Jesus is looking forward and seeing his coming passion. He has now spoken twice about what is going to happen, making very clear predictions. The disciples, meanwhile are arguing about who is going to be greatest in the kingdom. They’re passion for power and their petty attitudes continue when they come running to Jesus upset that someone else is taking their place and casting out demons in Jesus’ name even though this other person is not part of their inside group.
There are a couple of lessons here. First, it is a fault of religious people that they want to get into their own holy huddle and exclude others. We want to be right and we want our little group to be right and we want to either get others into it or exclude them from it. This is not the way of the gospel. It is a human lust for power and control. The apostles’ self serving attitudes contrast sharply with Jesus growing intention to move on to Jerusalem and complete the task he was sent to d0–exactly the opposite of seeking power. Instead, as he said the passage preceding this, his way is the way of service and sacrifice, not claiming power for himself. Mark uses the apostles’ attitudes and ambitions to contrast with Jesus’. The comment at the end of the passage about giving them a cup of water is a symbolic foreshadowing of the thirst Jesus will experience on the cross.
Now since the turning point of the Transfiguration Mark will constantly contrast what is happening with the excitement of Jesus’ growing ministry and the apostle’s ignorance and blind-ness with the clarity of Jesus’ vision and the haunting premonitions of his impending passion.
Having said that “Whoever receives a little child in my name receives me and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me” Jesus now returns to the theme of childhood. In contrast again to the apostles worldly ambitions and ego Jesus puts a child before them. This time it is to warn them against offending a little one. If they do they are damned. It is better for them to have a huge millstone hung around their head and be thrown into the sea. The image of being thrown into the sea hearkens back to Jonah who rebelled against the Lord and was thrown into the sea, and it echoes the unclean swine who were thrown into the sea after the demons entered them. Scandalizing a child therefore is equivalent to rebellion and being infested with demons and being damned.
But there is more to this than meets the eye. Jesus has already said, “If you accept a child you accept me and if you accept me you accept God the Father.” Now he is saying the opposite is also true. If you reject a child you reject me and if you reject me you reject the Father and are damned.” Now warning of damnation Jesus gives three stark words. In ancient times when a teacher spoke three times it was the most solemn form of teaching. “If you hand offends you cut it off. If your foot offends you cut it off. If your eye offends you pluck it out.” This threefold warning is most solemn. It is better to enter life maimed than to enter Gehenna.
Gehenna was the city dump outside Jerusalem. It was the place where garbage was dumped, but the city sewers also emptied into it. It was also a place where trash was burning constantly. It is therefore a vivid and terrible picture of hell. Hell is where the trash goes. Hell is the place of stench, decay, waste and horror. Furthermore, Jewish tradition was that Gehenna was also the place where, in Old Testament times, the horrible pagan god Moloch was worshipped. Moloch was a giant hollow statue with a furnace inside. The pagans put their children into the mouth of the god and they were burnt alive. The Jews turned the place into a dump in order to defile the former worship place of the god. Furthermore, Gehenna, the trash heap was also where the bodies of their enemies would be thrown after battle. They rotted there and were a terrible sight to see.
Jesus’ words about the “worm dying not” is a quote from the prophet Isaiah: “They shall go out and see the corpses of the people who rebelled against me; For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be extinguished; and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.”
When we put all these images together Jesus’ words about hell are truly horrific. Hell is the place of decay and death, stench and misery where worms eat the flesh of the corpses and fire smolders forever burning those who rebel against God–and who reject Jesus.
Jesus jumps from the image of fire in Gehenna to the fire of the burnt sacrifices in the temple. Some manuscripts read, “Every sacrifice will be salted with salt.” So the burning fire of purgatory will cleanse the sacrifices we make and purify us. With a few simple words Jesus is piling up several images. He warns of the fires of hell, but he also recommends the purifying fire of presenting ourselves as sacrifices to God–thus living with him the way of service and sacrifice. St Paul says in Romans, “Brothers and sisters present yourselves as a living sacrifice to God–which is your reasonable service. So Jesus concludes this session teaching us to turn away from our selfish worldly ambitions and to follow him in the way of the cross–the way of service and sacrifice.