“Have salt among yourselves, and be at peace with each other.” – Mark 9:50
There are just two ways, the early church said.
One leads to death… the other to life…
One might also say one leads to eternal strife… and the other to eternal peace…
Peace. That brings me to our text for this morning. All our texts that we read today are really interesting, I think, and our text from Mark in particular is jam-packed with challenging and important ideas.
And you may have noticed that the Gospel lesson seems to have two bookends of sorts.
It begins by telling the short account about how the disciples were upset with some who were not in their group – not in their circle! – who were driving out demons in Jesus’ Name.
And interestingly, right before this (we didn’t read it today but last week), the disciples had been schooled by Jesus about how instead of arguing about who was the greatest they should rather strive to be the servant of all, welcoming Jesus and His Father by the act of welcoming, of all things, little children!
And so now… Jesus meets the disciples’ continual acts of jealousy, worldly ambition, one-up-man-ship and strife-creation by stating plainly:
“Do not stop him… For no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us. Truly I tell you, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to the Messiah will certainly not lose their reward.”
In other words, when anyone believes in my Name such that they are proclaiming it and even using it to cast out demons, or even if they just give you water in my Name!…
…I want you to be pleased!
Be at peace about this!
I mentioned that this section has bookends. That is one bookend, the first. We see the other bookend at the very end of today’s text, when Jesus says:
“Everyone will be salted with fire.
“Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can you make it salty again? Have salt among yourselves, and be at peace with each other.”
Again, we see that peace – or at least a striving for peace – is on Jesus’ mind.
What He is bringing…
When Jesus Christ comes again, and when He brings us the new heavens and new earth, we who are united with Him – God in human flesh – will have this peace with one another forever and ever, amen…
Until that time though, we know that even as Jesus also said that His coming would necessarily bring a sword, or conflict, He still tells us that when we find another man or woman taken outside of your circles that indicates they believe in Jesus’ Name…
…we should understand this person to be with Jesus and not against Him…
…and that we should strive for peace with one another.
Jesus’ prescription for peace among His brethren is what we find between our two bookends in the rest of our reading from Mark today, and that is what we are going to look at…
Before jumping into some pretty concrete specifics, however, let’s talk about that salt Jesus brings up.
What is going on here?
When He talks about being “salted with fire”, what is this all about?
I actually brought up this text several months ago, in a sermon that I called “Two Steps on How to Overcome the World”.
In that message I mentioned how the book of Mark talks about the devil a lot – something we again see in the first part of today’s reading with the disciples trying to stop the unauthorized exorcisms going on – and noted that two of the core elements for the Christian’s fight against the devil’s influence in the world are prayer and saltiness.
I said this about saltiness:
“[In Mark 9] it…ends with these interesting words:
Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can you make it salty again? Have salt among yourselves, and be at peace with each other.”
What does this mean?
Well, there was a well-known ancient saying in Jesus’ day that said “the world cannot survive without salt” (Tractate Sopherim XV.8).
Salt was used for many purposes in that world, including flavoring, preservation, fertilizer, and cleansing (Strauss 415).
In sum though, Jesus is encouraging his followers to not lose the characteristics that bring preservation, life, and real peace to the world.
How so? From the Word of God that comes from the outside and cleanses and purifies us within.
Sometimes this salt of the word of God will burn like fire, the law burning away the dross of our old Adam, and the Gospel bringing healing to us and those who we touch [as God’s servants]…[i]
This is the key. The salt of God’s word first of all gives us peace with God and then makes us into those who treasure and run after peace with others…”[ii]
…even as Satan would bring the world down to hell all around us!
And interestingly, Jesus talking about the excellent salt making us salty here actually builds on what He says in our Gospel reading a bit earlier.
Speaking about our being salted, the well-known Lutheran commentator R.C.H. Lenski, states:
“What Jesus says about salting and salt [here] is intended to explain what he has just said in warning about entrapping others and being entrapped ourselves (v. 42-48). He now indicates the means by which such calamities are to be prevented. His disciples are to be salted.” (410)
So what is Lenski talking about when he mentions this idea of “entrapment”?
