Missing the Salt
Six days later, Jesus took with Him Peter and James and John, and brought them up on a high mountain by themselves. And He was transfigured before them. (Mark 9:2)
When they came back to the disciples, they saw a large crowd around them, and some scribes arguing with them. (14)
When He came into the house, His disciples began questioning Him privately, "Why could we not drive it out?" (28)
But they kept silent, for on the way they had discussed with one another which of them was the greatest. (34)
"For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if the salt becomes unsalty, with what will you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another." (49-50)
As I look at these verses I have been studying for several days now about worms, fire and now salt, I am beginning to see more and more that it is vital to keep the context in mind if I am to understand these things properly. Some of the greatest errors in Christianity have come from taking texts out of context and constructing all sorts of damnable lies about God and about reality that have no credible foundation in the Word of God.
What I have started seeing more clearly here in this chapter (which is an interesting parallel to the last chapter of Isaiah from which Jesus quoted in this chapter) is a sequence of principles and events that help to clarify the somewhat cryptic words of Jesus at the end of this chapter quoted above. Most of the time that I have heard people talk about these verses it has usually been an attempt to explain them without allowing the passage itself to be the interpreter. But the context is here for a reason and we should allow the Word of God to explain itself instead of trying to bring all sorts of preconceived ideas and beliefs and biases to what we see in the Word.
The beginning of this chapter relays the story of the event of the transfiguration of Jesus on a mountaintop in front of three of His disciples. That has always been an exciting story for many Christians to read and it is often used as an analogy to refer to any deep, emotionally moving spiritual experience that we might have that makes us feel like we have encountered God's presence in an unusual way. We talk about coming down from the mount to meet the dark situations at the bottom in everyday life while wishing that we could just stay on the top and keep away from all the other problems in life – a little like Peter expressed about his feelings at that time.
But what I have always missed in the past in reading this chapter is the continuity and close linkage of the whole chapter and how it all fits together very tightly to help open up these words of Jesus at the end of the chapter. What alerted me to this was my question as to why Jesus mentioned the need to be at peace with one another. As I pondered this a few days ago I began noticing clues in the context and suddenly realized how little we have paid attention to this context when trying to understand these words of Jesus at the end.
These statements of Jesus are in direct response to the arguing of the disciples about who was the greatest among them. This seemed to be an all too common occurrence among them and they seemed to do it with embarrassing regularity. I think that some of us think we are exempt from such childish activities until our own eyes might be opened to see the many ways in which we cloak our own justifications of ourselves and our vain attempts to feel valuable by comparing ourselves with others in millions of subtle ways. Nearly everything in our life too often revolves around a subtle attempt to feel better by measuring ourselves with others to see how we are doing or how God might be feeling about us at the moment.
As I looked back farther in the chapter it suddenly became very clear just why the disciples could have been induced into arguing about this. If we would allow ourselves to get into their potential emotions given the circumstances they were in it would be very easy to see why they would be comparing themselves with each other and arguing about who was better or less important among them.
Peter, James and John had just enjoyed one of the most spectacular moments in human history by being allowed to see glorious things humans are seldom exposed to at all. In verse one Jesus had predicted that some would literally see the kingdom of God and then immediately it tells the story of His transfiguration. I don't know of anyone who wouldn't want to experience such an encounter with God and with visitors directly from heaven in real time even though we have little idea of what that might involve. But there is clearly an immense hunger in the hearts of nearly every fallen human being to experience something of a supernatural sort and feel more fulfilled as a result.
But in sharp contrast to what they were privileged to enjoy with Jesus, the other disciples simultaneously were left at the bottom of the hill with an experience that was nearly the exact opposite of what Peter, James and John were enjoying. They found themselves the target of derision and jibes from the religious elite of the day as they floundered through failed attempts to cast out a demon from a boy who had been brought for healing and deliverance. As both demons and humans joined in the revelry by heaping shame and contempt on these followers of Jesus, they could hardly have felt any worse. They were humiliated, embarrassed and yet could not escape their devasting situation because they were waiting for Jesus and the other three disciples to return from the mountaintop and hopefully rescue them.
