“For everyone will be salted with fire.”
– Mark 9:49
Biblical scholar Albert Barnes once suggested, “perhaps no passage in the New Testament has given more perplexity to commentators than this, and it may be impossible now to fix its precise meaning.”
If there is one thing I have found in my own journey through The Gospel of Mark thus far, it is that Mark’s Gospel is very good at challenging my expectations of Jesus’ ministry. If there is a second certainty, it is that the upending of my expectations leaves me feeling uncomfortable more often than not. And when I encounter words like ”fire”, especially when set in light of other words (like “hell” and “unquenchable”) that precede it, I definitely find myself feeling uncomfortable.
This sounds like a negative thing on the surface, but I am actually finding this feeling of discomfort to be the place where the Gospel power comes most alive. So, rather than close off my mind and my heart to what the Gospel of Mark wants to say to me here, my prayer this week has been for the Spirit of Jesus’ baptism to do its work- to teach me and show me what I need to hear.
Approaching the Fire with Humility
It is worth noting that this passage falls within a narrative section which binds the transforming event of the Transfiguration to the revolutionary picture of the coming Triumphal Entry. We are on the road to Jerusalem, and it is on this road that Jesus continues to foretell the way of the Cross. And so, above all else, the placement of this passage in Mark in chapter 9 appears to be intended to prepare us for approaching the Cross in a spirit of humility.
It is difficult to know whether Mark is translating this passage from its original Hebrew, or if he is recording a central teaching of Jesus that he has encountered in his familiar Greek. In truth, this has been a part of the difficulty of navigating this passage. But one does not need to look far to find a pre-existing tradition in which to understand Mark’s use of “fire”, and a good way to recognize this tradition is by taking a closer look at The Gospel of Matthew’s declaration that Jesus’ baptism came not only in Spirit, but also in fire:
“But when he (John) saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, We have Abraham as our father, for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He (Jesus) will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing for is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”-
– Matthew 3:7-12
The use of “fire” in Matthew confronts us with two sides of a single picture. By calling up the picture of the “unquenchable fire”, Matthew sets the idea of “wrath” (judgment) against the call to “bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (forming/purifying). In context, Matthew is warning the Pharisees and Sadducees (in view) about getting too comfortable with their idea of what it means to gain reward in the Kingdom of God. Matthew’s narrative, as it becomes increasingly clear, is equally interested in up-ending our expectation of the Gospel of Jesus, and Matthew’s call to those in view is not to simply “assume Abraham as our father”, but to live in repentance (turn in the direction of Jesus) and to actually live like a child of God. A strong statement like this was sure to grab their attention.
From Wrath to Temptation
Returning to the Gospel of Mark, he doesn’t use the word wrath here, but he does talk in a similar (dualistic) way about how “temptation” requires a response, and that our response can shape an outcome in one way or another as it also reorients our perspective in one direction or another. This idea of contrasting outcomes, or the dualistic force that shapes his amalgamation of both “salt” (hopeful) and “fire” (judgment) into a single passage, might feel incredibly uncomfortable and confusing for us as readers (as I imagine it would have been for Mark’s original audience), but I think in order to make sense of this obscure marriage of salt and fire, it is important for us to keep the two sides of the picture firmly in our sights. What has become increasingly clear to me in my own study over this past week, is that we cannot understand the one side of the picture without the other.
Recognizing the Bigger Picture
So, with this in mind, here is what I would like to suggest. When Matthew asks the Pharisees and Sadducees “who warned you about the coming wrath”, He is speaking from the position of their Jewish expectation. He is guiding them back to the words of their own prophetic tradition and the sacred scripture that would have informed their understanding of the wrath He is talking about, and it is through understanding the story of the Israelites own history that the word wrath (and fire) gain a bit more clarity for us as readers.
When Jeremiah 17:27 declares that God “will kindle a fire in its gates, and it shall devour the palaces of Jerusalem and shall not be quenched”, he is speaking of two things- the very real struggle of the exile itself, and the judgment of a people who failed to listen to what God was saying. All throughout the Israelite history, we find this same story being played out in the midst of a people being who are being formed out of the fire of their persisting struggle with faith and circumstance. In his new book, “The Day the Revolution Began”, N.T. Wright refers to the Jewish scripture as a story without an ending, exposing this persisting pattern of ups and downs that seemed to shape the trajectory of God’s chosen people out of exile, slavery and, yes, judgment, and then back again. The exile, the struggle of faith, slavery; all present an opportunity for the people of God to be renewed in their faith, to turn and face in a different direction, to look towards the work that God is doing in them and the world around them. As readers we know that God uses the exile to breathe hope into a story full of desperation and failure, but we also know (as readers) that we are never far from another exile, another failure, another setback- this is where the story without an ending feels incomplete, a story that exists in a world where sin seems to reign over the persisting plans to reform and redeem the people.