He is speaking about the ways that the devil would catch us in his snares – or that he might use us in our sinning… to catch others in his snares – and haul us away from Christ…
So, we now get into the concrete ways to avoid the devil’s faith-destroying and strife-producing plans…
And what does Jesus say should be done to defeat this?
It is a bit shocking, frankly.
The Gospel text for today, in fact, contains some of the more jarring statements from our Lord Jesus Christ.
“If your hand [or foot] causes you to stumble, cut it off…
If your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with [one hand or foot or] one eye than to have [these things and be thrown into hell…].
How in the world to understand passages like this? Why is he resorting to such violent and arresting language?
First of all, I think a passage like Proverbs 6:16-19 can help us a lot here:
16 There are six things the Lord hates,
seven that are detestable to him:
17 haughty eyes,
a lying tongue,
hands that shed innocent blood,
18 a heart that devises wicked schemes,
feet that are quick to rush into evil,
19 a false witness who pours out lies
and a person who stirs up conflict in the community.
This passage from Proverbs helps a little doesn’t it?
Jesus does want you to dismember yourself, making it so that you need to depend on others.
Instead, He is using this kind of violent language in a hyperbolic life to make a very serious point…
Russel Crowe’s character in the movie Gladiator was right, when he tells his men who are getting ready to fight: “What we do in life echoes in eternity”.
And Jesus Christ is making clear to us that sin in our life is a matter to be taken with the utmost of seriousness… Drastic measure are in order….
And again, ultimately – even as we must understand that we must take the threat of Hell very seriously – God wants Christians to take these measures because they know peace with God…
And if we know peace with God… and are to continue to know peace with God…. And if we are to know and experience peace with our brothers and sisters
…we all must keep listening to these violent words of Jesus, to keep listening to these words, and not turn away but say “Amen!”
And, maybe you noticed, but right before these violent and jarring passages, Jesus uses even more savage language today…
“If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea.”
A few things to note here right away…
First of all, in case you are wondering, a millstone looks like a massive stone wheel with a very small hole in the middle and was used with donkeys to grind grain. It is very, very heavy and so, again, we have a very powerful image here of this stone hauling someone to the bottom of the sea in horrible death…..
Second, we see the mention of stumbling again… And this means sinning, a “spiritual downfall” (Strauss)… And we need to see that when Jesus is talking about removing our body parts so we don’t stumble, or sin, He first of all has in mind the sin of causing others to sin by our own actions.
Third, we see that Jesus is concerned that the children not be led into sin. On the one hand this is all of us lowly and needly children of God. On the other hand, I am confident that this has to do with the fact that Jesus admires and loves actual believing children more than we can possibly imagine.
Why? Well, a number of reasons…
First of all, just prior to all of this violent teaching, Jesus had taken a little child into his arms and spoke specifically about the importance of welcoming them…
Second – not only this, but if we also look at the Gospels of Matthew and Luke – which along with Mark are called the “Synoptic Gospels” or the Gospels that “see together,” – we will notice that both of these books not only contain the millstone passage… and that Matthew contains the remarks about removing one’s hand and eye two times – but also that most of these comments are also made immediately after being in the presence of actual children.
The Bible passage from Luke – even though it is the one that does not deal directly with children – can nevertheless also really help us to reflect on the way we treat children specifically…
In Luke 17:2, the millstone passage occurs in a context about being willing to forgive others – up to seventy times seven in fact.
So – as is often the case in the Gospels – the millstone is presented as a dire warning to those who would refuse to forgive their fellow Christians for their sins against them (after first confronting them about them!)
And so: these little ones too – from the youngest age – must be forgiven!
Do not cause them to stumble by treating them harshly for their own little faults you must nevertheless help them see, and by not generously covering over their wrongs with love.
We see this theme of forgiveness, and even an eagerness to forgive (the parable of the lost sheep!) in Matthew chapter 18 as well, where not long before this we also hear about both the millstone and body-part-removing statements.
And immediately before these millstone and body-part-removing statements Jesus calls a little child to stand among his disciples and tells them they must become like little children. And then – if to accentuate a point, immediately after these statements He tells His disciples that they must not “look down” on “these little ones”… for “their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven…”!
