This week’s lectionary Gospel text, Mark 9:38-50, is not for the faint of heart. The disciples encounter “someone” casting out demons in the name of Jesus. They want to shut down this rogue minister and put an end to his ministry because he’s not part of their inner circle.
But the outsider and his ministry is no threat to Jesus whatsoever. He says, “Whoever is not against us is for us.” The real threat that Jesus exposes in this text is the hidden envy brewing in the disciples’ hearts. Jesus warns the disciples that if they insist on picking a fight with the freelance minister, it is they – not the freelancer – who will end up in hell. Whoa!
By the way, the unnamed “someone” in this text is the patron saint of all those ministers who live and serve on the margins without the right credentials or official ordination from the home mission office. I am tempted to focus on such unsanctioned ministries that are blessing our cities, but this text is primarily about the envy of the disciples. It is about how envy inflames rivalries, and creates what Jesus calls stumbling blocks (skandalizō), from which we get the word scandal.
Jesus repeats the word scandal in verb from (stumble) three times throughout the text. Jesus does not mince words. “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off…. If your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off…. If your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out.” In other words, get rid of whatever leads you (and others) into scandal because scandals always produce scapegoats, and that is truly the hell of your own making.
The disciples are green with envy at the unauthorized ministry of this rogue minister. The problem, of course, is that they can’t see it. That’s how envy works. It is obvious to all who look on, but it remains hidden to those who have it. Envy secretly sows seeds of rivalry and rivalries become scandals that produce scapegoats. That is why Jesus says that it would be better for the disciples to cut off their hands, chop off their feet, and gouge out their eyes, than to let envy run its course. The tragic irony is that this is exactly what happens to Jesus on the cross.
This is not the time nor place to catalogue the untold scandals created by competing mission agencies and churches who are each convinced that they have a mandate from God and program from heaven that will save the city from destruction. I’ve seen (and participated in) ministry turf wars that would make rival street gangs blush.
By the time a turf war is full-blown, the competing rivals may look like bitter enemies who are completely at odds, but underneath it all they truly envy one another and are actually very much alike. This is what the disciples are blind to and what Jesus sees with utter clarity. This is precisely what happened in the Garden of Eden. It happens in urban ministry and around office water coolers everywhere.
Scandals have dual energies, as Rene Girard points out. We are both fascinated and repelled by those we envy. Like certain chemical compounds, this dual energy is combustible. For Jesus, envy is the root sin of humanity, which is why Jesus speaks so dramatically, even grotesquely, to make his point. The great writer Flannery O’Connor said, “I use the grotesque the way I do because people are deaf and dumb and need help to see and hear.” This is precisely what Jesus is doing. He’s using the grotesque image of self-sacrifice and self-mutilation to expose the even more grotesque nature of what we do to each other when we burn with envy. A world gone mad with envy will destroy itself.
The only way out this scandal is to let the cross of Christ confront our hidden envy and do what we cannot do for ourselves, which is—forgive us! There is no other way.