Sermon on Mark 9:38-50 for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost, Year B, September 27, 2015
John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.
“If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. 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. And 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. And 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, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.
“For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”
Our quest is to follow the path of life that Jesus laid out for us. So, to follow the Jesus-path, we study Jesus. We study his teaching, we study his lifestyle, and we study the people who wrote about Jesus.
So, understanding Jesus is important to us. But Jesus does not live in Gulf Shores or even in the United States, and certainly did not live in our time. So his teaching and his life is contextually situated in quite a different time and place. He spoke a different language. So, we get at Jesus by translation and interpretation – there just is no alternative.
Apparently, Jesus was an effective communicator. He attracted large crowds who gathered, yes for his healing ministry, but also specifically to hear him teach.
What do we know about his teaching style? He loved stories, which we call parables, he loved nature illustrations, like “lilies of the field, birds of the air, and fish of the sea.” And he used hyperbole, or exaggeration.
Jesus: Exaggeration and Humor
Jesus uses both exaggeration and humor in our text, but it may be a bit lost in translation, so we will look at it closely. Again, this is important to us, because we are on the Jesus-path.
There is always a risk when you use humor, that it will not be understood as humor. There is also a risk with exaggeration, that someone will take you literally.
We just had the washing-machine repair man over. He told me how dangerous it was to work on these machines. He had a deep gash on a finger, and explained to me that you have to open up the machine, to get to its parts, and when you do, all of their razor sharp edges are exposed. He said, “all of these machines are made by one company: Gillette.” I laughed. Imagine, a razor-blade brand making washing machines! It was both exaggeration and humor. But, he was saying something true. He had the deep gash on his finger and the stitches to prove it.
But, anyway, Jesus used humor and exaggeration as teaching tools, and people have been misunderstanding him ever since. We will look at how he uses these rhetorical devices, but first, just so we can all be clear, let me say how I understand the conclusion:
- It is in this community that you will experience the presence of God.
- It is in this community that you will become aware of the love of God for you.
- It is in this community that you will experience your identity as a beloved child of God, a person of value.
- In this community, you will come to know yourself as both fallible, but also as forgiven.
- In this community you will find encouragement to stay on the difficult but beautiful Jesus-path; the path of peace, the path of reconciliation, the path of radical welcome and hospitality.
- In this community you will find hope and meaning.
- In this community you will find partners to be engaged with in service and projects of mercy and compassion.
- This community is where your life on earth will be celebrated and remembered when it comes to an end.
This community is crucial. So, in plain English (wink) Jesus says, in conclusion:
“be at peace with one another.”
The Problem of Being Human
The problem is that every community of people is a human community, and we all have our faults, our issues, our dark sides. We all have our places of immaturity. We all have wounds that we still carry around. We all have life experiences – some have had really difficult experiences – and we bring all of that with us when we come together as a community.
So, inevitably, there will be misunderstandings from time to time. There will be times we hurt each other. There will be pain caused to each other. That is why forgiveness is such a high value in this community. We pray, every time we meet, that God will only forgive us to the extent that we practice forgiveness – it is that important.
If this community is going to accomplish its purpose of being all of those crucially important things I just described, we have to all be very intentional about our life together. And that is the subject of Jesus’ teaching, and the point of his humor and exaggeration here.
So he begins, calling us his “little ones.”
“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.”
Jesus has spoken of the importance of children in the community, but in this case, he is talking about his little flock, his community of Jesus-followers. It is essential, he teaches, that we not do anything to trip up each other. We should rather wish to drown ourselves than to be a stumbling block to each other.
Nobody misses the exaggeration here. The word for millstone is the huge one that the donkey pushes around to grind the wheat into flour. If you tried to hang it around your neck it would crush you like a bug before you got to the sea to drown yourself in. So you see, humor, as well as exaggeration here.
But the humor and exaggeration is to make a point: the community of us “little ones” is crucially important: we should all rather die than mess it up.
