Gleanings from the Text
Demons and hell and self-mutilation! Oh, my! While the violence of this language is particularly striking after the immediately preceding portrait of Jesus gently taking a child into his arms, the harshness of these sayings affirms the absolute seriousness of Jesus’ message. The pericope as a whole instructs the disciples to remove whatever barriers stand before the Kingdom of God, but the surprising news is that it is often the disciples themselves who are the ones in the way.
The problem with the unauthorized exorcist is not that he has failed to show himself as a follower of Jesus but that he is not following “us.” Once again, the disciples grapple with the issues of identity and authority, but Jesus’ response is clear: “Do not stop him.”
This command and the following instruction call the disciples to respond to believers outside of their community in a way that does not hinder them. By recognizing the legitimacy of the exorcist’s work, the disciples are forced to acknowledge that Jesus’ transformative power extends beyond their own inner circle. The knowledge that others are effectively engaging in ministry invites the disciples to consider the existence of a broad Christian fellowship marked only by belief in Jesus.
This revelation in turn alerts the disciples to the nature of their own ability to pursue ministry. Clearly the source of the disciples’ capacity to accomplish any work is found in Jesus alone rather than either in the disciples themselves or in their status in any particular group.
Verse 42 reinforces the injunction against interfering with the mission of those outside of the disciples’ inner circle and initiates a block of text warning the disciples against placing similar stumbling blocks before themselves. The metaphors of hand, foot, and eye invite the disciples to evaluate the totality of their existence to discern any behavior, self-conception, or world view that hinders the attainment of a fuller relationship with God. The issue here does not seem to be one of actions in this life that lead to eternal reward or punishment in a life to come. Instead, the kingdom is so presently accessible that the disciples need only remove any stumbling blocks of their own making that obstruct an otherwise open path. By identifying and eliminating any self-destructive resistance, the disciples are drawn into the life of the Kingdom of God and are released from the hell that is separation from God.
The closing sayings about salt instruct the disciples to purify themselves by removing whatever contaminant hinders the effectiveness of their mission. This metaphor of purification complements the metaphor of cutting away that which causes one to stumble. Again the disciples are commanded to adopt a rigorous self-discipline that leads to greater effectiveness in ministry.
Food for Thought
This text invites communities to identify the self-constructed stumbling blocks that prevent flourishing. In other words, are there subtle ways in which the church sabotages its own ministries? Are the goals of committees in conflict with each other? Is the ministry of the church controlled by a select few whose needs and interests do not represent the larger body? Is the church clinging to a self-identity that no longer reflects its membership or a vision that no longer holds relevance? What’s keeping the church from discerning the will of God and pursuing Christ’s ministry? How can the church become Spirit-led rather than ego-driven?
Sink Your Teeth into This!
I once served a mid-sized PCUSA congregation whose members loved to loathe the non-denominational church across the street. Although we never bothered to visit this congregation, we considered their community to be everything that ours was not. We prided ourselves on our high liturgy and lofty intellectualism, and we condemned them for worshipping in a manner we considered insubstantial and for attracting a membership we deemed infantile. We even complained about the increased traffic resulting from heavy attendance at their services!
Instead of responding to the success of the neighboring church with a reevaluation of our own programs, we clung to our old habits. We increased only in bitterness and self-righteousness rather than in membership and ministry. One wonders what opportunities were missed because we, like the disciples, considered those Christians outside our community to be competition rather than partners in Christ's service.
Mary Charlotte Elia is a 2009 graduate of Union-PSCE (MDiv). She is from Virginia Beach.