Cutting off our hands?

Pentecost 18

Mark 9:37-50

Marian Free

 In the name of God who urges us to be set free from those things which inflict hurt on others or which bind ourselves to this world. Amen.

If I were to watch the musical Godspel today, I’m sure that I would find it very dated. The great Jesus musicals – Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspel came out of the sixties and Godspel in particular captured the spirit of the age – flower power, peace and love. I first watched Godspel as a film and was especially moved by the way in which the relationships between Jesus and the disciples were played out. Because I had enjoyed it so much I leapt at the chance to take our children when the Arts Theatre produced Godspel. A group of families from our church booked tickets and off we went. All was well until the actors burst into a song about cutting off hands and feet and tearing out eyes. Not only was it incongruous to hear such gruesome things being sung in what was a light hearted sort if way, but I was conscious that collectively we, the parents, were exposing our children to something that really didn’t seem to fit with the gospel of God’s love that we were trying to share with them!

Fortunately, none of them seem to have been scarred by the experience, but it is a memory that has stayed with me and has served as a reminder that our scriptures are not always immediately transparent and open to understanding but can sometimes cause confusion or offense.

The reading from Mark’s gospel today contains at least one incident, a response to that incident and several sets of Jesus’ saying. Last week we saw that Jesus caught the disciples discussing who was the greatest. This week’s reading begins with a continuation of that theme. John informs Jesus that someone is casting out demons in Jesus’ name apparently expecting Jesus to be affronted. Given that the disciples have only recently failed to perform an exorcism, John’s comment reveals a certain smugness about being part of Jesus’ inner circle and a determination to protect the exclusiveness of that relationship.

John’s arrogance is quickly confronted by Jesus who makes the powerful and inclusive statement that: “anyone who is not against us is for us.” Discipleship is not exclusive or hierarchical but is available to anyone who chooses not to opt out. This inclusiveness is illustrated by the comment that anyone who gives a cup of water to the disciples because they are disciples will be rewarded. Being included does not require grand gestures or even heroic self-sacrifice. Even such an apparently small act of giving water demonstrates an allegiance toJesus which will not go unnoticed. So far so good, but suddenly we are confronted by a number of apparently unrelated sayings about millstones, self-mutilation, Gehenna and salt.

We make a mistake if we try to read such groupings as following what we consider to be a logical progression. The various gospel authors placed their material together in ways that made sense to their hearers. In this instance, certain sayings or events or simply catchwords, have led the author to think of others which seem to fit the context. For example, Jesus’ use of a child to confront the arrogance of the disciples follows naturally into another account of the disciples’ arrogance which in turn is illustrated by the damage that such arrogance could do to a child in faith “a little one”. In turn the illustration of the millstone – an extreme form of punishment in that time because the weight of the stone ensures that the guilty person drowns – leads into another set of sayings which are linked to the first by the word “σκανδαλιζω” – to scandalise or to cause to stumble. Not only are the disciples not to claim an exclusive relationship with Jesus, neither are they to do anything that would cause harm to the faith of someone else. In fact their own behaviour should be flawless. They should not behave in ways that would jeopardise their salvation. In fact, to be safe, to be certain of eternal life, they should remove off the offending body part.

It was these words that caused my distress during Godspel. However, I now know that Jesus doesn’t intend us to take these violent instructions literally. Here as elsewhere he uses hyperbole to get our attention and to make a point. Language that is particularly gruesome in the twentieth century would not have been so confronting to Jesus’ audience. They lived in harsher, more violent times. For Jesus to suggest that the community formed in his name should be legless and armless, or that they should all practice self-mutilation would have been understood as ludicrous.

The use of exaggeration by Jesus is not limited to this set of sayings. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus has said that anyone who calls their brother “a fool” is guilty of murder and that anyone who looks at a woman with lust in his heart is an adulterer. It is not that Jesus wants to have us drowning in a sea of guilt, feeling that we will never achieve the impossible standard that he sets or that we will never be worthy of the kingdom. He uses these dramatic statements to help us to recognize and to confront the sort of arrogance that allows us to believe that we are superior to any one else. The arresting sayings are to make us aware of our own short comings and to help us to see that our arrogance is generally ill-founded, to understand that most, if not all of us, have some sort of flaws and that, as a result none of us can lord it over others or congratulate ourselves on how good we are in comparison to them. By our very arrogance or simply through our complacency, Jesus suggests, our words or actions may bring the gospel into disrepute or cause others to misunderstand or to reject the gospel. We might just as we’ll drown ourselves.

While it is a relief to know that we can keep all our appendages, we are not, as a result, let off the hook. Jesus is indeed setting the bar high and encouraging us to rise to the challenge. Arrogance, lust, greed, self-centredness, jealousy, hatred and so on have no place in the life hereafter. That being the case, we would do well to rid ourselves of all such negative qualities now, because they will be of no use and will not be welcome in the Kingdom of God.

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