For Wright, the Israelite history reflects the incomplete expression of the hopefulness that we find in the midst of the struggling people. But he also finds within this “story without an ending” the gradual unveiling of a Messianic expectation that sees the work of God moving from the Israelite nation out to the world at large. It is in this place where we find God’s saving work being formed out of fire of the Cross, a central image in Mark’s Gospel, and important piece of the puzzle for understanding his use of the salt/fire metaphor.
Seeing Mark in light of the Israelite Story
More than a few Biblical scholars find a reference from this passage in Mark to Leviticus 2:13. There is an early witness (contemporary to Mark) of a scribal note attributing this passage to Leviticus, and thematically this seems the most pertinent connection available to us for working through a difficult interpretation:
“You shall season all your grain offerings with salt. You shall not let the salt of the covenant with your God be missing from your grain offering; with all your offerings you shall offer salt.”-
– Leviticus 2:13
What binds this passage to Mark is the ensuing reference to the process of burning the offerings. In this context, the passage represents allusions to the image of sacrifice that underscore both the Jewish and Gospel narratives. This idea of sacrifice, of allowing the purifying nature of the fire to shape us in a positive direction, is the means by which we are called in scripture to direct our worship outwards to where it belongs, onto God rather than towards the things of this world.
The Sacrifice and the Fire
The section of Mark in which the salt/fire verse is found is titled (in my Bible) Temptations to Sin. We encounter this word “temptation” again in the garden as Jesus approaches the reality of His coming death, his sacrifice. Jesus encourages his disciples in this moment by saying,
“Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation.”
Jesus goes on in this same passage to say that they must do this because “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak”. It is the spirit of Jesus’ baptism that has the power to set our sights in the right direction. In contrast, it is the allure of earthly (fleshly) desires, the things that have no power, that resist the power of the Spirit to set our sights in the right direction. This a picture of the power and forces that are constantly competing for our attention, and it is something that brings to light the two sides of the picture that Mark is speaking of when he outlines the nature of temptation- the ability to resist it or to accept in one way or another.
Drinking The Cup
The words of Jesus’ own prayer that precede this encouragement pushes this thought even further:
“Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me.”
Following Jesus’ final foretelling of his death and Resurrection, He declares our call and our right (as followers of Jesus) to share not only in his baptism, as the Gospel of Mark sets out in his beginning chapters, but also in the “cup that I drink”. Here we find this cup being set against his suffering and his death- his sacrifice for the sake of the world. It is as Jesus faces the reality of his own cup that he goes on to offer us a precedent for which to do the same:
“Yet not what I will, but what you will.”
When faced with temptation, this is what it means to ensure we “have salt in our self”, the kind of saltiness that can attest to the power to the Spirit rather than the idols that compete for our attention (9:50). This image, this metaphor that Jesus provides of cutting off our hand, our foot, our eye- is about submitting the reality of this coming wrath, the looming sense of this unquenchable fire as a picture of God’s great (and just) judgment, to the forming work that God desires to do within us. It is about allowing the reality of Sodom to awaken our senses to the work that God is also doing in the world around us. As a people of salt and light, scripture calls us to recognize and participate in this work as followers of Jesus who are being formed by the spirit through the fire. This is what it means to share in the cup with Jesus, to allow the road to the Cross, the fires of our own exile, struggles and judgment, to exchange our worship of idols for the Worship of the Creator God; and we do so for the sake of bringing God’s light, God’s voice to the world.
Wrestling with Our Own Messianic Expectation
As we look back on the story of Israel and the Jewish people, this story without an ending finds a definitive conclusion in Jesus. It finds ultimate hope in the person of Christ as the answer to the Messianic expectation.
This means that this forming work, the purifying nature of the fire in our own lives, is now purposed towards a greater end than simply judgment. We are no longer left with the ambiguity of Israelite’s past, and it is to this end that we can afford Mark’s marriage of “fire” and “salt” a final piece of clarity.
From One Cup To Another
In Mark 9:41, we encounter another image of the cup, and I can’t help but consider it an intentional connecting point to the “cup” we are called to share in by taking up our Cross.
Talking to the disciples, Jesus says that whoever “gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ will by no means lose his reward”. The reward in this passage appears to be directly connected to the disciples “discussion” in the previous passage, of seeking greatness for being a follower of Christ; and later the reward of being first, or sitting at the right hand of the Kingdom Jesus is building that we find them arguing over in the passage that follows.
Speaking of this reward in the ensuing chapter, Mark 10:30 says,
“there is no one who has left (everything) for my sake the for the gospel who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time… (with persecutions) and in the age to come eternal life.”
