling block to another, “to one of these little ones,” to the child sitting on his lap.
  • Second, whether we have become a stumbling block to ourselves.

Jesus is once again asking us to look at ourselves, to be self-reflective. It’s as if he saying to John, “Don’t you worry about that other guy. You worry about yourself.” He’s asking us to look within. The greatest stumbling blocks are not outside us but within us: anger and revenge, the judgments we make of others, prejudice, our desire to get ahead and be number one, the need to be right, our unwillingness to listen, the assumption that we know more and better than another, living as if our way is the only and right way, pride, fear, being exclusionary, our busyness, lies, gossip, our desire for power and control. These, and a thousand other things like them, are what cause others and us to fall.

In what ways have you and I become stumbling blocks to another or to ourselves? That’s the unspoken question in today’s gospel. When have we caused another to trip and fall? When have we tripped and stumbled over our own two feet, our own life?

And it’s not only looking at ourselves as individual stumbling blocks. The greater stumbling blocks are systemic. In what ways is the legal system a stumbling block to justice for all? In what ways has patriotism become a stumbling block to another’s freedom? In what ways is the Church a stumbling block to Jesus and the life he offers the world? And in what ways have you and I participated in and perpetuated those and other systemic stumbling blocks?

This is neither an easy nor comfortable conversation and I don’t like it any more than do you. It’s hard work. But it’s work about which Jesus is adamant. You can hear that in the images he uses: drowning by millstone, the amputation of hand or foot, the torn out eyeball, the unquenchable fire, hell, the worm that never dies. We don’t need to take those literally, but do we need to take them absolutely seriously.

Jesus uses those images four times to talk about our betterment. “It is better for you…,” he says. That’s what this work is about. I want us to be better. I don’t want to be a stumbling block to another or to myself. And I don’t think you do either. I want us, as Jesus said, to “be at peace with one another,” don’t you? That begins with looking at ourselves, not each other.

In what ways have we caused ourselves or someone else to stumble? And what might we need to change or give up in order to step into our better selves? As individuals, a nation, a church?

So, here’s what I wonder. What if our mantra this week was, “First, do no harm?” What if we made that the guiding principle for what we would say and do? What if we committed to help one another live into our better selves? What if we were more concerned about another’s success than our own? What if John had offered that other guy a high five and a word of encouragement?

Maybe, just maybe, we would know ourselves to be building blocks rather than stumbling blocks. And wouldn’t you rather build than tear down?


Reflection excerpt from: Interrupting the Silence. Fr. Michael K. Marsh