While many have treated this section of Mark as a series of isolated sayings that follow a passion prediction, the thread that runs through it carries a powerful punch if we hear it as one continuous exchange between Jesus and his disciples. This thread directly connects with the prediction. Just as Jesus would serve others by suffering, so the disciples must learn to serve others as well.
Mark situates these “sayings” between “they came to [his home base in] Capernaum” (9:33) and “Jesus left that place” to go to Judea (10:1). The narrative offers this as one integrated segment—a teaching moment for the disciples. The section begins with a dispute over who is the greatest (9:33) and ends with Jesus’ imperative to live in peace with each other (9:50).
This teaching moment is occasioned by the disciples’ own self-interestedness, pride and envy. As they travelled to Capernaum, they had argued over the question “who was the greatest?” This sets the tone and theme of this pericope. Jesus understood what the argument was about—who is first? How will each of the twelve rank in the kingdom of God? Disciples wondered and debated where each would fall in the coming kingdom. Who would be first?
The narrative is deliberate here. When no one would confess the topic of their argument, Jesus sat down and called the twelve together. This enhances the point and signals how significant this section is to the narrator. Jesus then articulates the theme that will run through the rest of his conversation with the disciples: “you must be last and servant of all if you want to be first.”
This is a radical reorientation for the disciples. They imagined that they would be rulers in the coming kingdom. They imagined that as the twelve, specially empowered by Jesus, that they would have “firsts” in the kingdom and that even one of them would be at the right hand of King Jesus–the “greatest” besides Jesus. Now they hear that they must serve others as “lasts” in the kingdom rather than “firsts.” No doubt they had a difficult time fathoming what that meant.
Jesus then enacts a parable to explain his meaning. He places a child in the middle of the twelve and then enwraps the child in his arms. Both acts are symbolic. The child reminds them of the focus of their mission and how others are the center of attention rather than themselves. When Jesus hugs the child, it symbolizes how Jesus welcomes the “little ones” and loves them.
The task of the disciples is to welcome “little ones” in the name of Jesus because this is to welcome Jesus himself. Moreover, it is to welcome God who sent Jesus. When we love our neighbor—welcome the little ones—we love God in our neighbor. The disciples are reminded that their ministry is not self-aggrandizement, power or wealth but to welcome others in the name of Jesus.
At this point John interrupts Jesus to announce how the disciples stood up for the integrity of Jesus’s ministry. This is apparently something that they took great pride in doing. They had hindered the ministry of another—someone who was exorcizing demons in the name of Jesus—“because he did not follow us” (literal translation). The disciples seemed to have reasoned that because this person was not one of the twelve or not attached to their entourage that he should not be “doing good” in the name of Jesus. That privilege, they thought, belonged to them. They were the ones who were with Jesus and empowered by him to do miracles. This other person’s ministry threatened their status and potential role in the kingdom. He did not “follow us.” And the emphasis is on “us.”
Jesus must have been incredulous. His immediate response is an imperative: “don’t stop him!” We can feel the exasperation in Jesus’ language. Anyone who does anything good in the name of Jesus is for “us” and not against “us,” he said. Just because they do not “follow us” (in the language of the disciples) does not mean that they are not “for us.” The “us” is larger than the disciples imagined. They thought of their discipleship as an exclusive group but Jesus enlarges it. Indeed, anyone who offers a cup of cold water (a small act of kindness) in the name of Jesus should be welcomed rather than excluded. God will welcome them; God will reward them. And the community of faith—the Twelve in this case—must welcome them too.
It is important to link the next section to the previous one. What the disciples did to this exorcist was scandalous. They failed to welcome a “little one;” they failed to welcome another who was doing good in the name of Jesus. Now they must hear Jesus’s rebuke.
What the disciples did to this exorcist, this “little one,” endangered their life in the kingdom. They had scandalized (“cause to sin” in the NIV) him by hindering and discouraging him. The disciples would have been better off if they had thrown themselves into the sea with a heavy weight. The hyperbole has a point. If anyone’s hand, foot or eye scandalizes another, it is better to remove them than to injure yourselves or others.
The hyperbole points to the seriousness with which Jesus regarded the actions of the disciples. Because of their pride and kingdom power-seeking (they wanted to be “first”), they had scandalized one of Jesus’s “little ones”—a person who was doing good in the name of Jesus. This approach to kingdom life and the scandals it creates leads to ghenna (hell). It is a path that leads to destruction. It is better to remove all obstacles to authentic kingdom life than it is to live comfortably (with hands, feet, and eyes) in a way that leads to hell. “It is better,” Jesus says, “to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell.”
Jesus reminds them that hell is destruction. It is not a way of life but a way of death. Kingdom living gives life but prideful self-exaltation is the way of death, the way of hell. He underscores the destructive end of such a life by quoting Isaiah 66:24. Hell is the place where the worms do not die (where worm feed on dead bodies) and the fire is unquenchable (that is, a place where the fire accomplishes its purpose). Isaiah envisions a field of unbuired corpses where worms and fire destroy life and confirm death. It is a picture of shame rather than pain; it is a picture of destruction.
The most difficult aspect of this text is whether Mark 9:49 is a comment on the Isaianic text (linked by the word “fire”) or whether it belongs with the final saying of Jesus in the chapter in Mark 9:50 (linked by the word “salt”). The majority understanding is that Jesus is alluding to the practice of salting sacrifices in the Levitical system (Leviticus 2:13). In other words, a life dedicated to God is like a salted sacrifice that is purified by fire. Others—a minority report—suggest that it is an image of destruction that more naturally goes with Isaiah’s description. When a city was burned, the victors would sometimes sprinkle salt on the ground to render it uninhabitable (Judges 9:45). Thus, the meaning would be that everyone who is thrown into hell will be destroyed by fire. Whichever is the case, either meaning contributes to the thread of the text as scandalizers will be destroyed (salted) or disciples will be tried (salted) by fire.
The final saying in this section, like the first thematic one in Mark 9:35, summarizes the proper orientation of kingdom living. Kingdom people are salt, that is, they are ministers of good in the world. Scandalizing the “little ones” or seeking preeminence in the kingdom corrupts that salt so that it is no longer any good. Instead, disciples must continue as salt so that they might live in peace with each other.
The final imperative, live in peace with each other, unites the narrative. In the light of their previous argument about who was the greatest, Jesus insists that they live in peace—not only with themselves, but with the “little ones” as well. When God reigns, peace reigns, but when pride reigns, we find ourselves on a path to hell.
Radical kingdom reorientation saturates this text. Disciples are “servants of all.” Disciples welcome others; they welcome “little ones” even when it appears a threat to their own status. Disciples would rather cut off their own hand than scandalize another who is doing good in the name of Jesus. Disciples live in peace because they love the kingdom more than their own lives.
Where can we find disciples like that?