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Chapter 14. Priorities overturned (Mark 9:30-50)

Chapter 14. Priorities overturned

Please read Mark 9:30-50

‘Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms, greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind.’ Those were the words of Gordon Gekko, the anti-hero of the 1987 film Wall Street. The wonderfully-named Gekko is a corporate raider who makes his millions by buying and selling shares and by making and breaking companies. In pursuit of his goals, Gekko is prepared to manipulate everything and everybody. His attitude is reflected in the way that he dresses. In fact Gekko’s own particular brand of power dressing and coiffure set a trend for corporate culture in the real world. One of my favourite quotes of his is ‘Lunch is for wimps’ – in other words, if you’ve got time in the day to stop for lunch, you aren’t working hard enough. You aren’t ruthless enough! Now we might doubt that anyone in the real world could possibly be as ruthless and unpleasant as that. But Gekko’s character and story were based rather closely on a number of famously corrupt Wall Street traders whose cases came to court in the mid 80s. They might not say, ‘Greed is good’; but they surely believed it. Even on a smaller scale, the corporate world today is full of characters who are constantly struggling to reach the top, invariably by scrambling over the backs of others; people with egos the size of the planet – as you will know if you have ever worked in a large organisation, be it industry, commerce, a City Council or even a school. Often in these places, leadership is about doing whatever you need to do to get wherever you want to be, until the day when you have a boardroom to sit in and an army of minions to call you the boss.

That is the model of leadership, and those are the priorities, that the world most commonly offers us. Even for those who would laugh at a Gordon Gekko, the objective of leadership is status and security and having those below you do your bidding. But what about the Church? What about people like us, who say we follow Jesus Christ? Here is a man who is uniquely qualified for leadership and control. After all, Jesus is God! Yet Jesus’ model of leadership is exactly the reverse. When Jesus talks about leadership, he speaks in terms of being a servant; of being at the bottom of the pile, not the top. That’s revolutionary. In this section of Mark 9, then, we see how Jesus redefines leadership and revolutionises our priorities.

In Christ we see leadership redefined

Jesus now heads south from the Mount Hermon area on the first stage of the journey that will eventually bring him to Jerusalem and the cross. Fittingly, as they begin that journey, Jesus again explains to his disciples, and again only to them, what will lie at the end of it (vv.30-31). This is the second of the ‘passion predictions’. Time and again in these chapters, the narrative is punctuated with warnings about what lies ahead for Jesus and what that will mean for his followers. For the first time now, he speaks of betrayal, of being delivered over into human hands. The worst of it is that this betrayal, which now begins to cast its shadow, will be at the hands of one of the very group he is addressing.

The problem – v.32 – is that the disciples still don’t understand what he is talking about. Once again, they hear the words, which are clear enough; but the implications of a Messiah who wins his victory by dying are still completely beyond them. They are afraid to ask for an explanation, maybe because they are worried they will hear something even more explicit, and even more painful, if they do. So instead, they get on with something they can understand only too well (vv.33-34). It’s not hard to imagine how this might start, as they make their way along the narrow tracks winding through the hills, maybe with a division between the privileged three who have been up the mountain with Jesus and the other nine. James and John, perhaps, with a typical opening gambit: ‘Ah, there’s something we saw up there that we can’t tell you about just yet – you guys aren’t ready for it. Jesus made sure it was just the three of us who went with him, remember, not you!’ Or perhaps it’s Peter, explaining just how he would have tackled the demon-possessed boy, when the other nine so abjectly failed. Or perhaps he’s reminding them just who it was last week who first saw the light, that Jesus is the Messiah. But the basic problem is that these twelve men are aware that they are part of something big. They are not quite sure what that something is; but it’s exciting, it’s important and they are sniffing an opportunity to push themselves forward.

