Tear It Out | Proper 21

Mark 9:38-50

38 John said to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone throwing demons out in your name, and we tried to stop him because he wasn’t following us.”

39 Jesus replied, “Don’t stop him. No one who does powerful acts in my name can quickly turn around and curse me. 40 Whoever isn’t against us is for us. 41 I assure you that whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ will certainly be rewarded.

42 “As for whoever causes these little ones who believe in me to trip and fall into sin, it would be better for them to have a huge stone hung around their necks and to be thrown into the lake. 43 If your hand causes you to fall into sin, chop it off. It’s better for you to enter into life crippled than to go away with two hands into the fire of hell, which can’t be put out. 44  45 If your foot causes you to fall into sin, chop it off. It’s better for you to enter life lame than to be thrown into hell with two feet. 46  47 If your eye causes you to fall into sin, tear it out. It’s better for you to enter God’s kingdom with one eye than to be thrown into hell with two. 48 That’s a place where worms don’t die and the fire never goes out. 49 Everyone will be salted with fire. 50 Salt is good; but if salt loses its saltiness, how will it become salty again? Maintain salt among yourselves and keep peace with each other.”

Tear It Out

This is my proof-text for those who claim they only interpret the Bible literally.

I want to say, Literally? You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means. (That’s my one The Princess Bride reference for this sermon).

For one thing, not every part of the Bible is meant to be interpreted literally. The Bible has many different genres of literature. Some of it is poetry, and any junior high school kid can tell you that you don’t interpret poetry literally.

Edna St. Vincent Millay was America’s darling poet during the early to mid 20th century. (No relation. She was a Millay from the branch that settled in Maine, whereas I’m a Millay from the branch that settled in Kentucky). One of her poems—it’s probably my favorite because I use it all the time—is First Fig, which says:

“My candle burns at both ends;

It will not last the night;

But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—

It gives a lovely light!”

Now, if I were to interpret this literally, I would imagine Edna St. Vincent Millay holding a candle with both ends lit, with wax dripping all over the place, and it won’t last the night because she was ridiculous enough to light both ends of the candle instead of putting it in a candle holder and only lighting the top like she was supposed to.

But, if I interpret her words poetically, as metaphor and symbolism, I might find that one possible interpretation is that she’s talking about her life and how she chose to live it: with such fire and intensity that she seems to burn twice as brightly as the rest of us. Foes and friends, alike, are invited to see. They can compare, criticize, or applaud, but none of that matters. Because it’s her life, and she’s going to confidently shine no matter the consequences. Like it or not: She. Will. Be. Seen. And. Known.

That’s poetry. And the way I just interpreted First Fig isn’t the only way to interpret it.

The majority of verses in this section of Mark are exaggerated language—called hyperbole—and symbolism. If we take the words of Jesus literally, here, then we need to start looking for millstones, plucking out our eyes, and chopping off various body parts because I can almost guarantee we aren’t all as innocent as our mostly-complete bodies look. I know I’m not.

But, what precipitated these words from Jesus? Even if it is hyperbole, the directives sound kind of harsh. At least, they sound harsh to me. Then again, maybe harsh words are what the disciples needed to hear after what they had done.

Let’s look at what happened earlier in the chapter. After Jesus was Transfigured on the mountain, they came across the other disciples who were in an argument with legal experts while surrounded by a crowd (c.f. Mark 9:14). When the crowd saw Jesus, they ran to him to tell him what the argument was about. A father brought his son because the boy was possessed by a spirit who made the kid foam at the mouth and do all kinds of crazy stuff. He wanted the disciples to cast the spirit out, but they couldn’t do it. So, after Jesus chastised them for their lack of faith, and the father begged Jesus to help his lack of faith, Jesus cast the spirit out. Then, the disciples asked why they hadn’t been able to do it, and Jesus told them it required prayer.

So, just prior to our text, the disciples had proved themselves to be incompetent. But that’s not all. After the incident of their failure, they started arguing about which one of them was the greatest. Can you imagine the kind of audacity it would take to argue about which of them was the greatest after failing so miserably? I suppose Peter, James, and John might have had a leg up on the others since they, at least, were allowed to go with Jesus and witness his Transfiguration. But, really, they were so dumbfounded by the event that the only thing they could brag about was that they saw Jesus light up like a dazzling Christmas display (except that they didn’t celebrate Christmas yet).

So, the disciples had proved themselves incompetent. They proved themselves ignorant when they didn’t understand why they couldn’t cast the spirit out of the boy. And now, they’re jealously guarding what little turf they have left to stand upon. John said to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone throwing demons out in your name, and we tried to stop him because he wasn’t following us” (Mark 9:38 CEB). Did you hear what John said? The disciples saw someone—likely a new believer in Jesus since this is probably around the middle of Jesus’ ministry; they saw someone succeeding at the very thing they’d just failed to do, and they tried to stop him.

