Text: Mark 9: 43-47
If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. 45And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. 47And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell -Mark 9:43-47
Don’t you just love an impossible text? There are parts of the Bible that I have struggled with for years and to be honest, this is one of those parts. What are we to think? That God wants us to hurt ourselves? Are we to think this is the real cost of discipleship? I’m sorry, but I just can’t go there; this is not the God I have come into relationship with and this in no way is reflective of Jesus as I understand him. So what are we to think?
The other day I was in a conversation I probably had no business being in. Ever been in one of those? I was conversing with someone who was just having a fit about genetically modified foods and the labeling and nutrition and a whole host of other things that seem to go along with this ongoing controversy. Is it a controversy? I’m not even sure; like I said, I had no business being in this conversation because I have zero information about the topic. I literally know nothing about it. As a matter of fact, I know that sometimes it is referred to as GMO foods, but I don’t even know what the “O” stands for – genetically modified I can figure out, but the “O” – I actually don’t have any idea.
Any way, I got sucked into this conversation (even though I know nothing about the topic) and I asked a question. I asked if it was genetic modifications that have given us things like seedless watermelons or drought resistant wheat and asked if those were not good things. The response was quick and curt; “well, you can always have too much of a good thing.”
I’m still not certain that answered my question, but it did get me thinking about this text.
With this particular text I think our natural tendency is to think of what is being described here is a prescription for following Jesus. In other words, you have to be so devoted, you have to be so committed, you have to be so blinded by your faith that you are willing to hack off limbs and gouge out eyes in order to stay true to Jesus. Really? That just doesn’t sound like Jesus to me.
But what if this isn’t a prescription for following Jesus at all; what if it is a description of what happens to us so many times in life. What happens to us in life is often too much of a good thing. And if we remember that the focus of Jesus’ ministry was to reform Judaism, that is also what had happened to that religion, too much of a good thing.
For example I think we could look at alcoholism this way. Many of us enjoy a little bit of alcohol every once in awhile. I’m personally not a big wine or beer drinker, but I have been known to enjoy a margarita on rare occasion. When we are celebrating or having a nice meal or at a wedding or anytime the situation is appropriate I think most of us would consider a little bit of alcohol a good thing. But you ramp that up to too much of a good thing and your problems grow exponentially. Not only that, but when confronted with the prospect of removing alcohol from the alcoholic, it seems to me, that it is just as traumatic and removing an actual part of that person. Alcohol has become such a part of the person that it is the same as a hand or a foot or even an eye. And that is what Jesus does, Jesus removes those things in our lives that have become stumbling blocks, even when we think they are as important to us as an actual limb.
Is this not also a description of what had happened to ancient Judaism? Perhaps the law began as a good thing. We can see historical evidence of why some of the laws were created or what the good intention was behind the idea. Not eating pork comes to mind. When pork is not cooked well enough or stored properly people get sick and die when they eat it; so they made a law to stay away from pork. Makes sense. But then they kept adding to the law, it became a reason for being, it began to be a stumbling block, the law became more important than the person. Yet, for the priests and the scribes and the Pharisees they would have much rather hacked off a hand or a foot than disturb the law. It was that much a part of them.
I think this is almost a universal danger; at times we can all become so attached to something that it blots out the light of Christ. We can become so attached to something that without even realizing what is happening, our allegiance switches from that of love, or that of following Jesus, to protecting the thing that is a part of us. It could be the law in ancient Judaism, it could be the alcohol for the alcoholic or it could be any number of other things on which each and every one of us place too much importance. It may have started as a good thing, but as we have all heard and know, you can have too much of a good thing.
Thing is, this isn’t a problem limited to just alcoholics or ancient Judaism. It is alive a well today. In my mind, we can translate this text to help our understanding in this way. When something causes us to stumble-I read that in this way: When we fail to love, when we fail to honor the person, when we fail to practice compassion or humility or tolerance, we stumble. So when that happens, we need to identify where in our lives something exists that is really too much of a good thing, and cut it out. Remove it from our being. It can feel like losing a limb, but it is descriptive of what the love of God does in our lives.
Modern Christianity in many settings isn’t all that different from ancient Judaism. We love to make rules and creeds and customs; we love to point out when others fail to tow the line or walk the walk. We relish the chance to be superior and more self-righteous than the next person. But in our exuberance to “serve the Lord” we forget the lost and lonely, we forget the least of those among us and we forget that all are children of God. And when we forget; we stumble; and when we stumble it is time for some surgery. If anything gets in the way of God working through us in the way that God intends, it is time to get it out of the way. There are times it may feel like we are losing a part of ourselves.
But as we lose, we also gain. We gain freedom from the bondage of too much of a good thing. We gain the Good News of the gospel and we gain the freedom to love and honor all. To be clear, God doesn’t hack and saw and remove our stumbling blocks to punish us. The removal process is the only way to begin the healing and the healing is the path to freedom and the freedom is the Good News which Jesus promises.
As I said in the beginning; don’t you just love impossible texts?
In a few moments we will be practicing the sacrament of Holy Communion. As you come forward to receive the elements or perhaps receive some special prayer, one question you may ask yourself is this: “what kind of surgery are we performing today?” Amen.