Do not be the cause of another person's stumbling. Mark 9.38-50

Mark 9.38-50


We continue to read through Mark 9, Jesus’ journey through Galilee, as he teaches his followers what it means to ‘lose your life for my sake and for the sake of the gospel’ (Mark 8:35).

[It is about discipleship, what it means to be a follower of Jesus, particularly what it means to be a follower of Jesus who is going to be crucified.
Three times in Mark 8-10 Jesus tells his followers that he is going to Jerusalem where he will be betrayed, killed and then rise again.
It is about power that comes from a complete self-emptying and dependence on God (Mark 9.14-29)
It is about learning the upside-down values of the Kingdom of God – that we are not heading up the ladder but down the ladder: that the greater is the one who serves (Mark 9.33-37)]


Today we come to Mark 9.38-50 which contain some quite scary verses.

Do not be the cause of another person’s stumbling

It is better to be dead than to cause someone else to stumble in their faith, to be the cause of the shipwreck of their faith

It is better to cut off your hand or your foot or cut out your eye, rather than sin and be thrown into hell, ‘where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched’ (9.48).

It is important not to take these words too literally.
Origen, who lived 1800 years ago, did that and castrated himself – and he is held up as the example of NOT how to interpret these verses.
In fact, it is not the hand or the foot or the eye which causes us to sin. It is the heart which directs the hand or foot or eye.
And I guess the best way to live these verses is to recognize that if our hand reaches out for something that it should not reach out for, or if it clenches itself in a fist, we cut it off – we draw it back; if our feet lead us somewhere where we know we will sin, we cut them off, we don’t go there. And if we look at something that causes us to sin, we cut it out. We turn our eyes away.

Just as an aside, if your phone causes you to look at things that you should not look at – and if you really have to have a smart phone – have you thought of consecrating your phone to God, pledging to him that you will only use it for looking at what is good and right and true, or even of securing it with a password like ‘Jesus’ or something like ‘Be holy as I am holy’.

But even if we are not to read these verses literally and amputate our bodies, we are to read these verses as a profound warning against causing others to stumble, and a warning against the consequences of sin.

The word used for hell here is the word Gehenna. That was the name of the valley outside of Jerusalem that was used as the cities waste disposal unit, or rubbish pit. In it would be thrown not just rubbish, but also the corpses of criminals, outcasts and animals. It was constantly burning and would stink of filth and rotting corpses. And Jewish writers looked at Gehenna and saw it as a picture of hell, total abandonment and forsakenness.

And when Jesus speaks about fire and worms, he is quoting Isaiah. Because Isaiah spoke about the last days, and he says that the people who God has gathered together from exile will “go out and look at the dead bodies of the people who have rebelled against me; for their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh”. (Isaiah 66:24)

This is Jesus speaking these words.
Gentle Jesus, meek and mild! Think again!
There is the great quote in Narnia where the children ask about Aslan, the lion who in the stories represents Christ.
Mrs Beaver says of him, ‘'if there's anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they're either braver than most or else just silly.' 'Then he isn't safe?' said Lucy. 'Safe?' said Mr. Beaver; 'don't you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the king I tell you'."

Or as Tozer wrote, 
"Christ can never be known without a sense of awe and fear accompanying the knowledge. He is the fairest among ten thousand, but He is also the Lord high and mighty. He is the friend of sinners, but He is also the terror of devils. He is meek and lowly in heart, but He is also Lord and Christ who will surely come to be the judge of all men. No one who knows Him intimately can ever be flippant in His presence."
So we read these words and we realise that this is not something to be messed about with.

Do not be the cause of another person’s stumbling

Jesus says, ‘If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better if they had been drowned’ (v42)

Perhaps you might say, ‘Yes, well if it is about people who abuse children, then that is true’.

And of course, it is utterly awful: Several people here have told me that they were sexually abused as children. And the pain still burns inside you. The church in the West is only just waking up to the reality of sexual abuse (and other kinds of abuse), and the incredible damage that it has done, especially when perpetrated by people in churches, and then covered up by senior church leaders.

But it is not just about that.

