Mark 9:36-50,  hands, eyes, and salt

1. Relevance to the Sermon

Mark 9:36-50 is a significant passage for those interested in the Sermon on the Mount, for in it Jesus’ reuses two of the saying found in the Sermon on the Mount. The following are the relevant passages.

The earlier part of Mark 9:36-50 is parallel to Matt 18:1-11, however Mark gives a slightly longer version that includes comments concerning salt loosing its saltiness as well.

The passage as a whole is strongly influenced by the fate of Sodom and Moses’ rules concerning the treatment of such an idolatrous city, should one be found in Israel.

2. The context

9:36 ‘He took a little child, and set him in the midst of them. Taking him in his arms, he said to them, 
9:37 “Whoever receives one such little child in my name, receives me, and whoever receives me, doesn’t receive me, but him who sent me.”’

(Mark 9:36-50, WEB)

These verses establish the context of all that is to come. At that time Jesus and his followers were not the only ones claiming to dispense God’s wisdom. The child, knowing neither right nor wrong, was a symbol for those who are dependant upon the wisdom of others. Those who welcome such an individual under the authority of Jesus thereby signify that they are receptive to Jesus. By accepting Jesus wisdom, they were being receptive to the Heavenly Father who sent him (cf. 1 Sam 8:7)

3. For or against

9:38 ‘John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone who doesn’t follow us casting out demons in your name; and we forbade him, because he doesn’t follow us.”
9:39 But Jesus said, “Don’t forbid him, for there is no one who will do a mighty work in my name, and be able quickly to speak evil of me. 
9:40 For whoever is not against us is on our side.
9:41 For whoever will give you a cup of water to drink in my name, because you are Christ’s, most certainly I tell you, he will in no way lose his reward. 
9:42 Whoever will cause one of these little ones who believe in me to stumble, it would be better for him if he was thrown into the sea with a millstone hung around his neck.’

(Mark 9:36-50, WEB)

To do something in Jesus name implies that you have done it on his authority. If that is a mighty work then you have rested your own authority very heavily upon that of Jesus. Thus it becomes difficult to later criticise Jesus without undermining yourself. 

For Jesus, it is not those who claim to accept his authority, yet do not follow him, that are the problem for those who, like children, need to be led. It is those who refuse to accept him, and therefore their Heavenly Father, who sent him. Such disobedient sons of God lead those who come to them as children astray. Therefore, it is better for them, that they are removed from power and given a chance to repent in exile than to be allowed to continue leading others. 

The sea was a traditional prophetic metaphor for the nations (cf. Isa 17:12, 60:5, Ezek 26:3, 32:2), so Jesus’ image, of the disobedient who lead children astray being cast into the sea, was a powerful reminder of the place that exile fulfilled in the Mosaic scheme of curses and blessings. Moses promised that, when an Israelite became the father of children and children’s children, if they then acted corruptly, they would be utterly destroyed and scattered amongst the nations  (Deut 4:25-27, Deut 5:9).  

In Proverb’s a wise father admonishes a son to bind his father’s commandments around his neck and write them on the tablet of his heart (Pr 3:3, 6:21). The same book also parallels wisdom giving life to the soul with wisdom adorning the neck (Pr 3:22). For Israel, their Heavenly Father's commandments were the Law. For those who failed to serve God, Moses saw subjugation as a yolk of iron that would destroys them (Deut 28:47-48) and for Isaiah chains around the neck were a metaphor for captivity (Isa 52:2). In Mark’s passage those who have failed to bind the Father’s commandments around their neck find a millstone takes their place, executing a divine judgement as it carries them into the depths of exile. The choice of a millstone as the weight to carry out this task is both a reminder that the Law was given on stone and a first hint of the connection between this passage and the account of Abimelech (of which more below).

4. Causes of stumbling

9:43 “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed, rather than having your two hands to go into Gehenna,{or, Hell} into the unquenchable fire,
9:44 ‘where their worm doesn’t die, and the fire is not quenched.’
9:45 If your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life lame, rather than having your two feet to be cast into Gehenna,{or, Hell} into the fire that will never be quenched-- 
9:46 ‘where their worm doesn’t die, and the fire is not quenched.’
9:47 If your eye causes you to stumble, cast it out. It is better for you to enter into the Kingdom of God with one eye, rather than having two eyes to be cast into the Gehenna{or, Hell} of fire, 
9:48 ‘where their worm doesn’t die, and the fire is not quenched.’{Isa 66:24}” 

(Mark 9:36-50, WEB)

The Sermon on the Mount Jesus applies a subset of these sayings in the context of avoiding physical adultery (Matt 5:29-30). However, here the focus is not so much physical adultery as spiritual, for in its current context, this instruction to cut off offensive parts bears a clear link back to Genesis. 