So up and down the line the arguments have been raging; and probably by the time they arrive in Capernaum they are all tired of each other. When Jesus asks them what they were discussing so vigorously on the road, they are too ashamed to answer. Of course he knows; in any case it is nigh on impossible to keep an argument secret when you are out for a walk, and no doubt Jesus has heard snatches of the angry words! It’s been a long day’s walk, especially if they have come all the way from Mount Hermon today, and they are tired. Probably the house where they come to stay is Peter’s family home. This is the setting for Jesus to show them what true greatness and true leadership, are really all about (v.35). They are indoors, so it’s private. We’ve seen before that Mark often highlights going into a house as the setting for significant private teaching; and Mark pointedly tells us that Jesus is sitting down – the traditional posture for serious teaching. Deliberately he calls the Twelve around him. Clearly something important is to be said.

Look, says Jesus: in my Kingdom, in order to be the first, you have to make yourself the last and the least, taking the lowest priority and the place of the servant, not the big boss. Yes, you need to be first – the first to jump up when there’s a job to be done, while someone else gets the armchair. Then to hammer home the point, Jesus does something very unexpected (vv.36-37). We are familiar with the idea of Jesus picking up children and blessing them, so we don’t realise how odd this must have seemed to the disciples. When they see a child standing in front of them, they won’t be thinking, How sweet. They are thinking: How insignificant! In that culture, children simply do not matter. They have no status. They are absolutely the ‘very last’. So why is Jesus doing this? This is not some sentimental Victorian picture about Jesus cuddling children. In fact, this story isn’t really about children at all. Jesus does love children, and there is a story about Jesus welcoming children, but that’s in ch 10, not here. This is a little parable using a child as the object lesson, just as we’ve heard Jesus using farmers, fields, plants and lamps as the subjects of previous parables. Jesus is saying, If you want to know about being great in the Kingdom of God, look at this child here in my arms. What sort of people are welcome in the Kingdom? People like this – people with no status, people who know they are nothing, people like an insignificant child. Welcome people like that, if they belong to me – that’s what ‘in my name’ means. If you welcome someone like that, you are actually welcoming me. If you welcome me, you are welcoming God himself, my Father who sent me here.

The world of that day is obsessed with greatness. For them it is a question of honour – who deserves the top spot at the dinner table, who is worthy of the most respect, what’s the pecking order in the family, whom do you need to greet properly at the town gate, and so on. There are cultures like that in the world today – cultures based on preserving and increasing your honour. So as Jesus tells them that their role model is an insignificant little child, he is cutting right across their notion of what greatness and leadership really mean. In the twenty-first century West, we are a bit less bothered about issues of honour and dignity, but we are still very bothered about status and power. Whether it is management culture where people are scrambling over each other to reach the top – as if every day at work were an episode of The Apprentice – or the celebrity culture which fills the media, our world too is obsessed with success, being admired and being in control. The spirit of Gordon Gekko is alive and well. Even in the Church you can find it, from men who reach the heights of church leadership and use their position to control or abuse their congregation – sometimes outright and openly, sometimes horribly behind closed doors, sometimes – and much more often – in very subtle ways. But here in this fisherman’s cottage in Capernaum, Jesus has just redefined leadership. He can do that because of what he is himself. He is not simply issuing a policy statement or handing down some consultation document: ‘The future of leadership in the Church of Christ.’ He can say this about leadership because this is what he is about to do himself. He has just explained what leadership will imply for him – probably that very morning (v.31).

For Jesus, ‘success’ will mean being nailed to a cross and then hung up to die. ‘Admiration’ will mean public humiliation and abuse – or to use the biblical expression, he is ‘despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering’ (Isaiah 53:3). For Jesus, being ‘in control’ will mean letting himself be betrayed by one of his closest friends, allowing himself to be totally helpless, refusing even to speak in his own defence. It is ironic that on the day Jesus explains what lies ahead, his disciples pass their time on the road fighting over who is the greatest. Their arguments that day, and their misunderstandings, simply make him a still lonelier figure, all the more isolated, as he sets his face to go on to Jerusalem and strides on ahead. It’s often the sheer, persistent nobility of the Lord Jesus that amazes me the most!