Can you imagine how that scene went down? This person was successfully throwing demons out of sick people in the name of Jesus, but the disciples didn’t like it because this whole Jesus thing was their thing. They owned it. They were the legitimate heirs of Jesus’ power and authority. They were the Twelve whom Jesus had chosen. They weren’t about to let some random Joe edge in on their territory. No way! If this dude wasn’t following them, if they weren’t officially credentialed, if they weren’t walking beside Jesus as part of the inner-circle, then the “real” disciples weren’t going to have it!

The reply Jesus gives speaks against the lust for power and control the disciples displayed by trying to stop this person from doing good work in Jesus’ name. Yet, Jesus’ words can confound us, a little, because they’re full of symbolism and exaggeration. “Jesus replied, “Don’t stop him. No one who does powerful acts in my name can quickly turn around and curse me. Whoever isn’t against us is for us. I assure you that whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ will certainly be rewarded” (Mk. 9:39-41 CEB).

The cup of water comment seems confusing, but I think Jesus was essentially saying that this person they tried to stop was throwing the disciples a bone. He was doing their work for them. He was doing what they couldn’t. It’s like this unknown person was giving the disciples a cup of water, a cup of refreshment, when they were too weary or weak in faith to help those who needed help.

Jesus continued by saying, “As for whoever causes these little ones who believe in me to trip and fall into sin, it would be better for them to have a huge stone hung around their necks and to be thrown into the lake” (Mark 9:42 CEB). Jesus scolded the disciples on behalf of the one who was casting out demons. Because the disciples acted out of jealousy, they might have done real damage to that person’s faith.

It’s a scenario that I sometimes see with children when one of them tries to exclude another child from their group or activity by claiming that they aren’t part of the in-crowd. But I’ve seen it with adults, too. I’ve even seen it with Christian adults. What if our actions ended up driving another person away from faith in Jesus? What if the person the disciples tried to stop threw up their hands and said, Well, if that’s how this Jesus thing is, you can forget it!

Followers of Jesus aren’t supposed to act that way. But sometimes we do. If we’re honest with ourselves, we can admit that our jealous hearts can judge each other with a level of talent equal to the rest of the world. Instead of building up and adding to our community, our instinct can be, at times, to circle the wagons and keep others out. We’re just as good at protecting our turf as anyone else.

Maybe that’s why Jesus’ words about how it would be better for us to be tied to a stone and drowned than cause “these little ones” to trip and fall disturbs us. Maybe that’s why the strong imperatives about chopping off our hands and feet and tearing out our eyes bothers us so.

This is, I believe, a warning for disciples of Jesus to be careful. We have no claim on anything but the freely-given grace of God: grace that is offered to everyone. We don’t have a corner on the market of God’s acceptance. We aren’t any more welcome to God’s grace and love than anyone else.

The thing is, this whole Jesus thing—the Christian Faith, God’s redemption and offer of salvation—it’s never been about judgment. It’s never been about fencing others out. It’s never been about protecting our turf or guarding our comfort zones. It’s not even about comparing ourselves to what others are doing or measuring their successes and failings against our successes and failings. Aren’t we on the same team? Isn’t someone else’s success—even if it’s another congregation or organization; isn’t it a cup of water for us to drink?

Jesus warns that everyone will be salted with fire (c.f. Mark 9:49). Both salt and fire represent purification. Salt was to be given with the offerings made at the Tabernacle and Temple because salt purified the offering. But if salt loses its saltiness—if it loses its ability to make things pure—how will it become salty again and regain its purifying presence?

What I think Jesus is saying is our worth is going to be judged. In fact, our worth already has been judged. God found us worthy enough of God’s love to send Jesus Christ to redeem us from sin. But if we engage in petty jealousies and lay stumbling blocks in front of others, like the disciples were doing, then what good are we for the kingdom of God? When we do that, we’re like salt that loses its saltiness. God has judged us as worthy of love and grace, but what good are we for God’s kingdom if we throw away our God-given value?

Jesus tells us to have salt in ourselves, but how do we do that? I think the clue is in the final five words of verse 50 (it’s only three words in Greek): “keep peace with each other.” We have salt in ourselves when we don’t engage in the kind of jealousy the disciples engaged in by trying to prevent someone from working in the name of Jesus.

I think we show that we have salt in ourselves when we keep peace with each other, and when welcome others into our faith community. So, let us be salt. Let us be peacemakers. Let us love each other as Christ loves us. And let’s love those who may not follow us so fiercely that they can see God’s kingdom in us—that they want to walk with us—when we invite them in.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

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