The city of Sodom, which probably lay near what is now the southern end of the Dead Sea, was judged by God because it embraced idolatry (Jer 23:13-14, cf. Ezek 16:46-48). As a result the city was burned with fire and reduced to a salty waste (Gen 19:23-26, cf. Zeph 2:9)

Moses, understanding the significance of Sodom’s destruction, envisaged the potential outcome for Israel should they too adopt idolatrous ways. Those who looked at the aftermath, said Moses, would see nothing but a salty, burning wasteland (Deut 29:22-25). Therefore, the Law of Moses decreed that any Israelite city in which idolatry was embraced was to be burned with fire (Deut 13:12-16). It was better for one city to suffer the fate of Sodom, than for the whole nation to suffer that way. 

In the time of the judges, Abimelech’s salting of idolatrous Shechem (Judg 9:45-49, cf. 9:27 for their idolatry) and burning of its tower (Judg 9:52) should be seen as an implementation of Moses instructions, albeit by a man whose ways subsequently suffered divine judgement involving a millstone (Judg 9:53). Archaeological evidence suggests that the tower was within the city, moreover its leaders sought refuge in the house of El-berith, a building dedicated to the chief God of the Canaanite pantheon (Walton et al 2000, Judg 9:46). Therefore, the salting, being inextricably linked with the burning, was a clear reference to the fate of Sodom. 

Later still idolatry crept into the city of Gibeah, a mirroring of events in Sodom then led to the near destruction of the tribe of Benjamin, as the other tribes set about trying to follow Moses’ guidance (Judg 19:11-20-48). It was better to lose most of a tribe than to lose all Israel. 

Jesus’ radical approach of cutting off body parts, as advocated in Mark 9:43-48, is nothing more than an outworking of the logic behind Deut 13:12-16. It was better for part of the nation to be cut off than for God’s judgement to fall on the whole nation (as it had upon Benjamin). 

For the symbolic significance of cutting off a hand or eye see Matt 5:29-30.

5. Salting with fire

9:49 “For everyone will be salted with fire, and every sacrifice will be seasoned with salt.”

(Mark 9:49, WEB)

Many translations, (e.g. NET) follow the earliest manuscript and omit “and every sacrifice will be seasoned with salt”, considering this a later gloss.

Vermes (2004, 89) correctly identifies apocalyptic overtones in this passage, suggests the eschatological ministry of Jesus as a natural context for it, and sees its function in terms of purification (Vermes 2004, 336). However, to suggest it applied only to some final apocalypse is unnecessary. Abimelech salted Shechem and burned it with fire, and therein lies the probable origin of the phrase “salted with fire”. Abimelech’s actions were triggered by Shechem’s failure to recognise his authority, the same issue that triggered Jesus comments in Mark 9:49-50. It was better for a man to suffer servitude (bondage to the mill) in exile amidst the nations (the sea) than to lead others astray, for the outcome otherwise would be that all would be salted with fire. A house whose father’s malign influence continued to lead the young astray, generation after generation, could anticipate the fiery-fate of being cast into Gehenna with the rubbish, that the flames might consume all that was unclean.

6. Salt loosing its saltiness

9:50 “Salt is good, but if the salt has lost its saltiness, with what will you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”’

(Mark 9:50, WEB)

A similar saying occurs in Matt 5:13, wherein Jesus’ audience are identified as the salt of the earth. However, the conclusion here is somewhat different. 

Here, Jesus’ thesis is that it is better that folk who have lost their saltiness are reduced to captivity and servitude (yoked to turn a millstone), then thrown into the midst of the nations (cast into the sea), than for God to let it seem that they have his blessing in leading the trusting astray. This throwing-out finds its echo in the Sermon on the Mount, with the fate of the useless salt. It was also the ultimate sanction under the covenant of Moab (Deut 28:64-65), for Moses declared that if they transgressed -

29:25 ‘Then men shall say, “Because they forsook the covenant of the LORD, the God of their fathers, which he made with them when he brought them forth out of the land of Egypt,
29:26 and went and served other gods, and worshiped them, gods that they didn’t know, and that he had not given to them:
29:27 therefore the anger of the LORD was kindled against this land, to bring on it all the curse that is written in this book;
29:28 and the LORD rooted them out of their land in anger, and in wrath, and in great indignation, and cast them into another land, as at this day.”’

(Deut 29:25-28, HNV)

Fortunately, Moses describes not only the process of casting out, but also how to prevent it happening.

29:29 “The secret things belong to the LORD our God; but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.
29:9 Keep therefore the words of this covenant, and do them, that you may prosper in all that you do.”

(Deut 29:9, 29, verse order reversed for emphasis, HNV)

If the human salt of this covenant of salt is useless at preserving it, then out it must go. However, the solution was to preserve the covenant so that you remain at peace  with one another.

Go to Matt 5:13, the salt of the earth, or to Matt 5:29-30, right eye, right hand, or Gehenna