These are some of my notes for Sunday, January 24, 2010 in the Lifeway Explore the Bible Series.
Books referenced in these notes are:
1. Gospel of Mark: New International Greek Testament Commentary by R.T. France
2. Gospel of Mark: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary by Ben Witherington III
Jesus has lead His disciples on a trek from the mountain of the Transfiguration to Galilee and back to Capernaum. He has made His second Passion prediction after the Transfiguration, only to find his disciples uncomprehending of His talk of His death and afraid to ask Him. Instead they are preoccupied with other things: who is the greatest.
What brought about the disciples’ interest in status? There are two ideas usually mentioned:
1.The selection of Peter, James, and John to go with Jesus up the mountain and experience the Transfiguration
2.Jesus’ talk of His own death has made the disciples wonder who will “succeed” Him as leader of their movement.(France)
It is interesting that Jesus waits until the group is in the house (Peter’s?). V. 34 says the disciples were afraid to confess they had been arguing who was the greatest. “Arguing” leads on to suspect they had been somewhat vocal in their argument, and thus it likely took no omniscience on Jesus’ part to know there was a matter needing His attention. V.35 gives no clue that Jesus questioned them further, so He must have heard or “known” what was discussed. He makes His response a serious one by sitting down formally, as teachers and judges did, in order to speak. His pronouncement is typically paradoxical from the worldly point of view: the first person must be the last and the servant of all the rest.
“To be last is first” is a teaching Jesus repeatedly makes, both in gospel parallels to this passage(Mark 10:43-44; Matt 23:11-12) and other passages about status and role reversal (Lk 4:11; 13:30; 18:14, Mark 10:31; Matt 20:16; John 13:12-17). That Jesus repeats this so is an indication of how contrary to human wisdom and nature it is. An example of this is the traditional notion of “servant”. Early on the Church read into this the idea of church office, glorifying ministerial hierarchies that were thus open to abuses of power that continue to this days, in Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant divisions of Christianity. “Servant”, Greek diakonos, in NT times, referred to a domestic servant, someone who waited on others at table, for example. It is thus better to see “servant” here as the person who asks “do you want fries with that?” than the person who administers your local church service. Lowliness accompanies service in this worldview.
The use of a child as an example is a very pointed ancient reminder of the sort of “lowliness” Jesus is speaking of:
Gal 4:1-2 NET. Now I mean that the heir, as long as he is a minor, is no different from a slave, though he is the owner of everything. (2) But he is under guardians and managers until the date set by his father.
A child has no real right of self-determination and independence. But more than that, children accept as natural that they are powerless. The child is innocent and humble. And “child” is frequently “code” or metaphor for disciple or believer.
Jesus adds to this lesson in the value of lowliness the necessity of recognizing the value of those usually deemed lowly. The Greek dechomai, is used of receiving guests, for example (Matt 10:40, Luke 10:16), but here seems to mean more accepting as worthwhile, important. Jesus emphasizes the importance of such recognition by identifying Himself with the “children”, and adding that He himself is identified with the One Who sent Him. It was a given in the ancient world that one’s representative carried the same authority as oneself (otherwise why send him?), thus Jesus is invoking God here. Moreover, He is continuing the identification of Himself and his followers that is famously made in Matt 25:31-46. (France, Witherington)
This is the only passage where John acts alone in Mark, and like Peter, he doesn’t come off well. At best John is asking here what constitutes a “child”, a follower, at worst he simply hasn’t heard what Jesus just said at all, and is busy trying to assert the Twelve’s authority among Jesus’ followers. This is rather absurd, because it is only recently (Mark 9:1-29) that the Twelve were unable to cast out a demon, while John’s account of this unknown exorcist indicates the unknown fellow was succeeding in his exorcisms.(France, Witherington)
Jesus’ response is to order the man left alone, for several apparent reasons:
1.A man using Jesus’ name in exorcism must think something of Him, and this man’s success presumably indicates proper faith.
2.Battling demons puts the man on God’s side, rather than the Devil’s, for Jesus clearly sees a major part of His mission is to defeat evil, (John 12:31-32) with no possible middle ground in the fight. (France)
A drink of water is very much the common courtesy in the Middle East to this day, something so basic it would not normally merit any notice or commendation. Yet Jesus stresses that even so small and basic an act of kindness to and because someone is Christian– “of Christ” –will be noted and rewarded by Heaven.(France)
Causes the downfall/ shall offend: Greek verb skandalizo, “trips, traps, causes to stumble”. The idea is either about causing a crisis of faith or worse, a loss of faith.(France)
The millstone spoken of here is not the hand-turned kind, but the much larger, heavier sort drawn by a donkey.
“Little ones” seems to hark back to child, metaphor for a believer.
To be thrown in the sea was a particularly horrible execution for Jews because the sea was the symbol of chaos and evil, and also because of the loss of the body and thus lack of a proper burial. (Witherington)
Cutting off the hand is an old punishment for theft, and of course an extreme measure. But better extreme measures, Jesus says, using typical Middle Eastern hyperbole, than entering Hell, the most extreme punishment imaginable.(Witherington)
“Hell” is the Greek Gehenna, the valley of Hinnom outside Jerusalem which served as the city’s garbage dump, with fires burning trash and discarded corpses of animals being picked at by animals, insects, and worms continually. Imagine living in such a place; that is Hell.
Likewise, putting out an eye was an extreme punishment anciently used on peeping toms, but again, better a lesser extreme measure than being tossed into Hell.(Witherington)
The undying fire and worms seem odd images until one learns it is taken from Isaiah:
Isa 66:24 NET. “They will go out and observe the corpses of those who rebelled against me, for the maggots that eat them will not die, and the fire that consumes them will not die out. All people will find the sight abhorrent.”
No one has been entirely satisfied with explanations of these verses, which is why so many commentators give varying alternate explanations. Most likely the combination of salt and fire points to Lev 2:13 and Ezk 43:24, which require salt to be added to burnt offerings. Ex 30:55 connects salt used in incense to “pure and holy”, indicating a purifying element to the use of salt. Fire, on the other hand, not only indicates sacrifice, but is a frequent metaphor for suffering. Thus to be “salted with fire” likely means to be purified by suffering, the general expectation of all Jesus’ followers. (France)
Again, people have often been confused by salt being said to loose its flavor, as salt is a very stable compound. But the salt used in Palestine in ancient times contained impurities. It was common occurrence for this sort of salt to split, the sodium chloride separating from the impurities, leaving a useless waste incapable of being made useful again. (France)
Salt was also used in ratifying covenants in the OT ( Lv 2:13, Num 18:19, 2 Chr 13:5) and as a metaphor for pleasant speech (Col 4:6). Thus salt can be used to symbolize the friendly speech and bond between Christians, as here.(France)