In this Sunday’s passage from Mark 9, Jesus offers pieces of advice to his followers about dealing with outsiders and insiders. The different sayings were put together at the oral stage with the help of keywords like “name” and “scandalizes” (or “causes to sin”). Their present context as part of the Markan Jesus’ instructions about discipleship on the way to Jerusalem suggests that they now also concern life within the Christian community.
The first part of the first section touches on a very important issue in our church and world today: the relationship between Christians and those outside the Christian faith community. In the episode of the “strange exorcist,” Jesus shows a remarkable openness to an outsider. When John complains that someone outside their circle is driving out demons in Jesus’ name, Jesus comments that no one performing a miracle in his name can speak badly of him. Then he states as a general principle that “whoever is not against us is for us.” (It should be noted that in Matt 12:30 Jesus seems to say the opposite: “Whoever is not with me is against me.”)
The Old Testament reading from Numbers 11 is intended to provide a biblical background for Jesus’ display of tolerance. Two of Moses’ assistants, Eldad and Medad, were prophesying by the spirit of God outside the gathering of the elders. When Joshua complains about this, Moses does not agree and proceeds to wish that all of God’s people might prophesy. Both Moses and Jesus are able to see God at work in surprising places and persons, so they counsel tolerance toward outsiders who seem to manifest the spirit of God.
The second part of the first section concerns acts of kindness done by outsiders to followers of Jesus. Jesus indicates that such good deeds will be rewarded by God, since they are done ultimately to Jesus and his Father. Once more Jesus displays an open, tolerant and affirming attitude to those outside his circle.
The second section in today’s passage from Mark 9 is addressed to those inside the circle of Jesus’ followers. It is a stern warning against “scandalizing” other Christians—that is, causing them to sin. It has been described as “Jesus on a bad day.” The Greek word skandalon refers to a rock or stumbling block that impedes the progress of others. The image of the body here is very likely a symbol of the Christian community (the body of Christ). The extreme and even hyperbolic language (“cut it off”) emphasizes the seriousness with which giving scandal is taken.
Here Jesus holds insiders to a high standard. They must not harm the body and the spirit of other believers under any circumstances. Giving scandal in this sense is a grave evil that must be avoided. If it is not avoided, then it must be corrected and punished. In this context the sexual abuse of children by priests and other adult authority figures (our own recent church scandal) appears to be an especially heinous crime because of its baneful effects on the victims and on the church as a whole.
The warnings against the rich in today’s fifth and last reading from the Letter of James are also stern. When that letter was written, there were very few Christians in the world, and hardly any of them were rich. So these warnings were most likely aimed originally at outsiders, who were mainly absentee farm-owners. However, since in 2006 there are many Christian millionaires and since the United States is now the richest country in the world, James’s warnings to the rich have special significance for us as Christian insiders today.
Prior to Chapter 5, James has already warned the rich about the coming reversal of the fortunes of rich and poor, described how the rich usually expect and receive favorable treatment from others and charged that the rich spend most of their time and energy acquiring and maintaining their material wealth. In James 5 the idea of the divine judgment is the key to understanding the warnings about the miseries coming upon the rich. James illustrates the futility of trying to pile up wealth for security with images of rotting riches, moth-eaten garments and rusting metals. Then he accuses the rich of holding back the wages of their employees, living in luxury while others go hungry and being responsible for the deaths of innocent persons. Does any of this sound familiar?
James once more calls for social justice. His teaching offers consolation to the honest poor among us and a challenge to the more affluent. His wise advice is also something that we in the United States need to hear as a nation and to act upon. Dismissed by Luther as the “epistle of straw,” the Letter of James seems especially relevant in our time and place.