James 5:1–6; Mark 9:41–50
I’m not going to dwell much on the reading from James today. I mentioned last week how much I like this epistle. But I will say that I found his title James the Less to be rather ironic given how fiery he can be. And to think he was “less” in comparison James, the brother of John, the two boanerges or “sons of thunder.” I can just imagine how they must have stormed and raged. Anyway, James isn’t saying anything more than what Jesus said in Luke’s Sermon on the Plain—just saying it with a lot more intensity.
The gospel reading from Mark contains passages that are also used in different parts in both Matthew and Luke. In Matthew, the central part is used in the Sermon on the Mount. In Luke the same pieces are spread throughout the gospel, as that evangelist tended to reuse Jesus’ parables as a way of exemplifying his teaching after he laid down the principals in his Sermon on the Plain. Mark’s gospel narrative account came first, so we get a lot of these sayings just sort of strung together in his gospel.
I want to highlight two images that Jesus uses in this gospel because I think they are fitting symbols both of what ails us in our world and the solution to it. The first is verse 42: “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were put around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.”
The culture in which we live is in the business of handing out millstones. It’s like there’s a blue-light special on aisle three for extra heavy millstones. Whether it’s Miley Cyrus twerking at the American Music Awards, the appalling state of television, the decline in general standards of decency, or something as heinous as human trafficking, there are plenty of us deserving of a millstone. And sadly some of us are all too willing to put them around our necks and be dragged down. Wherever we engage in self-absorption, materialism, and narcissism, we are neglecting the little ones.
And for those of us parents who continue to choose our desires and inclinations over the well being of our children, we’re not only loading up on a millstone for ourselves. We’re hanging one around the necks of our children because they will do what they see us do or even when they see what we appear to be doing. That’s called scandal. Some sins are generational, especially habitual lifestyle sins, and we do harm to our children when we teach them these harmful ways of being. Our sins harm us and they harm the people around us. There is no such thing as a personal sin. All sin is communal.
The second image I want to highlight is in verses 49 and 50: “Everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good, but if salt becomes insipid, with what will you restore its flavor? Keep salt in yourselves and you will have peace with one another.”
What does this mean? It’s a rather obscure phrase, but it alludes back to the sacrifices offered in the temple, which were salted to prevent corruption. We as Christians make sacrifices of ourselves and are purified through sacrificial living. Through acts of reparation and sacrifice, we are “salted with fire.” But when does salt become insipid or tasteless? When it loses its salty character. The character of sacrifice includes loving worship. If we carry out our actions here solely as obligations, they lose the character of true sacrifice. When we carry out our tasks at home as solely burdens, they lose the character of love. Salt only has value if it tastes like salt. Sacrifice only has value when it tastes like love. The sacrifice we offer here was offered out of the greatest love for us.
This week, go to your work and to your families and be Christ to them. Live the gospel in front of everyone you meet. Go out and be salt for the world.