30 September 2012Mark 9:38-50
"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." (v. 43)
Mark chapter 9 is largely concerned with the power of the name of Jesus over the forces of evil (on the one hand), balanced with the seemingly constant failure of the disciples to grasp what his kingdom is all about (on the other). Jesus reveals his power and glory, while the disciples stumble and fall. In the previous few verses they've been arguing among themselves about who is the greatest (Mark 9:33-35). To show them the sort of greatness-in-humility required, Jesus holds up for them a little child - an example to them all (Mark 9:36-37). That might have been a fitting end to the chapter, but Mark's Gospel continues to record the disciples' embarrassing remarks, as John proudly tells Jesus how they tried to stop a man from casting out demons because he was not 'one of them' (verse 38). The very thing the disciples had failed to do earlier in the chapter, an 'outsider' is caught doing 'in Jesus' name'. Well, they'd better put a stop to that! Again, Jesus gently assures them they've got it all wrong. Even a cup of cold water given because of his name and reputation is a commendable thing, especially amidst the very real opposition Jesus is facing - both in the political sphere and the spiritual realm.
Today's passage then has a number of striking images: firm warnings against sin, but words that we might secretly wish Jesus had never said!
These warnings seem to be instructions for those who are already taking their discipleship seriously. Jesus expects his followers to want the highest standards for themselves. The first warning concerns the very children Jesus has already been talking about: "these little ones" (v. 42) - quite simply, don't cause them to stumble, don't cause them to sin, and certainly don't but any block between them and Jesus. If you do, the consequences will be a millstone around your neck. Whether this is 'divine retribution' or simply the self-punishment of your conscience, it really doesn't matter - it's bad, don't do it! Jesus seems to be saying some things are worth avoiding at all cost. For the true disciple, simply the knowledge that you're so far from God's will should be warning enough.
From verse 44 Jesus moves on to speak about hell.
Hell is rightly a controversial concept (a hot topic!) because it seriously shapes the view we have of God. It's difficult to even talk about it without deeply ingrained ideas from movies, cartoons, jokes and, of course, Church! Needless to say, it's an idea that's been highly developed over thousands of years (sometimes with quite dubious motives), and the 'true biblical' understanding is hard to find under all the mess. The word often translated 'Hell' in this passage is actually 'Gehenna', a common name for the Valley of Hinnom - a ravine outside Jerusalem with a dark and disturbing history.
Way back in the history of Judah, 700 years or so earlier, King Ahaz had turned to idol worship, making images of foreign gods. This turning away from God reached a disgusting and 'abominable' low when he sacrificed some of his own children - burning them in the Valley of Hinnom (2 Chronicles 28:3). Some years later, King Manasseh decided to follow in his grandfather's footsteps, murdering his own son in the same horrendous way (2 Chronicles 33:6). 'Gehenna' became a synonym for the worst sin imaginable - the place where the human heart was capable of reaching when it had abandoned the one true God. King Josiah, two generations later, is remembered as a great reformer who rediscovered the scriptures and returned the people to God. He declared that the Valley of Hinnom was an unclean place (2 Kings 23:10), and Gehenna remained a tangible memorial of the hideous heathen worship once practised there, and of what could become of God's people if they turned away from God. In Jesus' day it had become a stinking, smouldering rubbish heap. I have no doubt that Jesus' words are to be taken very seriously here. Sin must be avoided at all costs, wherever possible, if you are serious about your discipleship.
So, Jesus says, at whatever cost, at whatever sacrifice, if something is causing you to move further and further away from God, "cut it off". Even very essential parts of us are not as important as our eternal well-being - the real life that is on offer. The Paralympics this summer have reminded us again that losing eyesight or limbs doesn't mean that you can't experience life - indeed, the athletes seemed to live life with so much more fullness than the vast majority of 'able-bodied' people. These are metaphors, however. Of course Jesus doesn't want us to actually cut off parts of our bodies. But he does want us to take drastic action against things that are leading us away from him, away from justice, away from love. In the end, this is about attaining 'life', not avoiding hell. The true disciple should desire nothing more than the fullness and goodness of life that God has in store, on earth as it is heaven. When you love God with all your heart, simply knowing that you're going against God's will should be punishment enough, and God's forgiveness like a soothing balm. Hell, or not, becomes irrelevant.
- What aspects of your life - habits, distractions, relationships - that are leading you away from the fullness of life God has in store for you? What might you need to "cut off"?
- In our teaching and understand of 'hell', has the Church been missing the point? To what extent do we still talk and think and stumble like the first disciples, when faced with the glory of God's love that is in Christ?
- Many commentators have tried to explain the last two verses about salt. What do you make of these three sayings?