Chopping It Off
A reflection on the Mark 9:38-50 by Nathan Nettleton, 1st October 2000
Jesus is not calling us to self-mutilation, but he is saying that our efforts to root out sin in ourselves need to be as rigorous as it takes, even if it means appearing like a fanatic.
Mark Twain once said, Many people are bothered by the passages in Scripture they cannot understand; but as for me, I always noticed that the passages in Scripture which trouble me most are the ones I do understand. I dont know whether he had a particular passage in mind, but this one would have been a good candidate. This passage, especially verses 42 - 48, are among the most difficult and confronting in Marks gospel, if not in the whole Bible. There is nothing hard about understanding what it is saying, but working out what to do with it is another matter. I have heard it said that you can always recognise a church where people are genuinely committed to obeying the literal meaning of the Bible because they all have only one hand, one foot and one eye!
There are, I think, a couple of keys to getting our heads around this passage. The first is to take note of the relationship between the first part (v.38-41) and the second part (v.42-48). The issue in the first part is how we are to judge the actions of others. The issue in the second is how we are to judge ourselves. The standard is quite different.
In the first part, one of the disciples, John on this occasion, is concerned about the actions of someone who was not part of the group of disciples. John sees this man healing people and overcoming demonic forces and claiming to be doing it on the authority of Jesus. John knows that this man is unknown to Jesus, so he endeavours to have the man stopped. This sort of thing often ends up in the courts these days. Can you use someone elses name without their permission? We heard of a case a couple of weeks ago. Ansett is the official airline for the Olympic Games. This gives them the official right to use the name of the Olympics. Ansett claimed in court that Qantas were marketing themselves in ways that illegally used the Olympics image. Qantas werent openly using the name, but they were designing their ads in ways that suggested the Olympics and thereby linked Qantas and the Olympics. So Ansett, like the disciple John, said You cant use that name - only we have the right to do that.
Jesus apparently doesnt go along with Johns reading of copyright law. He is happy for people to give him the credit if they are doing good, and he has no intention of making enemies with them. So he gives John and the disciples a bit of a lecture. Those who are not against us are for us. Those who are not opposing us are on our side. Those who are not our enemies are our allies. Or in other words, when it comes to judging others, give them the benefit of the doubt. If they claim to be motivated by Christ, take their word for it. If theyre not doing any harm, then count them as allies and affirm what they are on about. They might not be part of your group; they might not explain things the same way as you do; so what? If theyre not working against you, give them your support.
But then we immediately get into the second half and the tenor changes rather dramatically. The link is verse 42 where Jesus speaks about causing another to stumble. This appears to be a direct reference to what theyve just been talking about, because Jesus is saying that if you start putting up road block to stop anyone whos not part of your group, you may be causing someone to stumble in their journey of faith. It is a scary verse for the organised church, because we are naturally concerned about correct belief and practice and order. Jesus is pointing out that these concerns may lead us to do stupid things that make other people, newly approaching God, to be put off and give up. So Jesus is hitting us with the potential impact of our behaviour on the faith and hope of others.
In light of this, Jesus goes on to give his extremely confronting advice about how to judge ourselves. You can be generous in your assessment of others, and give them the benefit of the doubt, but when dealing with yourself, eliminate all doubt. You can overlook the shortcomings of others if theyre not causing any great harm, but when it comes to yourself, get the knife out.
I am quite sure that Jesus is not actually looking for more one handed, one footed, half blind disciples in response to this teaching. He is not advocating self-mutilation. But he is advocating an extremely rigorous uncompromising approach to dealing with the roots of sin within ourselves. He is telling us to root it out, to go hard on it. His language is clearly metaphorical. Feet, hands and eyes do not cause sin. As the Apostle James has been telling us in recent weeks, sin has its roots in the attitudes of our hearts, in selfish ambitions and jealousies. Feet, hands and eyes may perform sinful actions, but they are followers not leaders.
But one of the traps of saying that something is a metaphor is that we can use that as an excuse to ignore the passage altogether instead of asking what the metaphor is telling us to do. If Jesus is not telling us to chop of our hands and gouge out our eyes, what is he telling us to put under the knife?
I think he is telling us to be ruthless on anything that keeps tripping us up and causing us to fall into sin. And I think he is making the point that sometimes this may mean giving up things that are not bad in themselves. Isnt that the point of his metaphor - there is nothing inherently evil about feet or hands, but if they are causing a problem, get rid of them. What otherwise good things can cause us to fall into sin? There is no one answer - thats the point - it is different things for different people. I suspect though that some of the things that Christians have gained wowser reputations over may have had their origins in an appropriate response to this thinking.
Alcohol is not inherently evil. Most people can enjoy alcohol without any difficulty, but not everyone. For some people alcohol is something that they cant enjoy without ending up behaving very very badly. A few drinks and they become irresponsible, violent and abusive. Chop it off! For such a person, Jesus is saying it would be better to never have another drink in your life than to do the sort of damage you are going to do if you touch this stuff.
Maybe when we were seen as opponents of dancing it was the same. Dancing is a good thing, but perhaps it is not for some people. Perhaps for some people dancing gets them hyped into a dangerous state of consciousness where they start to treat other people as objects and their selfish desires get out of control. Chop it off! If you cant handle it without degrading yourself, avoid it completely.
For most of us it wont be those things. It might not be anything on the stereotyped list of petty sins. It might be investing in the stock market, or going to the football, or shopping, or surfing the web, or holding dinner parties. It could be anything - anything that plays to your weaknesses or which has somehow become psychologically linked with your trigger points. There might be no logical connection, but if you spot a pattern of behaviour where involvement in something leads you down unhealthy and destructive paths, give it up. Chop it off!
I think it is quite clear that Jesus is also saying that you should not be afraid of looking like a fanatic. His metaphor is the extreme behaviour of a fanatic, but in our culture where self indulgence is described as an economic virtue, giving anything up is seen as the act of a fanatic. Jesus is quite clear that when we are trying to root sin out of our hearts, we need to be fanatical about it. We need to be absolutely ruthless and unperturbed about the short term discomforts that may result. Better to hobble into heaven than prance into hell.
But finally, it is really really important when responding to this line of Jesus thinking to remember the first verse again. Go tough on yourself, but go easy on others. If you decide that you need to give up alcohol because it gets you into trouble, that doesnt mean that everyone else should give it up as well. It doesnt mean that alcohol is evil and that only those who give it up are serious about dealing with sin. The church has caused stumbling blocks to many people by trying to make an absolute law out of something that is a good idea for a few people. It is extremely important to get the stumbling blocks out of your own path, but dont do it by throwing them into someone elses path!!!
Questions for thought and discussion.
What are some of the ways we can be, like John, too exclusive in our thinking - too ungenerous to others? Who do we have trouble recognising as allies who Jesus might be calling us to be less judgmental about?
Can you think of examples of the way the Church and Christian people can cause stumbling blocks to others who might otherwise have continued on a path of greater faithfulness to God?
Are there examples you can share of things you have had to tackle and give up because, although they were not wrong in themselves, they kept causing you problems?