Who is in this community? By our very nature, as a Jesus-path following community, we are an open community. We are willing to be open to everyone. If you are not against us, Jesus teaches, you are for us. Our welcome is extended. Our door is open. Jesus had to correct John who told him about the exorcist they wanted to shut down. No, Jesus explained: it is not we who shut the door; we are not that kind of community.
“Cut if off…”
So then, Jesus offers some humorous, exaggerated illustrations to make the point about how important this community is. He offers a number “if” phrases followed by “causes you to stumble”, followed by graphic, gruesome advice.
“If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; …And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; …And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out”
Now, we are at church, and in mixed company, and children are present. So we will not talk about the likely double entendres here. Suffice it to say that all of them make the same point: it is crucially important to preserve the integrity of this community by our self-disciplined lives together. We would rather poke out one of our eyes than, by our lack of self-control, cause pain to another person in this little flock.
How do I know there is humor here? Well, I think the phrase that followed each of these graphic images was meant to be funny. Jesus says three times, with variation, it would be better to enter life, the life of the kingdom of God as a lame or a blinded than to miss it through inappropriate, harm-causing behavior. Why is that funny?
Because every Jewish person hearing Jesus would know that the dominant image of people in the kingdom of God is that they are healed and whole. The lame can walk, the blind receive their sight: there are no people on crutches in the kingdom, because they have been restored.
Now, of course this is not literal. In fact it is precisely our love for, and care for the differently-abled or wounded among us that brings healing and restoration to them.
So now we are ready to hear the final bit of absurdly exaggerated rhetoric here. Jesus talks about the alternative to life in the kingdom; it is being cast into hell.
Now, if you have come to bible study, you know that the word translated “hell” here is, in Greek, “Gehenna.” And you also know that Gehenna is a real place. It is a valley, just over the wall of the city of Jerusalem. Most likely, in Jesus’ day it was a burning trash dump. Certainly, that valley had a horrible reputation. The bible tells us that unfaithful Israelite people burned their children there, sacrificing them to the Canaanite god Molech.
It was also a place dead bodies were dumped during the Babylonian siege of the 6th century after they ran out of places to bury them. So Gehenna was a place of the dead, a place of fire, and the worst possible place you can imagine ending up.
And, by the time of Jesus, some Greek-influenced people used it as a metaphor for the Greek version of the after-life.
Jesus did not embrace that Greek view of the after life. This too is gross exaggeration, and perhaps even humor. But it is for a serious effect. It would be as bad as going to the Greek version of hell to mess up the life of the community through inappropriate behavior.
And some of you have been a part of communities that were places where harm was done instead of healing; where instead of being more aware of the love of God, of forgiveness, of goodness, the community practiced shaming, condemnation, and control – even some practice thought control (at least “beliefs” control). And the results are tragic. It can ruin people’s lives.
How different is the community of those on the Jesus-path. This is the path of people who are focused on how we can bring a cup of cold water to each other. It is the community of people who are well seasoned, who have enough salt in ourselves that we can do the difficult work of creating and maintaining peace with one another. And then, as a united community, we find ways of offering water to the thirsty all around us.
Jesus did not come to threaten us with hell. That whole pagan notion comes to us from Greek and Roman mythology through Plato and Virgil. God is good; not partially good and partially something else, but totally good. And God shows up to us as we live in community with each other. We experience the goodness of God together, as a community. It is crucially important that we honor and respect each other. It is essential that we forgive each other. It is our joy to bless each other with our peaceful words, our mutuality, and our openness.
This is the community that is God’s way of loving and healing the world; the world’s people, and the planet itself. We are the hands and feet of Christ, the body of Christ, through which the world knows that God loves them. From the refugees fleeing Syria to the children who show up for tutoring, we are the way God shows justice, mercy, compassion and healing. It is important. It is worth risking misunderstanding by means of exaggerated figures of speech to make the point. So, let us be the people who get the point, and live the Jesus-path.