A friend of mine often says, “Sometimes the good news is bad news before it is good news.” That sure fits today’s gospel (Mark 9:38-50). Today’s gospel tells us that the prognosis is good – life, and peace with one another. But before that comes there is the treatment. And that’s the bad news. The treatment is radical and painful.
Last week we heard the disciples arguing about who is greatest (Mark 9:30-37). It did not, as I said, bring out the best in them. Today, rather than making themselves “last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35) as Jesus had instructed, John tells Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us” (Mark 9:38).
Did you catch that? This guy is doing the work of Jesus. But John and the other disciples try to stop him because he’s not doing it their way. He’s not one of them and they don’t approve.
John is blaming this other guy for getting in their way. He can’t see that he and the other disciples are the ones getting in the way. I wonder if that’s ever happened to you. When have you gotten in the way of yourself or another?
Jesus will have none of it. “Do not stop him,” he tells John and the others. Then he moves the focus from this other guy to the disciples. “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off” (Mark 9:43). “And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off” (Mark 9:45). “And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out” (Mark 9:47).
Jesus isn’t talking about this other guy, he’s talking about the his own disciples. It’s as if Jesus is saying, “Don’t you worry about that other one. You worry about yourself. In what ways are you a stumbling block to yourself?”
What do you make of all that? What does that mean for your life and my life? Stumbling blocks, amputations, and tearing out eyeballs. What are we supposed to do with that?
Several things strike me about today’s gospel.
It’s Not Literal
First, to state the obvious, it doesn’t look to me as if any of you have amputated one of your limbs or torn out one of your eyes. So I’m guessing that either you’ve never stumbled or you’re not reading today’s gospel literally. I’m betting it’s the latter.
Any stock we might put in a simplistic and literal reading of scripture loses its credibility and value with a story like today’s. That doesn’t mean we should interpret away the shock and harshness of Jesus’ words. It means that our interpretation must include and apply that shock and harshness in our lives.
Jesus is not administering a punishment, he’s prescribing the treatment. And it is radical. It cuts to the very core of our integrity and authenticity. We tend to focus on and cringe at the treatment but Jesus is focused on the prognosis, on our future. He sees it as a matter of life or hell. And you and I choose which we want.
Jesus is Serious
The second thing that strikes me is the graphic nature of the images Jesus uses: drowning by millstone, the amputation of hand or foot, the torn out eyeball, the unquenchable fire, hell, the worm that never dies. Those images reveal just how serious and urgent this matter is for Jesus.
Jesus is trying to get our attention. He’s trying to wake us up. He wants us to see the ways in which we are unbecoming ourselves, like salt that has lost its saltiness. He’s showing us that sometimes we betray and turn away from our true selves. That’s when we stumble. And he’s showing us the way back to ourselves.
We don’t need to take those images literally, but do we need to take them seriously. Jesus uses those images four times to talk about what is better for us. “It is better for you,” he says. This gospel is not about condemnation. It is about getting better, about healing. And that means facing some difficult truths about ourselves.
And that’s the third thing that strikes me about today’s gospel. I know exactly what Jesus is talking about. I know times in my life when I have tripped over my own two feet. And I know times when I have caused you or someone else to stumble and fall. And I’ll bet you know what that likes too.
I wonder in what ways you and I have become stumbling blocks to ourselves and one another? The two are related. Every time I stumble and fall I take down someone with me. John and the disciples tripped over themselves before they ever became a stumbling block to the other guy doing Jesus’ work.
Think about it like this. When have you said to yourself, “I’m my own worst enemy?” Or maybe you’ve thought, “I just shot myself in the foot.” Have you ever cut off your nose to spite your face? Have you ever done the same old thing even though you knew it wouldn’t get you any thing or any where new? Those are the moments that describe and point to ways that we have become our own stumbling block.
Think about the metaphors for stumbling blocks Jesus uses in today’s gospel: our hands, feet, and eyes. The very thing that becomes a stumbling block is intended to be a building block for our lives and the lives of others.
Our hands are meant to mold and shape life, to welcome and embrace, to reach out and care, to create, protect, and heal. They are a symbol of action. When have you mishandled a relationship or situation, fumbled the ball of life, held the wrong ideas or allegiances? When have your hands done violence to yourself or another? When have your open and receptive hands become closed fists? In what ways have you hands caused you stumble?
Our feet are meant to move us towards life and more life, to take us to new ways of being, to get us to a better place. They symbolize movement and growth. They can be the means by which we come together or the means by which we trip or kick another. In what ways have you tripped over your own two feet? What places have you gone that were not good for you? When have you stepped on, kicked, or tripped another? When and from whom have you walked away?
Our eyes are meant to see beauty, wisdom, and the holiness of each other and ourselves. They are intended to perceive and discern truth. They offer insight and give us a vision of what faith, hope, and love look like in our lives and relationships. In what ways has your vision been impaired and caused you stumble? When have you walked in the dark, unable to see what was right before you? When have you misperceived the truth and made a wrong judgment? When have you looked at another with anger, hatred, resentment, jealousy?
What is causing you to stumble today? How are you hands, feet, or eyes tripping you up or taking someone else down? In whatever ways you might answer those questions, let your answers be a diagnosis, not a judgment. Let them be a diagnosis of the broken, wounded, and hurting places in your life.
If we truly want to be better, we know what we need to do. That’s the bad news before the good news. It’s a hard prescription.
Jesus prescribes cutting off and tearing out. That’s pretty extreme but here’s the paradox in Jesus’ prescription. We amputate in order to become whole. We cut off in order to reconnect. And we separate in order to return. Maybe that’s what it means to have salt in ourselves – to regain our integrity and authenticity and be at peace with one another.
This gospel is not about good and bad. It’s a gospel of hope, healing, and wholeness. It’s a gospel about accountability to our better selves and to one another.
I wonder what Jesus’ prescription looks like in your life today. What do you need to let go of and empty your hands of? What do you need to walk away from? What places do you need to avoid? What do you need to close your eyes to? What is distorting your vision that you need to turn away from?
I think we came here today because at some level, whether we know it or not, we want to get well. We want to be whole and made better. We have the prescription for our healing and wholeness. Let’s not put it in the junk drawer thinking that we’ll get to it in a few days. What would it take for you to fill the prescription today?