The Gospel reading for Sunday follows Jesus’ confrontation with the disciples over greatness in the kingdom (v. 33). The incongruity of the disciples’ conversation, of course, is in the fact that it comes immediately after Jesus’s announcement that he, the Son of Man, will soon die as a consequence of betrayal “at human hands” (v. 31). He will rise again. But tall this seems to elicit only fear and ignorance from the disciples (v. 32). Jesus, always the good teacher, uses a child nearby as an illustration of what ought to be the object and manner of their faith. The disciples’ work ought to be oriented around welcoming children in Jesus’ name, an implicit contrast to their aspirations for greatness.
And speaking of doing things in Jesus’ name… Vs. 38-50, at first glance, seem disconnected from Jesus’ foretelling of his death and welcoming children in his name. In fact, Mark has John interject, rather abruptly, that he and the other disciples caught someone in the act of casting out demons in “in your name.” Naturally, they “tried to stop him…” Jesus handles this interruption with his usual aplomb: “Whoever is not against us is for us,” especially if they’re working in Jesus’ name (39-40). The point, it seems, is that doing something in and for Jesus’ name, whether casting out demons or welcoming children, is meritorious.
On the other hand, placing a stumbling block before “these little ones who believe in me” warrants a punishment worse drowning by millstone. Do whatever you need to, Jesus admonishes, to prevent yourself from becoming an obstacle to yourselves and others: cut off your hand or foot, tear out your eye, get rid of whatever of yours that might cause you to harm the little ones. Better to be maimed than end up in hell, for even the maimed can still do works in Jesus’ name.
The reading ends with Jesus admonishing the disciples to remain salty and be at peace. This final section seems to be the connection to John’s interjection in v. 38. While the references to salt are highly enigmatic, it is apparent that Jesus sees the disciples’ behavior there as placing a stumbling block before a little one. Be at peace with the little ones, welcome them, and discipline yourselves. This final admonition to disciple finds resonances with James’s exhortation to copious prayer and confession: “confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective” (5:16).