One more thing, I think important:
As I mentioned, the passage about removing one’s hand and one’s eye occurs not just once but twice in Matthew.
It also occurs in the context of Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount, found in chapters 5 of that book where Jesus speaks of adultery and sexual sin.[iii]
And so, to sum things up, in Matthew and Mark and even Luke we see that children must not be abused in any way[iv], but honored.
Do not take advantage of them and use them for your own ends and purposes, particularly for the most base and deplorable of reasons…
Instead for their sake and the sake of all God’s children, pluck it out, cut it off, and have salt!
Jesus Christ means for each and every one of us in the church to be absolutely determined to guard their hearts, especially with little children.
Children are not innocent of sin of course, but they are innocent of the knowledge of particular kinds of sin, and God would have us help them to, in a very real sense, remain ignorant of evil.
But this does not always happen, and, as the prophet Nathan said to David: “You are the man!”
All of us! Even you older children!
But it is easy for us to see the “real sinners” isn’t it?
We can look at those who are clearly selfish or who seem to have a desire for conflict – or, perhaps worse, those who would use their power to abuse those weaker ones under their care – and breathe a sigh of relief, thinking… “Well thank God that I’m not like that!”
The point however, is that none of us are innocent.
In all of Jesus’ statements about removing body parts, what Jesus is really getting at is that all of us are always in dire need of a heart transplant…
And not just at the beginning of our Christian life, but throughout it!
Do not cause the little ones to sin… Take whatever serious measures are necessary to ensure that you do not cause this!
If your pride causes you to sin gauge it out!
If your very life causes you to sin pluck it out!
For God hates “a heart that devises wicked schemes” and states through the prophet Jeremiah that
“The heart is deceitful above all things
and beyond cure.
Who can understand it?”
So…if your heart causes you to sin – and it does – cut it out!
Does Jesus wants me dead?
Yes. He wants your old Adam dead.
And through His words here today, He is putting your old Adam to death!
And then, only then, are we the perfect material for God to work with!
So, imitate Jesus as well, and join in the violence, saying “Amen” and going after your old Adam with Him!
For to be where Jesus is is to be without sin!
Bring on the salt and fire!
God’s law and love… God’s law and the love of God… God’s law and God who is love… always go hand in hand and never stop….
So these fiery words are for you.
These salty words are for me.
They are for us…
God says “You too!” You must keep your eyes and hands and feet pure… Sin is a matter to be taken with the utmost of seriousness….
So bring on the salt! Bring on the fire! With Christ being sacrificed for all our sins – with us having been given peace with God — bring on the holy sacrifice for our God! (Rom. 12:1-2)
Make your fight against the sin within you a priority!
Make your fight against this or that actual sin a priority!
Cry out to Him for mercy and help… as it has been said, “Pray to God but row towards shore!”
Perhaps get out of that group, business deal, or personal relationship!
Give some of that stuff you have away! When Jesus comes it’s all going to burn anyways!
Maybe cut back on social media or that screen time…
Install that firewall on your computer!
Actively seek to form positive habits that help you in your fight! How could I be more thoughtful, more careful, in the way I act with family, friends, co-workers?
Form personal rituals, go to certain physical places that help you remember to do certain things if you must!
Plan your schedule in this or that fashion to accentuate certain very beneficial activities over others!
Find people who can encourage you and hold you accountable!
Lord, let me be where you are, so that I might be kept this day without sin![v]
Bring on the salt and fire![vi]
So maybe you are thinking now…this makes some sense, this makes sense that this would be important for peace among Gods’ children – but don’t we believe that we are justified by grace and not works?
Indeed, some purportedly traditional Lutherans would say that when I say that
“God’s law and love… God’s law and the love of God…. God’s law and God who is love… always go hand in hand and never stop….”
…that I’m wrong.
Now I can point out that the Apostle Paul tells Christians that he wants them to “live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God….”
Though they will say:
“These words, like the words about removing body parts are only really meant to break you… to help you see your dead heart. To kill the Old Man.
Once that is done, there’s no real expectation from God that such words will continue to direct and guide us in any way….”
“We are now completely new creatures in the Gospel!
The old has gone and the new has come!