If we want to be great, as the disciples did, the only way is to follow his pattern. Jesus has abolished status as the criterion for greatness. In the Church, leadership is not about being seen and admired, exerting control or arguing over who is the greatest. Of course, we’d never do that – would we? – but we might think it. ‘I’m better than him because…’ ‘I might make mistakes occasionally, but at least I never did that…’ No, leaders are here to serve the church. A leader is not a doormat. A leader is to lead – but he leads as a servant. A servant doesn’t get the comfortable chair very often. He is willing to do the unpopular jobs, the jobs he might think are beneath him, the jobs that no-one else sees, that are left when everyone else has gone home. That is leadership, whether you are labelled a leader or not. When we see someone’s weakness, it’s not an opening for us to exploit: instead we’ll help to heal it, like Jesus, the great servant – ‘A bruised reed he will not break’ (Isaiah 42:3). Wherever we are serving the Lord – be that in an office, classroom, business or even your own home, as well as in our churches – he is our leadership model.

In Christ we see priorities overturned

This chapter ends with one of the most chilling warnings that Jesus ever gave. Mark 9:38-50 is a passage that many have puzzled over. It is not clear at first sight how it all fits together, especially the two final verses. Some have said that these teachings may originally have been given at different times, and in different places; Mark has collected them here simply because they have some catch-phrases or key words in common, so they will be easier to remember. That is possible, but in any case this passage does turn out to be coherent, as we shall see. Jesus gives us three stages, three priorities we need to get right, and in the right order.

Priority One: Knowing where you stand

In vv.38-41. Jesus is still sitting in the home in Capernaum, where he has just been talking very seriously to his argumentative disciples. Now John recalls an incident – where this happened, we don’t know – where some of them encountered a man driving out demons in the name of Jesus and tried to stop him. The Greek suggests they tried but didn’t succeed. John is saying, I hear what you say, Lord, but that’s not what we’ve been doing. We’ve worked on the basis that if we don’t know someone, they’re not one of us, and we close them down. Now Jesus could have replied, You’ve got some nerve, talking about stopping someone driving out demons, given that only yesterday you completely failed to do the same thing yourself! But he doesn’t say that. Jesus says, No. This man, whoever he is, is doing miracles in my name. That means he is on my side, he is connected with me. ‘Whoever is not against us is for us’. That is the crucial point. According to Jesus, the whole world – ‘whoever’ – is divided into two camps, two groups; and only two. Either you are part of my ‘group’, part of my Kingdom, or you are not. In the case of that unknown man you met, clearly, he is one of us. God is doing amazing works through him in my name, which means ‘under my authority’, ‘belonging to me’. So accept him, welcome him, in my name.

Jesus immediately illustrates that fact with this little saying about giving someone a cup of water (v.41), a trivial act of kindness. Jesus says, Anyone who does that for you because you belong to me will get a reward! The most minor actions assume great significance when they are done for Jesus. Nothing that we do to serve Christ, not even the tiniest little thing, will go unrewarded. It is how the action relates to him that gives everything its value.

Priority Two: Choosing the way to life

In vv.42-48, Jesus gives a stark warning about where people are heading and what they need to do about it. He gives this warning in two different ways, but they are tied together by the key expression ‘causing to sin’. V.42 is not a pleasant thought. In the recent past, a man named Judas the Galilean, a rebel against the Romans, has been executed in just this way. A ‘millstone’ is a heavy, circular stone used for grinding grain into flour. It has a hole in the middle where you feed in the grain, so it would be quite possible literally to hang it round someone’s neck. Jesus makes the picture even more graphic by describing it as a ‘donkey millstone’ (NIV ‘large millstone’), meaning one that is too heavy to turn by hand, requiring an animal to drag it round and round: a stone weighing perhaps a hundred pounds.