In the aftermath of these two events it should start to become evident that there was a natural opportunity for all of the disciples to want to compare themselves with each other as far as value and status were concerned. It could easily have seemed clear, especially to the three privileged disciples who had just personally met Elijah and Moses on the mountaintop, that they had obviously been selected to be greatly honored and were likely destined for greatness in the emerging kingdom that they expected Jesus to set up on earth. In sharp contrast to this it seemed just as obvious that the other disciples were seriously inferior somehow because of their sad inability to perform such a seemingly small miracle. Jesus had exposed a lot of unbelief in His words to both those involved and later to His disciples in private. It seemed very humiliating that they had failed to be able to do what all of them had previously been commissioned to do when they had been sent out to preach and declare the coming Kingdom of God per Jesus' instructions. (Mark 6:7-13)
Given that context it now becomes quite clear why the disciples were caught arguing among themselves as to who was the greatest. They had fallen yet again into the very common trap of measuring worth and importance based on external circumstances instead of trusting the heart of God and believing that Jesus cared equally for each of them. The more I see the dynamics of this story the more I realize how much I am caught in this very same trap far too often. When things are going well it is easy to think that God's loves me and is blessing me and cares for me. But when I am confronted with demons that refuse to back down and all of my resources fail to overcome the enemies and they are making sport of me, it is very easy to feel like God has forsaken me, or worse yet is maybe angry with me for something I have done that has offended Him.
Notice who is was that was at the forefront of deriding the humiliated disciples left at the bottom of the hill. It was the scribes, the people who's job it was to translate, copy and be the experts on the Word of God. It was people from the seminary you might say, that were leading the taunts against these men who were supposedly introducing a 'new theology' that was supposed to be better than the traditional religion practiced by the mainstream. It seemed obvious that this new upstart religion had fatal flaws in it if it couldn't provide the power necessary to cast out a demon from a young boy. Clearly there were inconsistencies in this new religion if sometimes it worked and other times it failed. All the indicators seemed to show that this new upstart religion was suspect at best and the religious leaders were quick to point out all the problems and faults and apparent weaknesses as clearly as possible.
In addition to all these problems, Jesus had just emphatically insisted to the three disciples who had accompanied Him up the mount that they should not tell anyone about their experience until after His resurrection. So after having one of the most stunning experiences that a human could ever encounter fresh in their imagination, they were now prohibited from sharing it with even their closest associates. I suspect they may have been nearly bursting at the seams with desire to tell the other disciples about what had just happened but at the same time were needing to restrain themselves in obedience to the stern words of Jesus just given to them.
Given those circumstances, it would very likely have been an enormous temptation to try to do something else to convey their intense emotions to others without revealing the exact details of just what had taken place. And that 'something else' turned out to be a temptation to think that they were somehow superior to the other disciples given their recent obvious failure to deliver a possessed child from demonic control at the bottom of the mountain.
With all of these intense feelings and dynamics swirling around in everyone's minds, it becomes more clear that there was likely very little peace being experienced among these disciples. With three of them feeling tempted to think they had been honored somehow as better than the rest while the others were feeling more shame than they had felt maybe in their whole lifetimes, there is very little reason to believe that peace was a significant descriptor of the dynamics going on in their midst. To the contrary, with all of the comparisons going on both internally and externally, the likely results were conflict, suspicion, pride and confusion as the order of the day.
It is from this context that Jesus chose to speak the words that I have come here to study. And I believe that it is important to immerse myself in the context of the emotions swirling around in this chapter if I am to get a better understanding of what Jesus was really talking about when He mentions worms and fire and salt and peace. Jesus is always trying to get us to think radically differently than what we normally do and this is certainly a classic example of that. If I want to be able to grasp more clearly what Jesus really means by these strange words I must allow myself to get into the story and perceive some of the emotions of the people He was addressing and possibly why He was saying what He said.
Father, thank-you for helping me to see a little bit more of what is going on in this passage. Continue to open my mind and my heart to see how much I am just like these disciples – both groups of disciples. Sometimes I feel shamed, humiliated and devastated as things seem to clearly imply that I am worthless and it seems that you are far away, blessing others and forgetting all about me. Yet other times I can be tempted to feel that I am privileged above others and may tend to think that I am better than other people because of those privileges.
Forgive me for measuring myself by my circumstances. Keep reminding me that Your love never changes and should not be measured by what other religious people – or any people for that matter – might think about me in any given situation. Remind me to let You keep Your salt in my heart, Your passion in my life so that I will not lose the strong flavoring properties of the presence of Jesus that You want to infuse into those who come into my sphere of influence. Keep Your passionate love fresh in my heart today for Your name's sake. Amen.