No Trifling Matter

18th Sunday after Pentecost 

Mark 9:42-50

“It is better for you to enter life crippled…”  Jesus is consumed—by the way St. Mark writes, we could even say He’s “possessed”—Jesus is possessed with a ferocious righteousness.  So much so, that we, who tend to think of Jesus as loving everyone so much and forgiving everything so easily…well, we are appalled at the way He talks here.

Confronted by such a violent text as this one is, we instinctively feel compelled to find some way out from under its judgment. Clearly, we insist, Jesus is using hyperbole.  He’s exaggerating!  Why, doesn’t He do that now and then in order to drive home His point?  Surely Jesus isn’t literally calling for a pack of limping, blind, and handless disciples to stumble after Him into the Kingdom of God.  That can’t be what He’s saying…can it?

Calling Jesus’ manner of speaking an exaggeration may give us some consolation…but not much.  After all, Jesus’ own disciples who were right there with Him never supposed that He was speaking literally.  No one in the history of the Church, except some folks who were a bubble off plumb, ever really supposed that self-mutilation was a remedy for sin.  It is a nearly universally recognized fact that Jesus’ drastic language here was His way of expressing His profound hatred of human sin.

And yet…this is precisely what makes us uncomfortable. Even if He is speaking metaphorically about chopping off body parts, is sin really all that big a deal to Jesus?  I mean, where’s His famous love?  Where’s all His nice talk about grace and forgiveness? This “wrath of God” language from Jesus just does not compute with our urbane, sophisticated, 21st Century Christianity.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s famous accusation about the modern church’s quest for “cheap grace” has become a commonplace critique.  It’s hard not to agree with the man when he says, “Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves.  Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession.…” He thundered, “Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”

Ach ja, but, we want our salvation cheap and easy.  Isn’t that what Jesus is all about?  We don’t want our life outside the church getting overturned by our life in the church.  Deep down we sincerely hope that grace is cheap.  “Cheap” is the only way we we’ll take it!

These days, people who believe in salvation at all tend to believe in a universal salvation; “olly olly oxen free,” everybody gets in! Because “everybody getting in” is the only guarantee that we could get in.  And now we get Jesus warning about hell “‘where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.’”

Now, of course, you can get around this talk about hell.  It’s very common these days to say that Jesus was simply accommodating Himself to 1st Century superstitions in which Hell was a part of an apocalyptic scheme which included literal demons and an imminent supernatural destruction of the cosmos.  Well…we modern, scientifically-oriented individuals, we cannot possibly be expected to read this literally, with some ancient picture of hell way down there somewhere.  Nah, we see things very differently.

So in both the secular world and often in the Church these days, our usual approach to human sin is to make Jesus into a combination of Dr. Phil and Oprah.  Not chastisement and dire threats about sin, but gentle understanding.  Not a call for people to repent and turn from their sin, but teaching people the affirming art of self-acceptance.  Not an ethic of cross-bearing, but an ethic of self-actualization.  Yes, Jesus taught us to love our neighbor as ourselves, but we can even turn that into pop psychology: “You can’t love your neighbor, without loving yourself.”

Truth is, Jesus makes a terrible shrink.  For Jesus, human frailty and sin must be exorcized, killed, not accommodated.  But, really, all this hand-chopping, eye-plucking remedy for sin…it could never work…if for no other reason than the simple fact that we have more sins than we have body parts.  And even if we were so deranged that we amputated all the offending parts of our body, still the thoughts of our hearts and minds are intact.  All we would accomplish is to make our body parts the scapegoats for the real culprit.  As the Bible says, “The imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth.” [Genesis 8:21]

So what are we to do…with a Jesus who speaks in such a desperate, violent way?  What are we to do with a Jesus whose outrage just makes this situation all the more impossible?

Jesus’ words in this passage cut through our misguided attempts to soften their violence.  Despite what we may tell ourselves, we are everything our liturgical confessions of sin make us out to be.  We are prideful, selfish, lustful, slothful, cold of heart, deceitful to ourselves and to others—the melancholy list goes on and on.  But…most of the time we are successful at building up excuses to protect us and our sin from Jesus’ words. 

Oh…but on occasion, our defensive shields do fail us, and Jesus’ anger does get through, exposing all of our godlessness.  Yet even in these moments of exposure, our self-justifying resources are always close at hand.  How easily we cover ourselves again with excuses.  How quickly we strike back because of the embarrassment this revelation of our true condition has caused us.

And, then, having regained our composure, we despise this Disturber of our self-respect.  Quite apart from the fact that talk of hell just insults our modern ears, we reject this talk of hell even by Jesus because we reject that anyone—be he son of man or Son of God—no one talks to us this way.

Sure, I’m not perfect, but…my imperfections, such as they are, certainly can’t justify God’s rejection of me.  I mean, look!  I’m better than so-and-so!  And, hey!, I even believe in God…that’s got to count for something!  How dare Jesus, or anyone, speak to me in terms of amputations and noshing worms and unquenchable fires!  Who does He think He is?!

What is ironic here is that the One who ends up mutilated because of sin is Jesus Himself.  He who said to cut off your hand and foot is Himself hanged from the cross hand and foot, numbed and bloodied by those piercing spikes.  He who advised plucking out your eye, has both of His eyes blinded in death.  He who talked about being cast into hell endures that fiery hell Himself!

Amazing!  His hacking, violent words are not about us…they’re about Him!  And in view of that, maybe we could admit that Jesus does have the right to discuss the gravity of our sin with us.  And perhaps, then, His forgiveness, which comes to us by that cross, might create in us, if only for a moment, a willingness to ponder the pride we take in our great skill at self-justification.

And in those brief, cross-inspired moments, perhaps…we come to recognize that we do stand in need of God’s grace.  So could it be…if the cross is any indication…could it be that the only real grace is an expensive, costly grace, the grace from outside us, bestowed on us not by us ourselves but by Another?

Can it be…can it be that we do need the lovingkindness of hearing these dreadful words about the violence of sin?  No, not to rush out and hack away at ourselves, or like some demented terrorist, hack away at anyone else, on account of sin.  Hardly!

But in hearing these words, these hard words from Jesus about chopping off hands and feet and plucking out eyes, having seen this violence carried out in Jesus on the cross…at last we are brought to our senses about the significance with which God Himself views our lives, our sins, our deaths; how God views it in all of its dread…but also…how He views it all through His bloodied, mutilated Son on the cross.

As Herr Bonhoeffer concluded, “[Grace is costly, because] it costs God the life of His Son…and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us.”  Indeed!  And more so…anyone who has cost God the life of His Son, oh, that person (us included) is now no longer cheap to God, either!