Jesus’ saying is a statement of the seriousness of sin. If you are someone who encourages people to sin, who drags other people further away from God, then frankly, in his sight, you are better off dead. Worse is to follow (vv.43-48). Jesus has warned us about causing others to sin. Now he warns us about what causes us to sin. Yes, Jesus does talk about hell; and more than once. The actual word he uses here is ‘Gehenna’, the name of a location just outside Jerusalem. Centuries before, in the days of the evil kings, it was a place of human sacrifice. King Josiah of Judah put an end to that, and it became instead a great rubbish dump. In Jesus’ time, Gehenna is the place where all the refuse ends up; and not just what we would think of as household waste, but the carcases of animals and even the unburied bodies of criminals. Parts of the dump are on fire: the whole of it is permanently smouldering; so it is not surprising that Gehenna has become for the Jews another word for hell, the place of eternal torment, of rejection, of fire and decay. Just as Jesus has already said ‘whoever is not against us is for us’, dividing the whole world into two camps, now he says that there are only two destinations. There is ‘life’, also described as ‘the kingdom of God’, because God’s kingdom is the place of life; and there is Gehenna, or hell. They are both real; and your priority is to make sure you end up in the right place. That may mean some very difficult choices, because sin will keep you out of God’s kingdom and send you to hell instead.

Jesus says that it is so important to get rid of sin that if your hand, foot or eye is causing you to sin, you would be better off without them. With your hands you can do violence; with your feet you can walk into places where you really shouldn’t go; with your eyes you can see what is not yours; and from that comes lust, stealing and envy. Exaggeration? Not at all! Because sin and hell is every bit as serious as that. Jesus overturns our priorities. How different from the priority scale of this world! Celebrities go to great lengths to insure various parts of their bodies. The Beatles, Keith Richards and others insured their fingers. Bruce Springsteen’s voice was insured for three million dollars. Betty Grable, Lana Turner and Marlene Dietrich all insured their legs for around a million dollars – a lot of money in their day. The food critic Egon Ronay even insured his taste buds! And probably most of us would regard it as an utter disaster to lose the use of a hand, or an eye. But according to Jesus’ scale of priorities, that loss is nothing compared to losing your chance of eternal life. Even a top international footballer at the peak of his powers would be far better off without his right foot and knowing Christ, than fit and well and on his way to hell. In v.48 he quotes Isaiah 66:24, the very last verse of Isaiah in fact: the disciples will know it well. The prophet declares that everyone, all peoples, all languages, will see the glory of God on that day. Isaiah speaks of the new heavens and the new earth which God will make; and his own people will live there. But for those rebels who have stayed in their sin, there is eternal punishment; and Jesus does not hesitate to affirm it in the strongest terms. So choose Christ! Choose the way of life.

Priority Three: Living in the Kingdom of Jesus

Jesus continues in vv.49-50, the segment which sometimes people find hard to connect with the rest. But having warned people who are on the outside, he now addresses the question of what it will be like for those on the inside. v.49 is special because only Mark includes it. There are two clues to the meaning of this unique saying. One is that salt in those days is an absolute necessity. If you want to keep food edible, you have to have salt. The second clue is Mark’s audience: probably the Christians in Rome in the time of Nero. It is a time when spectacularly awful things are happening to faithful Christians. Everyone – all believers, that is, all the people who belong to Jesus – will face the fires of persecution. That is normal, it is necessary. Mark wants to reassure his readers. Yes, he says, you too will face the fires. But for you it will be just a brief experience of suffering, here in this world. You have been saved from the eternal fire and your destiny is life. All Christians, all believers, must be prepared to suffer for Christ – including us. It should never be a surprise when this world gives us trouble, because that is exactly what Jesus repeatedly promises will happen. It’s more of a surprise, and in a sense much more worrying, when the world leaves us alone because we are no different from the people around us.

That leads on to v.50 and the second mysterious statement about salt. Jesus is saying, You my people, you all have a quality about you, a saltiness that is special and distinctive. Don’t ever lose that. Don’t become bland and dull: live a life that is flagrantly different from what this world thinks is important. That’s your priority. This morning, on our way here, you people were having a row about who was the greatest. But if you have this wonderful Kingdom saltiness about you, you won’t fight like that. You’ll be humble with each other. You won’t be scrambling over each other to reach the top of the pile.