Cut It Off

September 30, 2018/Mark 9:38-50


I wonder if Jesus ever wanted to just throw his hands up and groan and walk away.

The disciples in Mark’s gospel give him ample reason to turn his back on them.  Earlier in this chapter Jesus tells the disciples for the second time that he will be betrayed and killed and then will rise again, “but they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.”

They were afraid to ask him, although clearly Jesus had been very open and direct in telling them what the future held, but they were not afraid to debate among themselves who was the greatest.  They were not afraid to chastise a man who cast out demons in Jesus’ name, even though they themselves had been unable to cast the demon from the young boy.  “We tried to stop him,” John told Jesus.  You can almost see him standing proudly in front of Jesus, chest puffed out, stroking his collar as he added, “because he was not following us.”

These disciples just don’t get it.

They don’t get what Jesus is about.  They don’t get what Jesus is trying to teach them.  They don’t get that they are in real danger of being the problem rather than the solution.

It’s a wonder Jesus doesn’t throw his hands in the air and walk away.

Instead of leaving them, he teaches them, yet again.  But this teaching is heavy with warning.  “If any one 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’ exasperation with the disciples comes through in his harsh words.  Millstones, cutting off hands or feet, plucking out eyes.  These are heavy words.  They reveal “Jesus’s growing sense of urgency.  His frustration at how easily his disciples get distracted.  His impatience at how often they get bogged down in minutiae.”[1]

Jesus seems to shout:

Faith is hard!  So much is at stake!  What you say and do, what you focus on, what you prioritize as my disciples – these things matter!  Your choices have life-and-death consequences.  So please don’t be stumbling blocks.  Please don’t make faith harder for yourselves and others than it already is![2]

“The church is not an island of sanctity in a sea of sin, but an arena in which Satan remains active.”[3]  “‘Cut it off’ and ‘pluck it out’ are not to be taken literally but as injunctions of increasing inwardness against sin in general: ‘If your hand offends you …’: Don’t commit sins!  ‘If your foot offends you …’: Don’t go anywhere where you may commit sins!  ‘If your eye offends you …’: Don’t even think about committing sins!”[4]

“We might read this call to ‘cut off’ what leads us to sin as a call to examine the sources of our sinfulness and to eradicate them as best we can.”[5]  But first, we must understand exactly what sin is.  One writer tells of teaching a group of children who were preparing to make their first confession.  She says one little boy called her over “and proudly declared, ‘Teacher, I hit my sister in the car so I could have a sin to confess.’”[6]  Yet we often interpret sin this way – as some horrible action that is “totally disconnected from our everyday lives.  Sin, however, is typically much more insidious.  Sin tears at our relationship with God and others; it is a way of being in the world.”[7]

“If Jesus is telling us the truth in this passage, then it is entirely possible for Jesus’s beloved ‘little ones’ to stumble because of our carelessness, our apathy, our unkindness, our dogmatism, our prejudices, our unforgiveness, our laziness, and our fear.  It is even possible for them to stumble as a result of our well-intentioned efforts to protect God, protect the Church, and protect the ‘purity’ of our religion.”[8]

If we look back at the verses that precede our text for today, revisit that argument between the disciples over who was the greatest, we see Jesus take a little child in his arms and quietly tell the twelve, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”  Their argument created a fracture in their community that only deepened as they criticized the work of an outsider – one who was not following them.  Instead, Jesus cautions them, they must have salt in themselves, and be at peace with one another.

Debie Thomas tells of a difficult time in her marriage when their therapist offered advice that she still clings to:

What would it look like for each of you to help the other person succeed?  Instead of calling out each other’s faults; instead of focusing only on your own comfort and rightness; instead of making an already hard road even harder for your partner to travel; what if you each committed to helping the other succeed?  What if you cleared paths for each other?  Removed obstacles for each other?  Helped each other toward success?[9]

The disciples face a critical moment in this text.  At this moment they must decide, and their decision will either purify them or punish them.[10]  If they choose not to have salt in themselves – if they lose their saltiness – they “give up the wellspring of communal peace.”[11]  Jesus illustrates to them the “profound connection between internal substance [or wisdom] and external harmony.”[12]  The whole text points out “the human selfishness and conceit that give rise to disunity and intolerance, wreaking havoc in the church as well as in other arenas.”[13]

“Have salt in yourselves,” Jesus urges the disciples.  Maintain those qualities that will preserve and enhance the community.  “From all that Jesus said as he journeyed the way to Jerusalem with his disciples, it becomes clear that their saltiness involves being humble in their relationships with each other, giving of themselves for others, reaching out and accepting all the people around them.  They are to ‘be at peace with one another.’”[14]

Good words not just for the disciples, but for us as well.

[1] Debie Thomas, “If It Causes You to Stumble,” Journey with Jesus, 23 September 2018

[2] Ibid.

[3] Joel Marcus, Anchor Yale Bible: Mark 8-16, 695-696

[4] Ibid., 697

[5] Pearl Maria Barros, “Cut It Off,” Sojourners, September-October 2018, 49

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Thomas

[9] Ibid.

[10] Marcus, 698

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., 699

[13] Ibid.

[14] Harry B. Adams, Feasting on the Word B/4, 120

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