Today Jesus has a series of moral teaching for us. This section of Mark’s gospel kicks off a wider disertation by Jesus on how we should be living rightly with one another. However, over the course of this passage from Mark’s gospel there is more than one item that is slightly confusing. So let’s discover what Jesus means when he says, ‘be salty!’
Scripture: Mark 9: 38-50
Sometimes I read the words of Jesus and I wonder if he and I are on the same page.
Be salty. Like a sailor?
Being salty is synonymous with being an experienced sailor. It’s also synonymous with being crusty or cranky.
This is an odd passage of scripture. It starts off odd and it ends odd. Since we’re talking about salt and that’s at the end, it’s where I’ll begin. Somehow that seems to fit.
Everyone will be salted with fire.
Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness…
Be salty and be at peace.
About the only thing in that list that I’m comfortable with is being at peace.
Now, I’m fairly certain that what Jesus means by being salted with fire, is a reference to the Holy Spirit. Salt was used was used to preserve and I think that’s the reference here. To keep us or make us holy. But I’ll be honest, I’ve never purposely burnt the salt while I’ve cooked.
Salt is good, but if salt has lost its saltiness. The problem is that salt doesn’t lose its saltiness, it doesn’t go bad. Salt doesn’t expire, it’s a rock.
Be salty, well I covered that one already. But I am more than content to be at peace. Both with myself and with my neighbour.
This is a passage of scripture full of odd sayings and things that might make us scratch our heads. We begin with casting out demons, something today we might more accurately equate to discussing the subject of mental health. We then move to stumbling blocks and finally to the bit on salt.
Clifton Black summarizes this section of Mark as follows, and I’ll let you know knew it’s nothing flashing. He writes, “Mark 9:38-10:31 presents this Gospel’s most concentrated cluster of moral teaching: vignettes of discipleship expressed within the believing community (9:38-50), the family (10:1-16), and a larger social sphere (10:17-31).” (Clifton Black)
Jesus is talking about how we live with one another, in very broad, yet strangely specific terms. Moral teachings. Don’t chastise someone for doing good in my name. Pray for them instead. As we might pray for other churches and ministries, that they would be successful and a blessing for people.
Then Jesus talks about stumbling. This is probably where we get tripped up. How we are our own worst enemies. The image of stumbling recurs three times. What I noted when I read this is that we cause ourselves to stumble, but the harm we do is to others. Jesus then says it’s better to cut off your hand, your foot or to tear out your eye than to stumble and be thrown into hell.
Now I don’t think Jesus is asking us to maim ourselves, it’s an example used to be conscientious. Lest we be thrown into hell. When I read this, I think to myself, well that escalated quickly. If I cause someone to stumble, I’ll be cast into hell? Yikes, where is the grace?
Let’s talk about hell. In verses 43 through 47 we see hell referenced three times. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out.
If I asked you to describe hell you would probably tell me the following:
- It’s where the devil lives
- It’s a place of fiery torment
- People go there as punishment for their sins
- Because they didn’t believe in Jesus
Sound accurate? Did I miss anything?
Now if I asked you how do you know that what would you respond?
You would probably say, we just read it in Mark’s gospel. Jesus says, “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out.”
To which I would reply, does it really?
Now, let’s be clear. Almost every major modern bible translation uses the word hell here. There is no doubt about that, I checked. However, does the bible tell us that this is a place that the devil lives, full of fiery torment, where people go to be punished for their sins because they don’t believe in Jesus?
I’m not convinced it does. The image and understanding that we impose on the translation and usage of the hell word doesn’t originate with Jesus. It originates with Dante and his Inferno.
The New English Translation (NET) is a translation I like to refer to, because they have extensive footnoting throughout their translation. About what the words really were and how their use has changed over time. On the word hell the NET translation has the following notation, “The word translated hell is “Gehenna” (??????, geenna), a Greek transliteration of the Hebrew words ge hinnom (“Valley of Hinnom”). This was the valley along the south side of Jerusalem. In OT times it was used for human sacrifices to the pagan god Molech (cf. Jer 7:31; 19:5-6; 32:35), and it came to be used as a place where human excrement and rubbish were disposed of and burned. In the intertestamental period, it came to be used symbolically as the place of divine punishment.” (NET translation note)
Now, when I read that I can understand how we came to simply use the word hell. For us today to say that it is better to cut your hand off than enter the Valley of Hinnom, well that doesn’t mean anything to us. So, we’ve adopted the usage of the word hell, which does mean something to us. However, it probably doesn’t mean what it should. We probably add far more significance to this word and section of scripture than is necessary. We are reading our own cultural norms and expectations onto scripture. The result is that the preacher shouts, “Repent for the time is near! Believe in Christ your Saviour or be cast into the fiery pits of hell!”
Thus goes the altar call, or a fiery one full of damnation anyway. Except we’ve taken the symbolic meaning of hell and twisted it into something it wasn’t mean to be. A place of judgment yes, judgement is implied in what Jesus is saying. However, I’m not convinced our modern idea of hell existed when Jesus walked the earth. I think it’s a story we’ve used to frighten children into better behaviour.
Now, this conversation is huge. Far larger than we have time for today. Perhaps we’ll do a bible study on it down the road.
Now what? You’ve just told us that hell as we understand it doesn’t exist. Perhaps there is a silent sigh of relief going on throughout the sanctuary. What’s the point of this passage, why does this word get translated as hell and if I can be crass, ‘what the hell are we supposed to do with this?’
There is judgement here. That much is evident. This is part of a passage on moral teachings. It’s not that we need to cut of a hand or a foot. It’s to be able to reflect about ourselves clearly enough to take corrective action about how we treat and interact with one another. Something that social media and many protests in recent days could take a lesson from. Because lately the things I hear people saying about others is far, far less than kind. The way we treat one another is causing others to stumble and Jesus had something to say about that.
Don’t do it. Be salty and at peace with one another. Amen.
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St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Cobourg is part of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. The congregation was established in 1833 and continues to serve the community.
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