And he left there and went to the region of Judea and beyond the Jordan, and crowds gathered to him again. And again, as was his custom, he taught them.
And Pharisees came up and in order to test him asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce and to send her away.” And Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”
And in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. And he said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” – Mark 10:1-12
Mark begins this passage with a careful description that is critical to the meaning of the passage. In other words, if you don’t catch the hint and wink Mark offers, you may come to wrong conclusions about the scene he records. “And he left there and went to the region of Judea and beyond the Jordan, and crowds gathered to him again.” Where did Jesus leave? Peter’s house in Capernaum had been a prototype church where Jesus explained things to the disciples privately. So why is it important to Mark to detail “the region of Judea and beyond the Jordan” as the new location? Not only is it public, but it is where Elijah was taken up into heaven and Moses gave his last sermon before ascending Mt. Nebo to his death. More importantly, it is the main place where John the Baptist had performed his ministry.
We recall the story that John was beheaded because he criticized Herod for marrying his brother’s wife. The subject of marriage is important around this place! Mark adds, “Pharisees came up and in order to test him asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’” They want nothing more than to catch Jesus saying something offensive to Herod so they could run to him and tattle about criticism of his marriage. Perhaps then Jesus would suffer the same fate as John.
Jesus, though, has just come from a really close encounter with Moses in the glory cloud atop the Mount of Transfiguration. Currently He’s standing where Moses last preached, so it’s no surprise that His answer to their trick question is, “What did Moses command you?” That’s a great question, and they attempt to answer. Their answer is self-serving because they have developed a tradition in misinterpreting Moses to say that a no-fault divorce is possible for men who want to marry another woman. All you have to do is get the paperwork right!
Jesus’ answer is powerful. The permission for divorce was given only because of sin, not to make it easy to get a new wife. Jesus wisely and keenly goes back, not to Moses, but to Genesis: “But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”
Apparently this was enough to shut the Pharisees down. They will have to retreat and regroup in order to figure out how to trap Jesus next time. So Jesus and the disciples go to a house, and just as it had been with the parables, the disciples ask Jesus for a private explanation of what He said. The answer is unambiguous: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” Jesus condemns not just Herod but doubtless several Pharisees and others in Israel as adulterers because of their playing fast and loose with Moses’ instruction on divorce.
Where is this corruption coming from? It comes from the reason Moses was to give the instruction: “hardness of heart.” Jesus’ answer in the midst of all this marital confusion (not unlike today!) is either hopelessly idealistic, or He believes there is a remedy. Could it be that the coming of the kingdom will bring about a way for hearts to be softened? Could people once again have hearts in tune with God’s best intention and plan? Yes. Jesus is the one who will do that. Israel is the one with the hard heart just like everybody else. But Jesus came to be the True Israel, to have a heart for God that is faithful for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish us all our days. And that’s the gospel!
John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him, for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. For the one who is not against us is for us. For truly, I say to you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ will by no means lose his reward.
“Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea. And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’ For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good, but if the salt has lost its saltiness, how will you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” – Mark 9:38-50
What is the salt of the earth? The passage above sounds a lot like the Sermon on the Mount, which is a remarkable thing to have documented for us. I say that because the Sermon on the Mount is a pre-cross sermon on what the good announcement of the gospel is. It’s about kingdom living—what it is to live in God’s kingdom that Christ has brought. Jesus’ own sermon doesn’t say anything about the crucifixion and resurrection, or about imputed righteousness, or even offer a private message for individuals to find salvation in Him. Instead it is a challenge for Israel to live other than the revolt-against-Rome way. “Do not resist persecution”; “turn the other cheek”; “go the second mile.” These are not invitations to be a doormat for Jesus, but warnings not to get involved in the ever-present resistance movement. Instead, Jesus’ hearers are to discover the true vocation of Israel—to be the light of the world, the salt of the earth.
Here again we find salt language. “For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good, but if the salt has lost its saltiness, how will you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” The context is still within the “little ones” teaching. This began in the middle passage of Mark 9: “And he took a child and put him in the midst of them, and taking him in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.’” And then in the passage above, “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.”
The disciples had been arguing about who would be greatest. Jesus answers with the little child, the powerless one in the world. Now we get more description: it’s a person who is, in my word, “salty.” Who are these salty people who are also at peace with each other? Unfortunately, I once taught (because I read it in a book) that people in the ancient world did not use salt for flavor, but to preserve things. It’s like a myth or legend that is summarily accepted by modern preachers. We only need to see Job 6:6 to find the truth of the matter.
God states that He likes grain offerings better with salt in Leviticus 2:13. The priests even salt God’s offerings, and so God gives a “covenant of salt” in Number 18:19. There are numerous other examples, but suffice it to say for now, sacrifices presented to the Lord should be accompanied with salt. And now Jesus is telling us not to lose our saltiness, but to “have salt in yourselves.” In the New Covenant, we are to offer our bodies as living sacrifices. How do we have salt? We receive the little ones and humble ourselves (not seeking powerful seats and places). That means we put all envy away and live like our King. He turned the other cheek; He went the second mile; He took up the cross, is the light of the world, and the salt of the earth. He defeated evil by letting it do its worst to Him. That’s salty. And that’s the gospel!
They went on from there and passed through Galilee. And he did not want anyone to know, for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And when he is killed, after three days he will rise.” But they did not understand the saying, and were afraid to ask him.
