Salt is Better
What a seeming hodgepodge of things Jesus says here. It sounds like a collection of sayings from different times in Jesus' ministry, but that's not what it is according to the text. This is all occasioned by John telling Jesus that the disciples had forbidden someone not with them to cast out demons in the name of Jesus. What follows is Jesus' reply to what they did. Does He say we should all just get along? No, Jesus says Salt is better
The situation is this. Jesus has just told them that anyone who welcomes a child in His name welcomes Him. This evidently pricked the conscience of John who remembers they had stopped a man casting out devils in Jesus' name. They had made a doctrinal distinction, and Jesus plainly tells them they were wrong. Why? Because doctrinal distinctions don't matter? No because they had made an erroneous doctrinal distinction.
The unnamed exorcist, by John's own admission, was driving out demons in Jesus' name. Jewish exorcist used the name of Abraham or Solomon. Also we know that a person can't use the name of Jesus like a rabbit's foot. When Jewish exorcist in the Book of Acts try to cast out a demon "in the name of Jesus that Paul preaches" that devil turned on them and stomped them literally. This exorcist actually trusts in the work and power of Jesus.
Furthermore, why does John say they stopped him? Not because "he was not one of us," as the bulletin translates but "because he was not following us." The disciples fellowship principle was not based on Jesus but on them. It was not based on whether someone followed Jesus, but on whether someone followed them. And do note that Jesus does support making distinctions based on Him. He says the issue is not whether someone follows you or not but whether they "say something bad about me."
Jesus goes on to warn about making false distinctions that cause little ones who believe in Him not to sin but to literally be snared by a death trap. (The Greek word here is not "sin" but the word for the part of the trap that triggers the death blow when the animal touches it.) But whom are these little ones the Lord warns about trapping? The context here would point to insignificant believers. Last week we heard how the disciples argued who among them was the greatest. The only ones who had chance at being greatest in their minds was one of them. All outside of them were insignificant even if they did believe in the same Jesus.
Friends, it is serious sin if you give anyone the impression that they cannot be saved unless they are following Jesus with us. You are setting up death traps for fellow Christians if you teach, act, or imply that in order to go to heaven you have to become a member of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod as if our name meant anything. No, faith in Jesus' name is what saves. Believers in other denominations are not insignificant to Jesus.
Jesus is real serious about this, isn't He? He says it is better for those who would offend insignificant believers to have a large millstone tied around their neck and to have been thrown into the sea. Did you catch those tenses? Jesus doesn't say if they become a death trap for an insignificant believer that this will happen to them. No, He says it would be better if before they did such a heinous thing, they HAD been weighed down and cast into the sea.
It would be better to die than to cause one who believes in Christ to fall from faith. It would be better to have died physically then to become a spiritual death trap for someone. Having a millstone around your neck and being cast into the sea would be horrible, but note that it isn't an eternal punishment. It is not sending someone to hell. Jesus is showing us how serious it is to make false doctrinal distinctions. He is showing us that it would be better to be dead than to be a deathtrap, but He doesn't attach eternal judgement to that error.
He does, however, place eternal consequences on failing to make correct doctrinal distinctions. You have all probably heard of the person who supposedly comes into the pastors office, points to this passage about better to be one hand, one foot, or one eyed in heaven then two-handed, two-footed or two-eyed in hell, and plucks out his eye. Well, that would be easier than doing what the passage actually admonishes.
First, does you hand, foot, or eye actually CAUSE you to sin? Does Jesus anywhere teach that the source of sin is in our outward members? Doesn't He in fact teach that sin is not in the outward members but in the heart? Is the problem that we have eyes to lust, feet to take us in sin's path, or hands that steal? Cannot the blind lust, the lame err, and maimed covet?
Second, St. Paul talks about the Church being the body of Christ, and the individual members as hands, eyes, and feet. Where do you think he got this teaching? Did he just make it up? Was he just looking for a fitting analogy? No, St. Paul teaches what Christ taught. He didn't make the analogy of the body up, but based it on what Christ first taught. The parts of the body here represent our fellow members of the body of Christ. This is even clearer in Matthew. Right before these admonitions about cutting off offending members of the body Matthew deals with excommunication.
The disciples only looked outside of their numbers. They only wished to cut off the anonymous exorcist. They didn't look within their group. Jesus says making false distinctions outside of their group is a serious error that it would be better to dead rather than commit. However, failing to make true distinctions within the group is a serious error that leads to hell. He says if you hand, foot, or eye becomes a death trap to you, it would be better to cut it off rather than go to hell with it.
