Grace Presbyterian Church
September 26, 2021, Pentecost 18B
Cut It Off!
One of the more frustrating things about watching television is inconsistency in the characters who populate a given show. The same thing is true, I suppose, for movies of a serial-type nature. You know what I mean: something happens in one episode, a thing that gives every appearance of being significant or life-changing for one of the characters or perhaps all of them, and yet in the next episode they’re carrying on or going about their business as if the thing never happened.
I think sometimes we Christians, especially us preacher types or commentators upon scripture, are guilty of something similar. We are given a passage to observe or preach or analyze, but manage to forget or overlook that the passage in question is actually a continuation of the action from a previous passage, and fail to account for that connection in expounding upon the passage in question.
In order to avoid that mistake, therefore, let me first make this observation: I should have hung a “TO BE CONTINUED” sign on the end of last week’s sermon. Today’s reading from the gospel of Mark really does continue exactly where last week’s reading left off. We should assume, as Mark has set up his narrative, that Jesus and the disciples are in the same place they were at the end of last week’s reading. We should not forget that in that passage, Jesus had taken a small child into his arms as he instructed the disciples about welcoming those of no status (like that child), and we should probably assume the child is still present at least as this reading opens. (Children being children, the child might have run off at some point during the reading, particularly when Jesus lights into his disciples around verse 42.)
And perhaps most especially, we should remember that John’s words recorded in verse 38 follow directly after those words Jesus spoke about welcome in verses 35-37. This might help us understand how Jesus responds to John’s words starting in verse 42, a response that would, in modern terms, best be labeled as a ‘rant.’
While Peter is the disciple with the most dunderheaded reputation, John gives him a run for his money here. Jesus has barely gotten the words out of his mouth about welcome, and John starts bragging about shutting down a man who was casting out demons – doing good things for people – in the name of Jesus, shutting him down because – note these words – “he was not following us.” Don’t let that pronoun slip by. Not that he was not following Jesus: “he was not following us.” Sure sounds like John is still on that power trip the disciples were arguing about on the road, the argument that Jesus called out in verse 33.
Jesus in turn shuts John down for that, and makes the seemingly obvious point that anyone who is performing deeds of good and of power in Jesus’s name isn’t particularly likely to turn on Jesus in the next breath. Verse 40 is interesting, in that Mark’s presentation of this phrase is the reverse of a similar phrase that appears in Matthew (12:30) and Luke (11:23): “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.”
Remembering our context from last week and comparing it to the context of those verses will help us understand the difference. In both Matthew and Luke, the phrase is uttered in the context of harassment by the religious authorities; in both Matthew and Luke Jesus is accused of being literally in league with the devil. On the other hand, in Mark the “enemy” John is calling out is just some anonymous guy helping people in Jesus’s name – maybe not even all that different from the child and all that child represents in Jesus’s teaching, those of no status or importance in the world’s eyes.
It is from here that Jesus launches into his rant, one of the more virulent passages spoken by Jesus in scripture and one that is frequently misinterpreted as to its application. Again, the context we’re carrying forward matters, and matters a lot.
Remember who the “little ones” of verse 42 are: not only the literal child Jesus was putting before them, but all of those of that same status in Roman society – that is, no status at all. To put a “stumbling block” or any kind of obstacle before any of those “little ones who believe in me” is, to Jesus, about as reprehensible as a person can be. The image presented here is shocking, to be sure: a millstone – a great, heavy stone, probably as big as a man and used for grinding grain – being tied around one’s neck and that one being tossed into the sea. It puts the “cement shoes” image of many Mafia movies to shame.
If we’re going to be horrified by that image, than we’d better understand how reprehensible it is to put an obstacle before those seeking to follow after Jesus. You’d be better off with the cement shoes.
The next part, a parallel sequence, is perhaps even more shocking and is the part regularly misinterpreted. Again, context matters. The hand or foot or eye causing us to stumble needs to be viewed in the context of John’s boast about shutting down that man casting out demons. While it’s hard to imagine our hands, feet, or eyes somehow provoking us to put obstacles before others seeking to follow Jesus, it’s not at all hard to imagine our pride or ego or ambition causing us to do so. And as Jesus says here, we would do well to “cut it off” rather than to hold on to that which provokes us to harm others.
We tend to read this stretch as pertaining to one’s own personal sins, and sins of a sexual nature are often presumed to be the object of this part of the rant. The point here is not to say that such sins are excluded. It’s impossible to look at the number of sexual abuse and cover-up cases that are attached to churches in recent years, ranging from the Roman Catholic church to the Southern Baptist Convention and numerous others, and not conclude that the abuses of priests and pastors and other leaders have placed horrifying “stumbling blocks” in the lives of those victims of abuse, most of whom were likely trying to figure out how to follow Jesus or “be a good Christian.”
No, the point here is not to dismiss those sins, but also not to limit our understanding of this passage to such sins. Anything that places an obstacle before one of God’s children is subject to this rebuke. Anything we do, no matter how we might justify it in our own eyes, that places a stumbling block before those who Jesus calls “the least of these” in Matthew 25 is subject to this rebuke. Take your pick of which is more horrifying, the millstone-around-the-neck image or the suggestion of cutting off body parts; but understand from these images how reprehensible it is to harm the “little ones” seeking to follow after Jesus, the “least of these” we are called to serve instead of judge, God’s children, all of them.
There is also the suggestion that this rebuke might be invoked corporately; to the body of Christ as a whole and not just to individuals. There may be things about the church as it exists in today’s world that are more hindrance than help to the world and might themselves need to be “cut off.” That probably needs to be a sermon of its own at some point.
The final verses seem a bit out of place here, but perhaps they do connect after all. The image of being “salted with fire,” as best as I can find, seems to refer to the sacrificial practice of the Temple; as the sacrifice was offered, it was salted, as a sign of its goodness, so that the sacrifice offered was the best it could be. So we, as we offer our lives before God in whatever way God calls us, are “salted.”
We are given the “seasoning” needed to make us fit vehicles for the working of the Holy Spirit in the world, to make us true followers of Jesus on earth. When we lose that “saltiness,” we become (in the context of this reading) those who hinder and harm and place stumbling blocks before others who seek to follow Jesus or to answer God’s call or simply to be open to the work of the Holy Spirit. On the other hand, when we have that saltiness in us, we are at peace with one another, and ready to be welcoming to the “little ones” that the world deems unimportant or useless, the ones Jesus welcomes and charges us to welcome.
Last week’s reading showed us how Jesus instructed his disciples in the welcoming of those society calls the least important. This week’s reading, continuing the story, emphasizes how wrong it is, even how reprehensible it is, not to do so. Given the examples Jesus uses here, one might even say it’s a fate worse than death. Given the degree to which large swaths of today’s church seem to crave the opposite for themselves, currying favor with the powerful and lofty of status, it may well be that the biggest need in the larger church today, that most vitally necessary for the church to be the body of Christ we’re called to be, is to figure out what it is that makes us to hungry to do the opposite of what Jesus calls us to do, and cut it off.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #395, Blessed Jesus, at Your Word; #425, Son of God, Whose Heart is Peace; #432, How Clear is Our Vocation, Lord