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Temptations to Sin, Warnings of Hell (Mark 9:42-50)

Analysis and Commentary

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Jesus Teaches his Apostles

Jesus Teaches his Apostles

    42 And whosoever shall offend one of these little ones that believe in me, it is better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he were cast into the sea. 43 And if thy hand offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched: 44 Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched. 45 And if thy foot offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter halt into life, than having two feet to be cast into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched: 46 Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.
    47 And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out: it is better for thee to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire: 48 Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched. 49 For every one shall be salted with fire, and every sacrifice shall be salted with salt. 50 Salt is good: but if the salt have lost his saltness, wherewith will ye season it? Have salt in yourselves, and have peace one with another.
    Compare: Matthew 18:6-9; Luke 17:1,2

Jesus, Sin, and Hell

We find here a series of warnings of what awaits those foolish enough to give in to temptations to sin. Scholars have argued that all of these sayings were actually stated at different times and in different contexts where they would have made sense. Here, however, we have them all drawn together on the basis of thematic similarity.

Whereas earlier passages were designed to explain some of the dangers of prophetic discipleship, here we have warnings about inauthentic discipleship. If one is willing to follow Jesus, they will have to be willing to do so consistently and honestly.

The word used here in this translation is “offend.” Sometimes it is rendered as “scandalize,” but a more accurate translation would be “to cause to fall away” (in Greek, literally “be tripped”). What is meant is that none of the “little ones” (children, the powerless, or those weak in faith) should be caused to “fall away” from the “good news.” Anyone who acts in a manner that does cause this will be in trouble.

Thus Jesus’ disciples are cautioned not to lose their “saltness,” which means they should not lose their effectiveness at what they do. For this, they must stop vying with one another for positions of power and privilege; instead, they should focus on the task at hand which is to spread Jesus’ message and serve others.

It is curious that the verse “Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched” is repeated here three times: 44, 46, and 48. The King James Version is just about the only translation to do this. Nearly every other translation leaves out 44 and 46 entirely, retaining just the instance in verse 48. This is apparently consistent with most of the ancient authorities on Mark but it does cause a problem for those modern Christian who insist that only the KJV is in any way authoritative.

Gerd Lüdemann argues that what we have here are remnants of a pre-Marcan catechism. Once the repetitive verses are stripped away, we are left with a series of parallel statements that definitely have the flavor of a catechism where entering the Kingdom of God is contrasted with Gehenna:

    43 And if thy hand offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched

    45 And if thy foot offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter halt into life, than having two feet to be cast into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched

    47 And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out: it is better for thee to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire

It’s even plausible that the repetitive phrases really were original after all — they read an awful lot like the “response” portion of either the responsorial Psalms (where a lector recites a verse and the congregation responds with the antiphon) or the “General Intercessions” where a lector reads a prayer for intercession (such as for world peace) and the congregation responds with “Lord, Hear our Prayer.”

Although this sounds very negative and pessimistic, it’s not an unreasonable perspective for a community suffering from persecution. Of course there would be an emphasis on the need to avoid anything that would cause one to fall away from Christian faith, to focus on maintaining the community, and the dire consequences that await backsliders in the apocalypse which must be very close at hand.

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