Most commentators agree that Mark 9 is an unusual element of the gospel composition. It is likely a collection of sayings that the Composer has brought together into a set of instructions for disciples. The teaching section begins with Mark 9:30. We read in verse 31 that Jesus was teaching his disciples about the handing over, the judicial murder, and the Resurrection in his immediate future.
It’s clear that the disciples are just not getting it. They argue about who is greater, and Jesus gives them a living illustration of real greatness in the Kin(g)dom. It’s even clearer that they still don’t get it. John reports that the unnamed exorcist is practicing his craft outside of normal channels. Jesus decides it’s time to bring out the heavy rhetorical artillery in order to break through their willful obtuseness.
Jesus continues to sit in the midst of the disciples with a small child cradled tenderly in his arms. He deflects John’s administrative detour and returns to the matter which is literally “at hand.” He points the disciples back to the child as his continuing case study. Eager outsiders must not be rejected, especially when they’re just trying to help by giving the disciples a cup of water to drink in their labors.
(42) “’And he who might trip up one of those little ones who are putting their trust in me – it is better for him if a grinding stone (like that drawn by a donkey) would be placed around his neck and he would have been thrown into the sea.
“And,” Jesus continues in verse 42. That connection is omitted by the NRSV translators, and the separation is highlighted by a paragraph space in the text. But Jesus, in the Markan composition, links the kind cup of water to “these little ones who are putting their faith in me” (Mark 9:42). It is, in part at least, the rigid rejection of these eager outsiders which is a stumbling block to their continuing trust in Jesus.
Instead of acting like a bunch of beggars who get to show the other beggars where the bread is, the disciples in Mark’s composition act as if they own the bakery. That unfortunate trend will continue at least through the end of chapter 10. The Twelve had been invited into Jesus’ campaign about five minutes earlier (at least in a cosmic sense), but now they had become the membership screening committee. Rather than inviting all comers in for the party, they were giving the newcomers the boot.
Jesus’ response is, to understate the case, severe. If anyone trips up one of these newcomers on the way in, the consequence is massive. Being thrown into the sea wearing a giant millstone was a method of capital punishment in the Roman Empire. Jesus says, using hyperbole to get their attention, that such a fate would be preferable to the one that awaits the disciples if they impede the entrance of the “little ones” into the Kin(g)dom.
“Shit’s gettin’ real,” as one might say. It would seem that the behavior of at least some in the leadership of the Markan community was causing “little ones” in that community to question their trust in Jesus and perhaps even to leave the community in the midst of the stresses and strains of first-century Christian living. Capernaum, we have a problem.
I am thinking today of the trends in Christian church membership, church participation, and Christian faith commitments in the United States at the present time. The lines for all of those trends are headed down on the graph. As time goes along, the declines of the lines grow steeper. As I have noted before, the ELCA Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation projects that, based on current trends, my denomination will effectively cease to exist by 2050.
Well, denominations come, and denominations go.
In fact, the ELCA is the third variety of Lutheranism of which I have been a member in the last sixty-five years. As a denomination, we are living through the third major re-organization since 1988. I’m sorry for the disruption that causes in the lives of people who serve Jesus and his Church with faith, hope, and love (because it’s certainly not for the money). That disruption falls disproportionately on people of color and women who have served as ELCA staff, and that’s wrong.
That being said, this denominational decay is a feature of these larger national and societal trends. The Gallup organization reports that in 2020 church membership among U.S. adults fell below fifty percent of the population for the first time in the survey’s history. The study, in fact, charts self-reported membership in a (Christian) church, synagogue, or mosque. So, the numbers for Christians are even lower than the forty-seven percent measured in the survey.
In 1937, the number was seventy-three percent. It remained fairly stable until 2000. In the last twenty years, church membership as a percentage of U.S. population has moved from seventy percent to the reported 47 percent. Church, synagogue, and mosque membership has declined in this country during that time by one-third. The overwhelming majority of that decline has been in Christian denominations and congregations.
Well, why is that? The Gallup folks demonstrate that the decline is does not directly correlate to a decrease in belief in God. Nor is it purely a function of generational differences. Nor is it linked with any particular flavor of Christian theology or history. I think the data indicates that church membership and participation are declining in large part because we Christians (especially White Christians) are putting stumbling blocks in the way of people who might wish to have a trusting relationship with Jesus.
I hope you will read Robert P. Jones’ important book, White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity, if you haven’t done so already. Jones does a masterful job of detailing how White Christianity has constructed and sustained White Supremacy in the United States. “White Christian churches have not just been complacent,” Jones argues, “they have not only been complicit; rather, as the dominant cultural power in America, they have been responsible for constructing and sustaining a project to protect white supremacy and resist black equality. This project has framed the entire American story” (page 6).
White Christianity continues to move further in the direction of White Christian nationalism. “Christian nationalism,” writes Kristin Kobes Du Mez, “the belief that America is God’s chosen nation and must be defended as such—serves as a powerful predictor of intolerance toward immigrants, racial minorities, and non-Christians” (page 4). It’s tempting for us mainline types to think that White Christian Nationalism is a disease of the “evangelical” traditions. Sadly for us, it is alive and well in most of our historically mainline congregations.
Until churches get serious about repentance and repair when it comes to racism, there will be no reconciliation. And it’s not only reconciliation with Black, Brown, Indigenous, and AAPI people that is at stake (although that is crucially important). Many of our own children are leaving our churches because they are sick and tired of trying to sit next to people who refuse to put Jesus’ words into action when it comes to White Supremacy in the churches.
Similar things can be said about our welcome of those who are excluded and rejected because of gender, orientation, economic class, age, and personal history. My experience is that most young people in the Church actually get what the Gospel means in behavioral terms. Since they don’t see churches and older Christians living according to the Gospel, they’re headed for the exits.
As this exodus continues, (historically White) Christian churches become increasingly older, Whiter, and more socially and politically conservative. We are, it seems to me, caught in an accelerating negative feedback loop. Our Christian behavior trips up the “little ones” in our midst. Out they go. So, there are more of us to do the “tripping.” Disaffection increases, and the reactionary rump of the Church gets larger. I suspect we passed the tipping point some time ago, and it’s too late for many congregations.
Yes, I am pessimistic about specific religious institutions. And…and…and I am always wildly optimistic about the power of the Good News of Jesus to change lives and change the world. It’s just that much of that power of change is being applied outside the boundaries of long-established institutions and structures. We American Christians are surrounded by people who are casting out demons in Jesus’ name but are not following us.
We can follow John’s example and complain that they’re not part of the club. I understand that impulse. Many of these unnamed exorcists around us are not church members. Many of them are, I am sure, not Jesus followers, at least in their faith commitments. But these unnamed exorcists are certainly doing the work of Jesus, whether they know it or not.
Jesus tells John to look at the results, not the label. That’s our call as well. But, like the first disciples, we have some trouble getting out of our own way. As a result, we often end up flat on our faces, lying at the edge of hell on earth.
More on that next time.
References and Resources
Jones, Robert P. White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity. Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.
Du Mez, Kristin Kobes. Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation. Liveright. Kindle Edition.
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.