How do members of the body of Christ become a death trap? Again we have to go to the context. The standard is the name of Jesus. They are not to stop someone casting out demons in Jesus' name. They are not to become a death trap to insignificant ones who believe in Jesus' name. In fact, the very ordinary thing of giving a cup of water to them, let alone casting out a demon, is significant when done in Jesus' name.
Now don't be a minimalist here. Remember what is meant by the Name of Jesus. Not just the five letters J-E-S-U-S. God's name is everything He reveals about Himself. A member of the body of Christ becomes a death trap for others when he or she teaches or advocates something contrary to what Jesus has revealed about Himself in His holy Word. This can be basic such as someone who would deny the Virgin Birth of Christ, His resurrection, or His divine nature. Or it can be more sophisticated: teaching that Baptism doesn't really save you as I Peter says, or that Communion is not really the body and blood of Christ as the Words of Institution say, or that forgiveness doesn't really come from the mouth of a man as Jesus says it does, are also denials of the name of Jesus.
However, it can even be more subtle than this. St. John says in I John 5:13, "These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, in order that you may know you have eternal life." A person who takes away from a Christian the certainty of eternal life in Jesus' name is a death trap and is to be identified and cut off. And isn't eternal life really the context Jesus is speaking in? He says the offending hand, foot, or eye will lead a person away from eternal life into hell where the worms of the damned don't die and the fire is not quenched.
Now for whom does hell exist? For the devil and his angels teaches Jesus in Matthew 25. For what purpose did Christ come, suffer and die? To destroy the works of the devil and to deliver sinners from His clutches. Therefore, the person who teaches that some sins are so bad that Christ cannot or will not forgive them is a death trap for Christians. The person who teaches that being a Christians means always being happy and having all your problems in control is being a death trap for Christians because he or she causes sad or troubled Christians to doubt their salvation. The person who teaches that you cannot be absolutely sure you have eternal life in Jesus' name is a death trap for Christians for the same reason.
Jesus didn't come to make you a wealthy person or a healthy person or even necessarily an outwardly happy person. He came to deliver your soul from sin, death and the power of the devil. He came to rescue you from the horrible pit of hell. Jesus came to save you and the Gospel says He succeeded. In Jesus' name, you have salvation and nothing not even your own hand, foot, or eye is to come between you and your Jesus much less anyone outside of your own body.
Jesus closes this section of Mark by reinforcing the point about making distinctions. He doesn't say, "Salt is good." No, He uses the same Greek word that is translated "better" all the way through the text. He says, "Salt is better." Salt cleanses and preserves. When they stopped the exorcist who worked in Jesus' name they were not being salt that preserves. However, when they cut off members who offend against the name of Jesus, they are being salt that cleanses. Yes, salt can be misused. It can ruin food, water, and the body, but it's abuse doesn't destroy it's use. It's BETTER to be salt than non-salt.
Here Jesus Himself makes a sharp distinction. There is no middle ground between salt and non-salt. A substance is either salt or not. Jesus may be calling to their minds the salt from the Dead Sea. When it lays on the ground long enough, the earth chemically changes the salt so that it is no longer salt at all, and there is nothing that can be done to make it salt again.
Now lest you think Jesus is ending on an ominous Law note saying that if you cease to be salt you're lost, pay attention to how He ends. He doesn't command them "to have salt in yourselves." No, there is no imperative there. It is a simple indicative statement. "You have salt in yourselves." This is what Jesus says elsewhere, isn't it? "You are the salt of the earth." By God's grace you have been redeemed in Jesus' name to be the salt of the earth. Even though we like the disciples have failed to preserve sometimes and at others we have failed to cleanse, Jesus says we're still salt. Now friend, does salt go around worrying about being salty? Neither do you have to. By God's grace for Jesus' sake, you are salt. You will preserve those who come to you in Jesus' name, and you will cleanse away those who come contrary to Jesus' name.
Finally, Jesus does command them "be at peace with each other." Last week we saw how they had been arguing; this week we see how they wrongly attacked one working in Jesus' name. The command to "be at peace with each other" is based on the grand promise that they are indeed salt although they have failed to preserve sometime and failed to clean at others. Jesus makes no distinctions in His body. Those gathered around His name in His name are all equal to Him. They are all salt. He doesn't make a distinction between this one having lots of sinful weaknesses and that one having little, this one having lots of faith and that one having little, this one being real salty and that one being less. No, we're all salt from the same shaker, and for that reason we can be at peace with each other. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris'
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Pentecost XIX (10-22-00), 10-22-00