The law is no more! We only live from the Gospel!”
One popular ELCA Lutheran theologian puts it like this:
“…The decisive cosmic battle of God against sin, death, and devil was already waged and won when Christ was raised from the dead to make a new kingdom of people who live with no law, nowhere to go, and nothing to accomplish. They were simply–free.” (italics mine, Paulson, Lutheran Theology, p. 7)
This, however, is mistaken notion of what it means to be free!
May this never be!
To say that truly free people…
…don’t have anything to accomplish…
…anywhere to go…
…or won’t ever need to be directed at all in this life (or heaven for that matter)
…is something we have no business asserting![vii]
We are indeed only given new life from the Gospel, but nevertheless, we live from every word that proceeds from the mouth of God… law and gospel.
Bring on the salt and fire!
So, even if we are saved only through the blood of Jesus Christ…
…even if we are saved by grace through faith and not by works, that no one should boast…
This does not mean that God’s law does not have a place in the life of the Christian…
…but that we understand it’s ongoing importance for us….[viii]
Martin Luther, the 16th century church reformer, gives us some very helpful perspective here in his book, “On the Councils and the Church”. Here, Luther says the following about “the seven principle parts of Christians’ sanctification” or “the seven holy possessions of the church”:
By [using, these seven things: the Scriptures, Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, Confession and Absolution, Pastors, Prayer and proclamation, and suffering[ix]…] the Holy Spirit effects in us a daily sanctification, and vivification in Christ, [that is setting us apart, renewing us in holiness,] according to the first table of Moses. By [this sanctification] we obey it, albeit never perfectly in Christ. But as we constantly strive to attain the goal, under his redemption or remission of sins, until we too shall one day become perfectly holy and no longer stand in need of forgiveness. Everything is directed toward that goal.”
He goes on a bit later to talk about another sign that helps identify the presence of Christ’s church in the world, love for one’s neighbors, the fulfillment of the second table of the commandments:
“[We see Christ’s church] when we bear no one a grudge, entertain no anger, hatred, envy or vengefulness toward our neighbors, but gladly forgive them, lend to them, help them, and counsel them; when we are not lewd, not drunkards, not proud, arrogant, overbearing, but chaste, self-controlled, sober, friendly, kind, gentle and humble; when we do not steal, rob, are not usurious, greedy, do not overcharge, but are mild, kind, content, charitable; when we are not false, mendacious, perjurers, but truthful, trustworthy, and do whatever else is taught in these commandments – all of which St. Paul teaches abundantly in more than one place. We need the Decalogue not only to apprise us of our lawful obligations, but we also need it to discern how far the Holy Spirit has advanced us in his work of sanctification and by how much we still fall short of the goal, lest we become secure and imagine that we have now done all that is required. Thus we must constantly grow in sanctification and always become new creatures in Christ. This means ‘grow’ and ‘do so more and more’ [II Pet. 3:18]” (LW 41:166)
So pluck it out!
Cut it off!
Love your neighbor, God’s children!
Remove Old Adam’s wicked and prideful heart!
Bring on the salt and fire!
None of this means you are going to go from victory to victory…
Ask my family here. They can tell you of some of my many failures!
You might lose a lot, fighting some sins that you are particularly tempted by a long, long time…
The thing, however is the fight that God’s Spirit leads you in…
Reminding yourself to make “duty a pleasure” and not letting the birds that fly over your head make nests in your hair! (Luther)…
And to really be in the fight, remind yourself that the law of God is fulfilled in love (Rom. 13, Gal. 5) – first in Christ on our behalf, and then in us (Rom. 8:1-4).
Yes, again, all of these violent words this morning are hard, hard words.
Nevertheless, again, we can discern what our Lord meant by speaking them: this is a matter of the utmost seriousness.
On the one hand, yes, they drive us to Christ for forgiveness.
And on the other hand, they also drive us to Him for power as we look to be His holy people in the world…His peacemakers…
So these are words that we must hear and always continue to hear….
Note that this does not mean we live by the law.
Christians do not live by the law, but in it….
To live by the law would be to think that if I do my best to follow God’s commandments He certainly must reward me with eternal life.
