“The Problem with Stumbling Blocks”

Categories: Bulletin Articles, M. W. Bassford

Like all the gospels, Mark is not written for everyone.  Those who come to it casually, not willing to invest the effort to understand, will remain ignorant.  Only those who doggedly pursue enlightenment will—eventually—figure things out.

This is certainly the case with Mark 9:38-50.  At first glance, this context appears to contain four unrelated sections:  the story of the man casting out demons in the name of Jesus (9:38-41), a warning against leading others to fall away (9:42), a warning about what we must be willing to sacrifice for eternal life (9:43-48), and a weird discussion about salt (9:49-50). 

However, as is often the case in Mark, these apparently unrelated subtopics are tied together by a common theme.  In fact, everything that Jesus says from 9:39 through the end of the chapter explains why He told John to leave the unfamiliar exorcist alone. 

His first point (9:39-41) is that anyone who does good while operating under the authority of Jesus is good.  Indeed, those who help the workers of righteousness, even by giving them a cup of water in the name of Jesus, will be remembered too.  Sadly, though, that’s not the only way that we can treat such people.  We also can make them stumble (9:42)—by discouraging them, for instance—and if we do, we will be punished rather than rewarded.

In Matthew 5, Jesus’ cut-off-body-parts discussion is appended to His condemnation of lust.  Here, though, it’s directed at a different heart problem—in context, the evil desires that make us want to interfere with those who are doing God’s work.  There are many reasons why we might want to do this.  It could be, as in John’s case, that the worker doesn’t come from the “approved” group of workers.  It could be that we don’t like the way they’re doing the work.  It could be that we think we should get to control them.  Regardless, the Lord wants us to see that being a stumbling block will cause us to meet a horrifying fate.  Nowhere else in Scripture is the ultimate punishment for sin described as graphically as it is here!

Interestingly, in v. 49-50, Jesus describes the fires of hell as having a salting effect.  I think that here, as elsewhere, salt refers to palatability, especially palatability to God.  In other words, the sin of being a stumbling block leaves a bad taste in God’s mouth, and the only thing that can get that taste out of His mouth is the punishment of the sinner.  We’re supposed to encourage one another—that tastes good to God—but if we go through life discouraging one another instead, nothing can salvage us.  It is much better for us to be salty people who are at peace with one another.

Sadly, the need for this teaching has not declined over the past 2000 years.  It’s still true that so-called disciples of Christ have a bad habit of hindering the work of other disciples.  This shows up in those cross-grained folks who have it in for the preacher and criticize and oppose him at every turn.  It appears in the fossilized pew-sitters who squelch the zeal of the new convert because they “aren’t doing it right”.  It flourishes in those who know in their hearts that they could do a better job of leading singing than the song leader, a better job of teaching class than the Bible-class teacher, and a better job of leading the church than the elders.  Somehow, these convictions always end up revealing themselves somewhere, and there are many thousands of Christians who sit on the sidelines because some brother or sister told them they didn’t belong on the field.

When it comes to others’ work for the Lord, our work is simple.  Support.  Encourage.  Praise.  Help.  Don’t say anything critical unless we’ve thought about it and are 100 percent sure that our critique will be received gratefully.  When we find ourselves in the role of the discourager and the stumbling block instead, we endanger our souls.