Text Study for Mark 9:38-50 (Pt. 1); September 26, 2021

We pick up where we left off last week. The disciples are playing the “greater than” game. Jesus tells them that the only way to win that game is not to play it. The disciples aren’t convinced. John immediately launches into a report on how some of the disciples dealt with a “competitor,” an unknown exorcist who is getting results by invoking Jesus’ name. The disciples tried to stop that first-century copyright infringement, but Jesus tells them they are still getting it wrong.

For a deeper understanding, we may be well-served to go to the “end” of this text (knowing that the beginnings and endings of our readings are really arbitrary points in a whole narrative.” “For everyone will be salted by fire. Salt is good; but if the salt becomes ‘unsalty,’ how shall its flavor be restored? Have among yourselves salt and keep the peace with one another” (Mark 9:49-50, my translation).

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This mention of “salt” puzzles us as contemporary interpreters. I find helpful some comments by Uri Lev in an article that details the uses of salt as food in the ancient Middle East. He writes that “ancient Arab tribes, like the ancient Jewish tribes, used salt in covenant ceremonies as a symbol of permanence. Still today,” he notes, “Israeli Arabs utter the ancient phrase in Arab tradition ‘There is salt between us’. This means,” Lev continues, “that there is a covenant of peace between the parties” (page 38, my emphasis).

I find it striking that the mention of “salt” and “peace” appear together in Mark 9:50. Salt apparently functions to preserve both food and covenants. We can see this in the several mentions of “covenants of salt” in the Hebrew scriptures. Lev points to “the function of salt as a preservative and its social function as a symbol against corruption and the maintenance of relationships between human beings as expressed in covenants” (page 38).

Ross writes in his IDB article (IV:167) that the “covenant of salt” in the Hebrew scriptures refers to the permanence of that covenant “since eating salt with someone means to be bound to him (sic) in loyalty.” This is the context for the words in Mark 9:50. “Jesus’ command,” Ross continues, “enjoins the mutual loyalty of the covenant relationship.”

The verb the NRSV translates as “be at peace” is given a more active force in the BAGD lexicon. It is translated there as “keep the peace” (page 227). That translation is supported as well by Foerster’s analysis in TDNT II:417-418. He refers us to a similar usage in Romans 12:9-21. In this section on mutual love in the Roman congregations, Paul urges his listeners to refrain from repaying evil with evil. Instead, he calls them to keep the peace with all.

In 2 Corinthians 13, Paul finishes up his letter with a similar appeal. He urges the Corinthian Christians to shape up their relationships, to have a common practical and social rationality, and to keep the peace. The result of this work is that “the God of love and peace will be with you.”

Therefore, the “punchline” of our text goes something like this. “Have salt among yourselves and keep the peace among one another.” But what about the line that leads into that conclusion? “For everyone will be salted by fire” (verse 49).

It’s immediately clear that this line presented problems even for the earliest interpreters (and performers?) of the script. We have three significant textual variants here. One variant simply inserts the words of Leviticus 2:13 in place of the preferred text. A second variant keeps both the preferred text and the previous variant. Metzger concludes that what we have in the text is the earliest and preferred reading.

The textual history, according to Adamiak, “proves that at very early stage this passage from the Old Testament was considered as an explanation of the mysterious logion of Jesus” (page 12). He notes that the interpretation might be relatively straightforward if this was all we had. Then we could conclude that the salty fire will destroy things. But, Jesus tells us, “salt is good.” How so?

The combination of “salt” and “fire” here certainly leads us to conclude that Jesus is talking about purification. The coming trials will force the disciples to focus on what really matters for the sake of their movement as Jesus followers. They are having great difficulty maintaining that focus as they move toward Jerusalem and the end of the story. Their arguments revolve around status and power. Those will not be important elements as they confront the cross.

Every one of them will be purified in the fire of persecution. That’s the nature of Jesus following. What will remain is what is important. Therefore, the purification is “good.” It may be that some of the Jesus followers will lose their “saltiness” and conform to the larger imperial culture. There won’t be, at least in this text, any coming back from that loss.

Conflict within the community, whether of the Twelve or of the Markan audience, is a direct route to that loss of flavor. That rings true for us as well. When I worked as a church conflict resolution consultant, this was one of the constant and tragic realities of the work. Some church members suffered catastrophic loss of faith as a result of their experiences of the conflict. In ever case I ran into this reality. The wounds were too deep, and some folks simply needed to walk away.

Jesus warns his disciples against creating any “faith trip hazards” for the little ones who put their faith in him. Was their constant bickering and their jockeying for position one of the reasons why some community members dropped out of the group along the way? If so, that was a big problem. It would be better to be executed at sea than to be responsible for such a falling away. If only some church leaders in conflicted congregations took this admonition seriously, some church fights might turn out better.

It would seem that a similar dynamic was at work in the Markan community. Imagine, if you will, the gospel account being performed in the presence of such a conflicted community. People on the various sides and in the several factions would sit or stand with one another. Perhaps they glared across the room at one another during worship. They might have refused to meet at the same communion table together. I’ve seen all that and more in contemporary conflicted congregations.

In the midst of that tense situation, the performer of Mark’s script comes to this place. It’s no accident that the text is filled with “you’s.” Just put yourself in the place of those conflictors in the Markan community. Then hear the “you’s” and how they would sound to you. The impact must have been like a spiritual sledgehammer for at least some of the folks. I wonder if some of them heard anything else from the performer that evening.

I find it important to remember that this gospel account is not offered simply to inform. It is presented in order to persuade people to come to put their faith in Jesus and/or to deepen that faith. It is intended to lead people to change their perspective, their worldview, and their behavior. It is a radical, life-changing script that would shake people up. I wonder if sometimes during the presentation, the performer had to stop for a while to allow some of the folks in the crowd do some work of repair and reconciliation before the story continued.

The Church in the United States is, at this moment, roiling with conflict. At this moment, one of the hot issues for White Christians in our area is whether we should wear masks in worship. People are screaming at one another in meetings over this issue. Pastors are considering resigning. Some have already resigned or retired because it’s just too much to bear. The politics of Covid-tide have overwhelmed all other concerns and threaten to destroy any number of congregations, faith commitments, and pastoral calls.

Here is, perhaps, a call for the faithfulness of the saints. “Have among yourselves ‘salt,’ and keep the peace among one another.” It is better to be painfully purified than to be destroyed. It is better to be painfully purified than to be responsible for the destruction of another believer. Jesus calls us to spend our time giving refreshing cups of water to other disciples rather than grabbing them around the necks in self-righteous rage.

Apparently, such a discussion is not a new thing in churches…

References and Resources

Kiel, Micah D. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-26-2/commentary-on-mark-938-50-4.

Lev, Uri Mayer-Chissick Efraim. “’A covenant of salt’: Salt as a major food preservative in the historical Land of Israel.” Food and History, Vol. 5, No. 2 (2007), pp. 9-39. 10.1484/J.FOOD.1.100220.

Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard L. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels Kindle Edition.

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