The next portion of Mark 9 is a string of short scenes with a couple of overlapping themes. As such, they are probably best approached over two weeks rather than trying to fit everything into one entry. We'll look first at the scenes, and then at how the authors of Matthew and Luke treat them, and finally we'll consider the argument about greatness. Next week, we'll look closer at what it means to "cause another person to sin," especially in a more humanist context that doesn't grant validity to the idea of sinfulness.
Both the gospel of Matthew and the gospel of Luke include a version of the first scene, in which the disciples argue about which of them will be in positions of authority when the Romans are overthrown and a new world order is established by their revolutionary leader. The response recorded indicates that they have some misconceptions about the new measure of leadership that is being established. This scene is followed by what appears to be a threat to Jesus' brand, as another miracle worker is seen performing some wondrous deeds without the direct approval of Jesus or his followers. The gospel of Matthew doesn't represent this scene, but the author of Luke included a truncated version of it. Once again, the response to the disciples' indignation is a revision to their assumptions about authority.
In the gospel of Matthew, the final scene in this grouping is dovetailed into the discussion of leadership, with the symbolic child being the bridge between the two passages. The author of Luke includes an abbreviated version of the teaching, separated from the scenes about leadership and authority. This scene suggests that the people who promote wrongdoing (or wrong thinking) in others will suffer for it, with symbolism suggesting that the author had an impression that individuals would have some kind of physical bodies in the afterlife.
This is also one of the passages that has given us a perspective of hell as a fiery place, but the actual word used here (Gehenna) refers to a specific place, also called the Valley of the Son of Hinnom in the Old Testament. It was here that Moloch and Ba'al worshipers (some of whom were Israelites) are said to have sacrificed their children to the fire. Since no mass graves of children's bones have been discovered anywhere in the area, many archaeologists and scholars have concluded that the symbolic sacrifices were something more akin to child dedications involving fire. Obviously, upstanding Jewish citizens would disapprove of parents dedicating children to a foreign god, and they would have had obvious reasons for equating such dedication as tantamount to sacrificing the child's spiritual future. The author of Mark puts clever words in Jesus' mouth, suggesting that anyone who is a negative spiritual influence on a child will be punished not just by being sacrificed to a fire, but by a fire that never quits consuming -- a darkly ironic Gehenna that is never quenched. We'll return to this passage next week, but it's obvious that the author of Matthew connects it with the earlier discussion of who deserves to be in positions of power.
We don't have to try very hard to find modern day parallels to the two earlier scenes in this passage. Sometimes we become quite preoccupied with what our position is, in the microcosms of our life as well as in a broader sense. We find ways to measure our level of power, whether in terms of the titles bestowed upon us, the amount of money we have, the number of friends (or "friends") we have in our networks, or some other scale that represents power to us. Some people are impressed by those who seem to have an air of authority, people who just exude self-confidence or seem to have an unshakably high opinion of themselves. The lesson expressed through Jesus in this passage suggests that all of this is valueless. These things are illusions that have no real bearing on what matters most. More important than how much apparent power one wields is how well one serves, particularly how well one serves those who are unable to do anything in terms of compensation.
A child is used as a powerful example here of the kinds of relationships that most reflect how well any of us understand what is most important. A child cannot pay us for our actions. A child cannot award titles or promotions. A child can't even vote in the next election. A child can do very little to increase our apparent power. Yet, if we are truly aware of ourselves -- if we are adept at dismantling fears about scarcity and insignificance, if we practice living with integrity by guiding principles that reflect something deeper than titles and dollar signs -- then we will likely be paying attention more to what we can do for other people than we will what other people can do for us. It won't matter that a person will be unable to offer us anything for our efforts (including a chance to have our picture in the paper and a headline with the word "Hero"). What will matter is that we have an opportunity to act with integrity to a deeply held value.
When we start thinking in terms of our role in the pecking order, or our position in a hierarchy, we can start determining personal value (of ourselves and of others) based on superficial details. Our value as human beings is not based on apparent power. It's an inherent trait that all human beings have in common. Chains of command and hierarchies of responsibility have their usefulness, but their benefits do not include knowing a person's value based on place within a hierarchy. People who wield authority have greater responsibility (as is indicated by the discussion about diving suits fitted with millstones), but they do not have greater value as human beings.
We determine how our human capability will be expressed in our lives. If we release our need to be seen as powerful, our actual capability will have more of a chance to shine through with authenticity. Our fears about there not being enough respect or love or admiration to go around can cloud our thinking on this to some extent, but we really don't know what the world would look like if everyone stopped worrying and started living out of their deepest guiding principles. If everyone stopped being afraid and just loved, we might all look pretty powerful. The truth is that we all are powerful, and we don't need to prove it to anyone. We are all capable of incredible acts of love and creativity. We are all capable of being peacemakers. We are all capable of profound feats of connection. We are all capable of seeing the inherent worth in people who seem to be doing their very best to keep it hidden.
The disciples in the story were concerned (probably even angry) because someone else was stealing their schtick. You've probably already seen through this as more fear of scarcity being expressed. There were then, as there are now, plenty of hurting people to go around. The point behind helping people was not then, as it need not be now, a chance to make a name for oneself, or an opportunity to get appointed to a position of authority, or a way to get ahead financially. The point behind helping people was and is to help people. The point behind living with integrity and intentionality was and is to live with integrity and intentionality. Being authentic and exercising one's full capability is the reward; our relationships with other people are just the context in which we get to be authentic and capable.
There was a book a while back with a title suggesting that if we do what we are passionate about -- what "feeds our soul" some might say -- then financial well being will come automatically. The content of the book revealed something different, that if we do what we love, then the satisfaction of doing what we love will follow. That's potentially a discouraging message to people who are caught up (like the disciples were in these scenes) with concerns about apparent power, market share, and personal brand management. The message of these scenes is not intended to be discouraging at all, though. The author of Mark is conveying that if we recognize what really matters to us and we intentionally live like those things really matter to us, we will be noticed by all the people we need to be noticed by and we will have all of the things we need to be happy.
Honestly, we may not have all of the wealth or apparent power that we want, or all that will allow our every whim to be entertained. The point, though, is that we don't get any closer to living by our deepest guiding principles by prioritizing wealth or wielding power over others. In other words, we've allowed our standards to become skewed toward something artificial and superficial. Most likely, we've done this because looking inward at what really matters most to us is scary at some level. Some people are afraid that they won't find much there at all if they look within, and others are afraid that if they are honest about their deepest guiding principles, their entire life will have to change. Maybe it will. The message of these scenes in Mark is that it will be worth it: Realize what really matters. Change your standards. Change your life -- and quite possibly the lives of everyone around you. It's an image of authentic power that any of us can choose to embrace.