The problem with that idea – besides the fact that it is obnoxious to think we creatures can finally demand God be accountable to our judgments (see Job 40:8!) – is that we know from the Scripture that the one who stumbles in one commandment has broken them all.[x]
A Lutheran pastor recently reminded me of this: the Christian faith is about paradoxes… tensions of a sort…
Law and gospel.
Three persons in one God.
Two natures in Christ: 100% God and 100% Man.
Perfectly just and perfectly merciful.
Lord of all and servant of all.
Everything we need we already have.
In reference to the kinds of things that we are talking about this morning, this man said this:
“This is why our concept of tension is so useful. Bread and wine, or body and blood? Yes.
Saint or sinner? Yes.
Called to perfect life or resting in God’s promises of salvation, life, and forgiveness, and the work on the Cross? Yes.”
Don’t give up brothers and sisters…
Remember, this is not about your power… Jesus says to us “I am the living water… and “the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
Jesus is the only One who can get us through this… and He has our back….
The Lutheran Study Bible has a great take on these passages this morning… and I think it is a very good thought to leave us all with… :
“…[Jesus uses] such strong and hyperbolic language to emphasize the seriousness of all sin… One need look no further than these words of Jesus to see how much the holy God hates sin. Here, the Law strikes us with all its fury. Who of us can say that our hand or foot or eye has not caused us to sin? We all deserve to be thrown into the hell of fire. Thank God that Jesus’ hands and feet were pierced for our iniquities and that His eyes beheld our sin in order to turn the Father’s face from it. By His wounds and precious death, we enter life.” (1621).
There are just two ways, the early church said.
One leads to death… the other to life…
One might also say one leads to eternal strife…
…and the other to eternal peace.
You – go in peace!
…and live in peace with one another, being the proclaimers and peacemakers God calls you to be.
[i] As we seek to be Christ’s servants to all and His “living sacrifices” (Romans 12) we should see and heed the meaning of Leviticus 2:13 for us: “Season all your grain offerings with salt. Do not leave the salt of the covenant of your God out of your grain offerings; add salt to all your offerings.” Numbers 18:19 also speaks about the kind of peace “covenant salt” can bring: “Whatever is set aside from the holy offerings the Israelites present to the Lord I give to you and your sons and daughters as your perpetual share. It is an everlasting covenant of salt before the Lord for both you and your offspring.” This content found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KRBfKPj2Aog&t=254s Also: “The good salt which should characterize disciples [in v. 50] consists in… or results in… peaceful relationships. While salt as a metaphor for peacefulness is in itself an unusual use, in the OT salt symbolizes a covenant (Lv. 2:13; Nu. 18:19; 2 Ch. 13:5) while in some rabbinic writings salt stands for wisdom or pleasing speech (cf. Col 4:6), which is a sound basis for good relationships” (France, 385) France also has some very helpful comments on v. 49 on pages 383-384. A short clip: “To be ‘salted with fire’ seems then to evoke the imagery of temple sacrifice, but the victims who are ‘salted’ are now the worshippers themselves. Their dedication to the service of their suffering Messiah is like that of a burnt offering, total and irrevocable…[The modern reader thinks[ fire alone would have made the point. But anyone familiar with sacrificial ritual would not find ‘the imagery of salt’ out of place….” McLaren says: “have salt in yourselves; the doctrine of grace, and word of Christ, prudence in talk and conversation, and holiness of heart and life, so as to behave wisely towards them that are without; and have peace one with another; which the God of peace calls unto, the Gospel of peace requires, and the grace of God teaches. Salt is an emblem of firm union, concord, and agreement: hence the covenant of peace is called a covenant of salt, Numbers 18:19, compared with Numbers 25:12. This exhortation, very appropriately follows upon the making mention of salt in different senses; especially, this exhortation was the more necessary to the disciples at this time, since they had been very lately warmly disputing the point among themselves, who should be greatest in the kingdom of the Messiah; and which had occasioned this discourse of Christ’s.”
[ii] This section constructed with much help from R.C.H. Lenski’s excellent comments.