So what is the reward we will receive? When we receive the (figurative) child that Jesus holds up for all of us to see, we receive Jesus. And when we receive Jesus we receive access to the Father (Mark 9:37). And so, it is the Worship of God that is our reward, the fellowship with our Creator.
And what must we do to receive this reward? The answer is found in the giving of the cup. Just as we share in the cup that Jesus drank, we are called to share in the lives of others by giving of ourselves. For Mark this is giving up our right to be first, of being the greatest. Here this theology is given a practical outflow in the action of giving water to the thirsty, an action that anticipates God’s ultimate restoring of the created world.
In a similar fashion, Mark 9:50 closes this section with the call to be at peace with one another. Elsewhere, in Matthew 25:31-46 the fire is directly connected to failing to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, and give drink to the thirsty, while in Ezekiel we find the fire that consumed Sodom to be a direct result of failing to attend the needs of those who sat hungry outside of its gates.
Like a Child
So to ask this question again, what must we do to receive this reward? As we approach the revolutionary picture of the Triumphal Entry, a definite moment in which Jesus circumvents our own Messianic expectation and lowers himself to the place of a servant, we are told that we must also learn to become the least of us so that we can also receive the least of us into our midst. We must become a servant of all because Christ came to be a servant to all. To demonstrate this Jesus draws their attention to the image of a child.
What I find most significant about this picture is what it means for those of us who are Christians, who are Christ followers. We are called to receive such a child, not because they have earned a place in the kingdom of God (this is the true power of the image), but simply because they are said to belong to Christ. The nature of a childlike faith is not about what the child has done, but rather about the prevailing nature of God’s unconditional grace and love that He is breathing into the world through Christ. Just as we were given water to drink for the simple reason that we are said to “belong to Christ” (vs 9:41), we are called to extend this same grace to others. In this light, the “Temptations” passage becomes the definitive response to the disciple’s own question of exclusion that precedes it in 9:38.
When considering such fire filled language, we cannot miss this point. This passage is about the the problem of exclusion and the push for inclusion. It is about the way in which the Cross on which Jesus died became the means through which God is accomplishing (and accomplished) His work of restoring our world, of setting things right. For as much as the fire has to do with judgment, the primary concern of this fiery image is to “salt” us into effective imitators of Christ and partakers in God’s great restorative work. For as much as God’s wrath remains a necessary part of this picture, it is the sin of exclusion, the idolatry of earthly measure, and the withholding of God’s grace in the form of neglecting social concern and reform, that is the temptation. In Mark’s Gospel, it is by withholding this grace that we cause sin to enter the lives “of these little ones who believe”, the sin that brings with it a message that they do not belong in the company of God’s people, that they are products of the world (idolatry) rather than a necessary part of God’s restoring and forming work.
A Living Sacrifice
“I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”
– Romans 12:1
It is this notion of sacrifice, of understanding the purpose of the salt and the fire metaphor in the light of Jesus’ work on the Cross, that motivates Paul to write these words. Sacrifice gains life when it directs our worship, in heart and action, towards God and his vision for the world. It gains life when it understands the nature of servanthood, of submitting our own will to God’s greater purpose.
It is no mistake that Paul’s vision of overcoming evil at the end of Romans 12 recognizes this living sacrifice as being accomplished through living “peaceably with all” and “feeding our enemy and giving drink to the thirsty”. As Paul declares, at the Cross we are called to leave it (discussion of God’s judgment of others) “to the wrath of God”, not for our sake, but for the sake of others and the world. In this two-sided picture, the purpose of the fire is to direct ourselves to examine our own hearts first, and then to shift our worship outwards to what God is doing. By directing our worship towards God, God is made visible to the world. By directing our worship to the idols of this world, we hide God’s hopeful message. Without this hopeful message, people will exchange belief in God’s vision, both of themselves and of the world, for false images of who they are and what this world is- God’s loved and cherished creation.
It is by following in the way of the Cross, on the Way of Jesus, that we become witnesses to the work of Christ, both in judgment (of our own hearts) and in grace (in God’s definitive statement that this world is worth saving and that we play a part in this saving work from the place of our own brokenness and failure in the power of the promised Spirit). Just as the Pharisees were cautioned about getting too comfortable in their faith, we should not assume “Abraham as our father” either. Rather we should choose to live in humility as God’s children, to strive to avoid the temptation of telling someone they are not worthy to be called a child of God, and in-fact to become willing to sacrifice our own rights (entitlement) to the kingdom so that others might come to know that they indeed are a child of God. On the Cross, in the fire of the pain and suffering it embodied, we find this was the greatest work of all.