Sunday 30 September 2018

Bible Book:

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. 44)

Mark 9:38-50 Sunday 30 September 2018

Psalm: Psalm 124


Chapter 9 of Mark's Gospel is largely concerned with the power of the name of Jesus over the forces of evil, balanced against the failure of the disciples to grasp what his kingdom is all about. Jesus reveals his power and glory, while the disciples stumble and fall. In this passage, the disciple John proudly tells Jesus how they tried to stop a man from casting out demons because he was not "one of them". The very thing the disciples had failed to do earlier in the chapter (verses 14-29), an "outsider" is caught doing "in Jesus' name". Better put a stop to that! Again, Jesus gently informs them they've got it all wrong: even a cup of cold water given because of him is a commendable thing (v. 41), especially amidst the opposition Jesus is facing.

Next, we move on to a number of striking images (verses 42-50): words that we might secretly wish Jesus had never said! Drowning with millstones, self-mutilation, and visions of eternal damnation. Where do we start?!

Firstly, these warnings seem to be instructions for those who are taking their discipleship seriously. Jesus expects his followers to want the highest standards for themselves. The first warning concerns the children Jesus addressed in the previous passage (verses 33-38). We should not cause them to stumble, nor cause them to sin, and certainly not put any barrier between them and Jesus. If we do, the consequences would be like a millstone around our necks. Whether this is 'divine retribution', hindsight at the consequences, or the self-punishment of the conscience, the upshot is: don't do it! 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 ‘punishment’ enough.

Right! Take a deep breath and let’s get down to hell…

Hell is 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, art, jokes and a long tradition of terrifying preaching. It's an idea that's been developed over thousands of years, and the 'true biblical' understanding is hard to find beneath the mess. The word usually 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.

Back in Jewish history, 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 lows 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 was an unclean place (2 Kings 23:10), and Gehenna remained a memorial of the hideous heathen worship once practised there, and of what could become of God's people if they cut themselves off from him. In Jesus' day it had become a stinking, smouldering rubbish heap.

But because this is not the imagined fiery inferno of the afterlife we call hell, please don’t throw the warnings out with the bathwater! I have no doubt that Jesus' words here are still to be taken very seriously. He says that if we are serious about our discipleship, then deliberate acts of sin should be avoided at all costs. The fate of ‘Gehenna’ (or rather the godless state it represents) is a possibility for us all, except by the grace of God – and many in this world are already there, in shadowy and shameful 'living hells', often at the expense of the vulnerable.

I believe this passage should be read NOT with the traditional teachings in mind, about eternal hell and torment as God’s rightful punishment for sin: that is NOT the God we find in Jesus Christ. But rather with the loving tone of a Saviour who would do all he can to save us and redeem us, and who yet gives us freedom to choose our own paths. This Saviour lovingly warns us, he does not condemn us. He would not send us to hell, but he doesn’t want us to arrive there by other means.

Jesus uses vivid (even humourous) metaphors to illustrate his point. He doesn't want us to actually cut off parts of our bodies! But he is advising us to take drastic action against things that are leading us away from him, away from justice, away from love. In the end, Christian discipleship is about attaining the 'Life' God has in store for us and for the world, striving and praying for our lives to be in tune with God’s will. If it’s ever about simply avoiding hell, then I fear we’ve missed the point.

"For the love of God is broader
than the measures of the mind;
and the heart of the Eternal
is most wonderfully kind."
(Frederick William Faber) (StF 416)

To Ponder:

  • Are there any aspects of your life – habits, distractions, relationships – that are leading you away from the fullness of life God has in store for you? Is there anything you need to 'cut off'? And how might you do this?
  • 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?
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