[iii] Here, in chapter five, not millstones but hell-fire alone is brought up, as Jesus talks about taking such drastic measures right after pointing out that “anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart…”
So, there is a lot going on here to think about…. And quite frankly, given all the things we have heard about over the past 20 years regarding scandals in the Catholic church and Protestant communions as well, it is difficult for me to recall any other passages in the Bible that carry such terrifying weight.
[iv] “Will Deming, noting parallels to Matt 5:27-32 and rabbinic literature, sees sexual euphemisms throughout this section: causing a little child to ‘stumble’ in v. 42 refers to sexual molestation; a hand causing to stumble (v. 43) and a ‘foot’ (a common euphemism for the male sexual organ) that causes stumbling (v. 45) refers to adultery. It is doubtful Mark’s readers would have recognized such subtle euphemisms from rabbinic literature. More often in Scripture the hand stands for ‘the basic corporeal instrument for accomplishing one’s purposes’ (cf. Exod 19:13; Deut 28:12; Eccl 2:11; 9:10; Pss 28:4; 90:17, etc) and ‘the feet are the means of transport to the place where sins are committed’ (cf. Job 31:1-12; 1QS 1:6)” (Strauss, 414).
[v] A: If my goal is to stop sinning I’m doomed, if my goal is to follow Christ however imperfectly I do so I know he has me.
B: I think to strive to do the latter is to strive to do the former as well, isn’t it? (no, it won’t ever happen perfectly here). Anyway, otherwise, I’ve got to stop singing that part in the Te Deum. : )
A: I think we’re striving toward it? But because it’s not something I aim for like, as an object. Also, I don’t see a place where the Te Deum calls for us to be perfect? Because it’s impossible it’s not something I aim for as an object*
B: I get the sentiment. Totally I.D. At same time, if when I think about being without sin I think about being where Jesus is… : )
[vi] Calvin: “[A]s salt and fire possess the same quality of purifying and refining, Christ applied the same term to both.” (Paavola, 174).
[vii] Lutheran theologian Mark Mattes states: “So, if any man claims that preachers/teachers are not to exhort the justified, he is not teaching in accord with Luther, nor obviously with the Holy Scriptures, nor with the wider catholic tradition.”
[viii] Of course we cannot be saved by our good works!
Even so, though we cannot justify ourselves before God by keeping His law…
…even though Jesus Christ is in fact the end of the law for righteousness…
His law is good. So very good…
For God’s law reflects God’s character, and as God asks us to imitate Him, this necessarily means that we are to live not by the law, but that we are to walk in His law….
It is a critical difference, just like it is a big difference to wrongly say good works are necessary for salvation, instead of saying good works are necessary to salvation (Martin Luther’s distinction in the Disputation Concerning Justification).
In other words, to wrongly say that we are justified before God by good works as opposed to for good works.
To live in the law, and not by it, is to recognize that, because of His love, God created all of us in certain ways, to inhabit certain “grooves” so to speak.
Like trains that run on tracks, there are certain paths we are to take that lead to our flourishing and the flourishing of those around us. We serve God by loving our neighbor, and we love our neighbor by following God’s commandments.
We can call this the difference between two kinds of righteousness. One is passive – something that is all about our receiving – and the other is active, which is God’s love working in us for the sake of others.
You can think about this also as a vertical righteousness and a horizontal righteousness…. Both are from God, but we must not confuse the two…
[ix] From Wikipedia:
- holy word of God, effective means of grace
- holy sacrament of baptism, regeneration
- holy sacrament of the altar
- office of keys exercised publicly, although not the office of pope. Includes also private confession as a means of grace.
- it consecrates or calls ministers, or has offices, that is, to administer, bishops, pastors, and preachers.
- prayer, public praise, and thanksgiving to God, the liturgy
- holy possession of the sacred cross, suffering and carrying the cross as followers of Christ.
[x] The threats of hell are for those who would either a) disregard God’s commands ; b) misuse them, attempting to obligate God to save them for their “best” efforts. Both views of God’s law are wholly damnable. “[T]he attitude of the heart is simply this….it wants to deal with God…as though God should humble Himself before us and let us actually oblige Him to grant us grace and help and thus become our debtor and servant.” (Martin Luther, What Luther Says, under “Prayer”)