And they came to Capernaum. And when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you discussing on the way?” But they kept silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. And he sat down and called the twelve. And he said to them, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” And he took a child and put him in the midst of them, and taking him in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.” – Mark 9:30-37
Jesus has spoken in all kinds of symbolic language. Parables are purposefully that, but He has said other kinds of coded or figurative things to the disciples. Even the miracles are a kind of symbolic speech. But in the passage above, Jesus speaks plainly to them: “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And when he is killed, after three days he will rise.” It has been established that “Son of Man” is mainly the way Jesus refers to Himself (read “I”), and He tells them straight-up what will happen. They apparently think it is a veiled sort of statement and have good reason to think so. They can’t seem to figure it out and are afraid to make fools of themselves by asking Him.
No such fate could befall any messiah they were expecting. Probably not all Jews at this time believed God would send a messiah; but whether or not all or most or some believed it, there is no doubt that no one was expecting a messiah who would suffer, much less die! That He would rise again in 3 days adds further mystery to the saying, thus they are confused and afraid. Perhaps Peter’s recent rebuke has kept him silent, although those who know the rest of the story know that Peter doesn’t keep silence very long.
Faced with the difficulty of having their earlier ways of understanding things changed, they turn to discussing (debating?) their own individual status. It would seem that they hoped that by following Jesus they would enhance their own individual office and self-worth (as N.T. Wright says, “so highly prized today, but so easily leading to a narcissistic sense that the gospel exists to make us feel good about ourselves”). This was such a focus for them that they could not hear what God was saying to them. Worry about their status was winning out; they want to be as high up on the privy counsel to the King as possible. Sadly, they keep this view through the next several chapters of Mark’s gospel until the shocking truth dawns painfully.
Jesus then offers a stark illustration after asking what they were talking about. “And He took a child and put him in the midst of them, and taking him in His arms, He said to them, ‘Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but Him who sent me.’” They have upside-down thinking. That you would have to be last and servant of all to be first is completely upside down from their way of reasoning. But Jesus says this is not just the way to access royalty (Him), but even to access divinity (“Him who sent me”). And that’s the gospel!
And when they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and scribes arguing with them. And immediately all the crowd, when they saw him, were greatly amazed and ran up to him and greeted him. And he asked them, “What are you arguing about with them?” And someone from the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I brought my son to you, for he has a spirit that makes him mute. And whenever it seizes him, it throws him down, and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid. So I asked your disciples to cast it out, and they were not able.” And he answered them, “O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him to me.” And they brought the boy to him. And when the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. And Jesus asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. And it has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him. But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” And Jesus said to him, “‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!” And when Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You mute and deaf spirit, I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.” And after crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, “He is dead.” But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose. And when he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, “Why could we not cast it out?” And he said to them, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.” – Mark 9:14-29
Up until now in Mark’s gospel, miracles have showed multi-layered meaning. They show something from the past (fulfilled prophecy of what Messiah would be), but they also show something present (more about Messiah’s presence and work). They also were performed by the disciples and Jesus, apparently without any difficulty. This miracle of healing the demon-possessed boy continues doing both of these things, but the mood changes. Jesus, Peter, James, and John have come down from the Transfiguration after hearing that Jesus is the one to be listened to. This was right after Jesus telling His followers that they will have to take up his or her own cross in order to live in the kingdom of God. Put a little differently, the heat is being turned up for all who would follow Jesus because the heat is being turned up for Him.
There are no more detours north or to the Gentile neighborhoods: they are headed straight up to Jerusalem. Until now it has been relatively easy to follow Jesus, but no more. This is demonstrated in the persistence of the demon’s hold on this boy. In the past unclean spirits came right out of people in Jesus’ name, but this one seems to have them beat. It’s certainly puzzling to the disciples, and probably to most of us, to think about different degrees of demons. Jesus doesn’t have much to say about it though. “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.”
We would think that prayer was always part of any exorcism, so this must mean something more. Perhaps Jesus’ time on the mountain had been a particularly intense kind of prayer that gave Him heightened power on His return. That’s not Mark’s main point though. His main point is the remaining disciples’ powerlessness to get the job done, along with the crowd’s irritation at this failure. “Teacher, I brought my son to you, for he has a spirit that makes him mute. And whenever it seizes him, it throws him down, and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid. So I asked your disciples to cast it out, and they were not able.”
Most of the things we attempt seem difficult at the beginning, but over time we get better at them, and what was once hard is now easy. Is the Christian life like that? I don’t think so. It seems that as you learn to walk with Jesus, you get more difficult tasks and go through harder times requiring more courage, persistence, and faith. That’s the story for the disciples here and that’s the story for us. As this journey goes on, more and more difficulties befall them.
Jesus too seems affected by the condition of the people. And he answered them, “O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you?” A combination of the boy’s father’s description of the problem, the disciples’ powerlessness to deal with it, and the crowd’s salacious but faithless interest screams in Jesus’ face that faith is not in operation here. It must have been very painful for Him as this experience confirms in grievous terms that His way is the way of sorrow, the way of the cross.
There is also something else revealed in this miracle. It’s a story of Jesus’ vocation. We find here the grieving love of a Father for his Child, Israel. Israel has been possessed and become hopelessly unclean. It will not be easy for liberation to come about. Return from exile seems unlikely and efforts to liberate this Child seem powerless for a time. But the True Child is revealed. The True Child “was like a corpse, so that most of them said, ‘He is dead.’” This is not to last, however. He was taken “by the hand and lifted him up, and He arose.” And that’s the gospel!