DON'T BE TRASH/TRASHY - REFLECTIONS ON MARK 9:38-50 - JESSE HEATH, SAINT AUGUSTINE OF CANTERBURY EPISCOPAL CHURCH, OKLAHOMA CITY, OKLAHOMA
This past Sunday, the Gospel reading was from Mark 9:38-50. I have a somewhat traumatic relationship with the doctrine of eternal punishment. In the tradition in which I grew up, it was typical to use this passage (and a few others) to preach on hell. Hell was always depicted as a place for sinners and backsliders. Pastors and revival preachers would sweat profusely as they warned us not to be caught without a relationship with Jesus Christ. This passage especially was used to warn believers not to be caught living in sin.
As Fr. Joseph said in his sermon on hell Sunday morning, it is true that Jesus’ warning of hell (Gehenna) is not for the unbeliever. It is a warning for the inner circle who put a roadblock before anyone coming to Jesus.
I encourage believers who threaten others with hell using this passage to stop and look at the context. First, when the English Bible uses the word hell, what is meant? The original Greek word used is γέεννα (Gehenna). This is a Greek translation of the Hebrew גֵּי הִנֹּם, (gey Hinnom). Gehenna was a boundary between Judah and Benjamin (Joshua 15:8; 18:16). Prophets such as Jeremiah began associating this place to God’s wrath because King Ahaz (2 Chronicles 28:3), King Manasseh (2 Chronicles 33:6), and others met at this location to offer false pagan worship, specifically by worshipping Ba’al (2 Kings 23:4) and sacrificing children to Molech (2 Kings 23:10). As such, Jeremiah foretells a time in which Gehenna would be a place where the slaughtered (inferring a battle) would be buried (Jeremiah 7:30-34; 19:3, 7; 19:11; 31:40).
As part of his reforms, King Josiah defiled the site by dumping the pagan vessels used for worshipping Ba’al and scattering bones of the dead across the site. This was done so it could not be used for ritual sacrifices of children (2 Kings 23:10). Afterwards, the inhabitants of Jerusalem began using Gehenna as a dumping ground in which they would burn their trash. So, in the Jewish mind, Gehenna was a former pagan site associated with painful memories which they used to dump their trash.
Second, let us look at the previous passage from last week’s reading alongside this week’s passage. To whom is Jesus speaking? Mark 9:31-33 tells us that Jesus had left the public crowd and taken his disciples to a house in Capernaum. The disciples started arguing about who among them was the best disciple, the greatest. Who will get the spotlight? Jesus used a child in verse 36 as an example, not of humility, but of whom the disciples are to embrace, those who are following Christ. Then, in Mark 9:38-50, the disciples again are worried about others getting the spotlight. Someone, not in their circle, had begun casting out demons in the name of Jesus. How dare they?
Jesus’ response is to chide the disciples. Starting in verse 42, Jesus says, ““If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me…,” it would be better for you to drown (v. 42) or maim yourself (v. 43-45). Then, in case there was any confusion, Jesus clarifies that salt is only good if it maintains its purpose and character (v. 49-50). In his sermon on the mount, Jesus explained that his followers, his Church, are like salt and if they lost their saltiness, they would be discarded (Matthew 5:13). Jesus exhorts the disciples, “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another” (Mark 9:50).
Jesus is warning his Church. “Stop trying to hinder people from coming unto me. Stop causing strife. Don’t make me throw you into the garbage.”
~ Jesse L. Heath, M.A.T.S., M.Div., Saint Augustine of Canterbury Episcopal Church, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
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