Notice how Jesus rebukes John in verse 38. John – for whatever reason: jealousy, or self importance, or the desire to maintain the integrity of ‘the cause’ - has put a stumbling block in front of this unauthorized exorcist.

It reminds me of an incident told us in Numbers 11, when Moses summons 70 of the elders of Israel to a meeting with God. The Spirit of God comes on the 70 and they start prophesying. But two others, not at the meeting, also begin to prophesy, and Joshua tells Moses to stop them. But Moses replies, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the LORD’s people were prophets, and that the LORD would put his spirit on them!” (Numbers 11:29)

Do not be too quick to judge another person who is setting people free in the name of Jesus, who is speaking in the name of Jesus or who is doing acts of mercy in the name of Jesus, even if they have got a lot of it still wrong.

That is what John and the other disciples had done. They thought that they were the only authorized channels of the grace of God.

And we need to guard against thinking that the church belongs to us, and drive away people because they are not one of us. 
This building may have been built by Scottish entrepreneurs, but it actually belongs to the city of Moscow, and yes, we serve in English with a focus for the foreign community here, but the gospel is for all people.

And we can cause people to stumble, we can shipwreck the faith of others, by exploiting and using and abusing them, by treating them as dirt, or by refusing to forgive. We cause others to stumble by our lust or love of money or lack of self control or by our attempts to climb up the ladder, shoving down others as we try to go up. We cause people to stumble when we do not speak out of love of the love and holiness and mercy and forgiveness of God.

How many people have you drawn to the Christian faith?
How many people have you driven away from the Christian faith?

It is not just by what we’ve done, but by what we have not done. 
It is not just by what we've said, but by what we have not said. 

But hang on a minute, you might say. What chance have any of us?

We’ve all sinned. We’ve all used people for our satisfaction, we have all lost it with people. We’ve all driven people away – probably me as a vicar more than all of you put together.

I should have been drowned – having already cut off my hands and feet and eyes – many times.

What hope is there for us?

Well, the last two verses give hope to those who have caused others to stumble:

“For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” (Mark 9:49-50)


The fire is the fire of the Holy Spirit and of judgement.

It is the fire of suffering which strips away from us the person or thing that we had turned into a little god

It is the fire of the penetrating word of God, which causes us to weep for the world, for the stumbling blocks we have set up, for how we have treated other people, for what we have done to them.

CS Lewis writes, 
“We have a strange illusion that mere time cancels sin. I have heard others, and I have heard myself, recounting cruelties and falsehoods committed in [childhood] as if they were no concern of the present speaker’s, and even with laughter. But mere time does nothing either to the fact or to the guilt of a sin. The guilt is washed out not by time but by repentance and the blood of Christ: if we have repented these early sins we should remember the price of our forgiveness and be humble."
This is the fire that can both convict us and, if we allow it, to cleanse us and change us.

Fire produces salt (I am not talking scientifically but metaphorically), where salt is the life of God in us, the word of God in us, the contrition for sin and the overwhelming gratitude for forgiveness and life.

Paul writes, 
‘Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Romans 5.3f)
We will be judged. We will face the fire, either now, as we offer ourselves to God (like the salt in the Old Testament sacrifices) in service to him, or we will be judged then on the last day.

And the judgement now can be a good judgement. If we allow God to judge us now, it will be a judgement that leads to life and not to death.

Yes, I have caused others to stumble. 
Yes, I have driven people away from eternal life. 
And I deserve to be drowned, to be burnt up as rubbish.

But if I look to Jesus, the fire leads me to the salt of repentance.

As we open ourselves to the judgement of God, we also hear the good news, of the love and forgiveness and mercy of God, of the death of Jesus for us. 
We hear that he died for us because he does not want a single person to perish.

And so we turn to him, we repent, we cry out to God for mercy, in the hope and assurance of mercy, and we offer ourselves afresh to God as a living sacrifice, to live for him; and we ask God to change us and transform us.

That is why the final verse says, ‘Have salt in yourselves and be at peace with one another’ (Mark 9:50).

We are the community of people who have stood in front of the holiness of God
We are the community of people who are aware of how many we have caused to stumble
We are the community of people who know that we deserve hell but have instead received from God forgiveness and mercy and the Holy Spirit
And we are called to peace.

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