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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
Yesterday I was thinking about times when I’ve been given the choice between 2 awful things and the first thought I had was one I ended up putting on Twitter which is never the best idea …. but anyway: As someone as disillusioned by American as everyone else I tweeted that the choice between Democrats and Republicans feels not unlike the choice between Syphilis and Gonorrhea.
In our text for today we are seemingly confronted with a similarly unenviable choice – namely the choice between hacking off our own hands and feet… or going to hell. Some choice, huh? On the surface it looks like Jesus is saying to us: here is the cost of discipleship – if you really love me you will be willing to hack off your own limbs to avoid making any mistakes. At least that’s what I remember hearing when I was growing up, that if you really love Jesus you would want more than anything in the world to be good enough for him to love you back. And sometimes that might mean hurting yourself. So are you willing to cut off a hand, would you literally gouge your own eye out if it made you a person who was worthy of eternal life? Because that’s the level of commitment demanded here. That’s the prescription for following Jesus.
But if that’s what it takes to be a disciple, all I can do is look with despair at these extreme and somewhat creepy demands I can never live up to and wonder why in the world Jesus wants me to hurt myself and not be a whole person. I mean…I love Jesus but I kinda love my hands and feet and eyes too.
But what if this passage in Mark isn’t a discipleship manual. What if it’s not prescriptive. What if it’s descriptive. Maybe it’s not a prescription for how to make yourself a good Christian –but a description of what happens to you, to us, when we are swept up into this kingdom of God thing.
I may not be willing to maim myself in order to be a good person, but I can tell you that God has removed some hellish things in my life that I was so attached to that they felt like parts of my own body
Maybe the cutting away that Jesus describes is less like some kind of weird self-mutilation of redemptive suffering and is more like being freed from the Matrix…. You know, that 1999 movie where humans were unwittingly plugged into a computer organism and the characters who had been unplugged, who had been freed from the Matrix were identifiable by scars on the back of their necks. The back of the neck is where they had previously been shackled to the Matrix. And when they chose to have real life and not just be in bondage to the machine they were unplugged from it. But it hurt to be unplugged. Maybe like having something cut off of their body, it hurt to have the illusion pulled away. But in exchange, they got life. Real life, not an illusion and with that real life came real freedom and real purpose.
I’ve had things like that in my life. Things that blocked out the light of Christ, but that I was so profoundly attached to that I was sure I’d never survive without them. The unhealthy relationship that I was so certain that if it ended I’d die… and it ended and I was better off for it. Or like how before I sobered up, alcohol was making my life hell and yet doing without it was the most terrifying thing I could imagine. Because I believed I could not possibly function without drinking, to have the bottle taken from me felt as though my own hand was being cut off.
So I started to wonder what other things are we so attached to that they feel like essential parts of us but are actually making our lives hell and the very things that we need to be freed from.
Like how sometimes my fear is such a part of me it is like sinew connected to bone. My self-interest has nerves and veins. My resentments or addictions, or self-loathing or pride can seem like such an embedded essential part of me that they become my own eyes.
Like maybe you’ve always seen ourselves as a victim. Or the way your relationship to money, regardless of how much you have is always one of scarcity. Or maybe you see your family of origin in the same way you did 10 or 20 years ago even though maybe they’ve changed.
Because if these things cause us to stumble… meaning if they get in the way of God doing God’s thing in our lives and in the world, watch out, because God will have no compunction about cutting it all away. We may want to keep these viewpoints, keep these ways of seeing ourselves, others and the world but that can be hell. And having them removed can be life. Even if the process is painful.
The freedom provided by living out this Gospel is real. But I respect you guys too much to not admit that the process isn’t usually a pleasant one. It hurts to have things torn from us, to have the bottle taken out of our hands, to have bad relationships end, to have the way we see ourselves and the world change. Even if the result of this cutting away is life and freedom, But to be clear: God cuts and hacks and heals these things not to exercise power or punish…but to free us.
So I guess I hear this teaching of Jesus like this: If your hand or anything else you think you are so attached to causes you to be in bondage, if your old way of seeing yourself and the world is causing you hell, God may just cut it off; It is better for God to take away that which is killing you than for you to keep it and remain unchanged.
That’s being a disciple. See, people think Christians look like Ned Flanders: super duper clean cut and sparkling with painful politeness…but you can actually identify us by our wounds. You wanna see a Christian? look for someone who is figuratively missing a hand. You wanna spot someone who lives in real Christian freedom? Look for the one-eyed guy.
The Apostle Paul, in his letter to the church in Philipi said “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection, sharing in his suffering, conform to his death.” This process of being these one eyed, gimpy handless disciples…this is what it means to be conformed to Christ… for lest we forget, the very body of our risen Lord was a wounded body.
….Which brings me back to Democrats and Republicans. I wonder if we didn’t see exactly what I am describing happen this week in the US Congress when Pope Francis spoke to some of the most powerful people in the world – people perhaps attached to the Matrix of war profiteering and corporate greed and power – and the Holy Father spoke to them Gospel words of human dignity and the common good and the likeness of God in every human face, and the abolition of the death penalty and the care of the stranger and immigrant, and the blood soaked money of the weapons industry.
And as Pop Francis spoke, the Speaker of the House John Boehner wept. And then next day announced that he would be resigning. We were told in the news that this was simply a case of party politics. Now obviously I don’t know the guy – but I when I heard that the Gospel of Jesus Christ was preached at a joint session of Congress one day and the next day the Speaker of the House resigned – I wondered if it wasn’t actually due to political expediency at all but due to repentance, as though an axe removed from him what he was so attached to so that he might have life. I like to think so. Maybe he too is a gimpy one-handed, half-blind disciple who just cant see himself and the world the same way again. That just sounds like something Jesus would do?