SYNOPSIS: Disciples of Jesus must live in conscious service of others, especially of the weak. To abuse the weak is what it means for a disciple to become one whose “salt is salt-less” – Mark 9:38-50.
(Mark 9:38-40) – “John said unto him — Teacher! we saw someone in thy name casting out demons — and we forbade him, because he was not following with us. But Jesus said — Do not forbid him! For no one is there who shall do a work of power in my name, and have power, soon, to revile me; for whosoever is not against us is for us.” (Parallel passage: Luke 9:49-50. Compare, Matthew 10:42).
John rarely spoke alone or for himself during the ministry of Jesus. Elsewhere, he spoke in conjunction with his brother James, as when they desired to call fire down on some Samaritans or when they asked Jesus to install them on his right and left hands (Luke 9:54, 10:35).
Jesus is addressed as “teacher.” Normally in this gospel, it is outsiders who refer to Jesus as “teacher,” not his disciples. Possibly, the gospel of Mark employs irony in this statement since John complained about an outsider who was ministering in the name of Jesus.
His complaint was that this man was not “following us.” He did not protest that this exorcist was not following Jesus, but that “he was not following us.” Perhaps, this indicates an over-inflated ego in John, or a sense of self-importance, a growing elitism among the Twelve. A further irony is that a few verses earlier the disciples were unable to exorcise some demons; however, now they protest because someone else can do so. This is an attempt by John and, by proxy, the other disciples to maintain their status as insiders.
What John failed to understand is that if this man was casting out demons, then it was God who was doing so through him. Though John did not recognize the man God did. One who performs miraculous deeds in his name cannot easily revile the name of Jesus, which constitutes evidence of the man’s commissioning by God (1 Corinthians 12:3).
Faithful and Unfaithful Disciples
Jesus taught his disciples that whoever gives them a cup of water to drink, “because you are Christ’s, he will certainly not lose his reward.” The point is that whatever anyone does to a disciple of Jesus, whether for good or evil, is the same as doing it to Jesus (Mark 9:41-50).
This is a rare instance in the synoptic gospels of Jesus referring to himself as “Christ” or “Messiah”; however, it fits since he is so identified in the context and since Jesus is instructing the disciples on what his Messiahship means – self-sacrificial service, especially to the insignificant – and, by default, what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. That kind of discipleship results in great reward, including everlasting life, whereas, failure to be a disciple of this kind brings horrific punishment at the end of the Age:
(Mark 9:41-50) – “For whosoever shall give you to drink a cup of water in name that Christ’s ye are, Verily! I say unto you, in nowise shall lose his reward. And whosoever shall cause to stumble one of these little ones that believe, it is seemly for him, rather, if there is hung a large millstone about his neck and he is cast into the sea. And if thy hand shall cause thee to stumble, cut it off, — it is seemly for thee maimed to enter into life, rather than having the two hands to depart into the gehenna, into the fire that is not quenched; And if thy foot be causing thee to stumble, cut it off, — it is seemly for thee to enter into life lame, rather than having the two feet to be cast into the gehenna; And if thine eye be causing thee to stumble, thrust it out, — it is seemly for thee one-eye to enter into the kingdom of God, rather than having two eyes to be cast into gehenna, Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched, For everyone with fire shall be salted. Salt is good: but if salt become saltless, wherewith will ye prepare it? Have within yourselves salt, and be at peace one with another.”
The millstone image would have struck a fearful chord among a first-century audience. Generally, Jews feared the sea and viewed drowning as an especially horrific way to die. Moreover, dead bodies that sank to the bottom of the sea could not be recovered for proper burial, something of prime importance in Second Temple Judaism. The Greek word for “millstone” refers to a large stone that required a beast of burden like a donkey to turn it in order to grind wheat.
Gehenna is a name derived from the Valley of Hinnom south of Jerusalem. In Christ’s day, it was the location where garbage and refuse were burned outside the city of Jerusalem; this included the dead bodies of criminals and other undesirables. Reportedly, the fires burned continually in this ravine. Jesus uses this imagery to emphasize the horrific consequences if sin is not dealt with, especially if one’s sinful acts cause others to stumble.
The clause, “where their worm dies not and the fire is not quenched,” is a verbal allusion to a passage from the book of Isaiah:
(Isaiah 66:24) – “Then they shall go forth and look on the corpses of the men who have transgressed against me. For their worm shall not die and their fire shall not be quenched; and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.”
Nothing is said in the passage from Mark about “eternal” punishment. In the image, it is the annihilating fire that is “unquenchable,” not the torment or punishment of the offending individual. The emphasis is on the result of the process of burning – utter destruction.
“For everyone shall be salted with fire and every sacrifice shall be salted with salt. Salt is good but if the salt is become salt-less wherewith will you season it? Have salt in yourselves and be at peace with one another.”
Fire and salt test, refine, and prove things. Being “salted with fire” may symbolize purification. If so, this occurs in the life of a disciple as he or she purges sin and other causes of stumbling through suffering for Jesus. In this image, then, discipleship is seen as a process of discipline.
However, more likely, the picture of salt and fire has in view the sacrificial system from the book of Leviticus. All animal sacrifices were salted and burnt offerings were totally consumed by fire and, thus, became a pleasing odor to Yahweh. Salt also was a sign of Yahweh’s covenant with Israel (Leviticus 2:13m Numbers 18:19).
The point, then, is that a disciple must live his or her life as a whole and living sacrifice to God, otherwise, the disciple may not inherit the life in the kingdom of God (compare, Romans 12:1-2). To do so, followers of Jesus must live in conscious service to others, especially, to the weak and the insignificant. To cause a weaker brother or sister to stumble is the exact opposite, it is what it means to become a disciple whose “salt is salt-less.” It is in this way that a disciple of Jesus loses his life in order to save it.