September 26, 2021, It’s Not Just a Metaphor, Mark 9:38-50 – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell

So, how do you read a passage that tells you to cut off your hand, or cut off your foot, or tear out your eye? If you think this passage that we just read is really hard to understand, you’re not alone. The first instinct that we might have when we come upon this bit of Mark is to say to ourselves, “Well, let’s see what happens in chapter 10,” and just move along hoping to find something a little plainer and a lot less uncomfortable. Or we might try to explain it away first by reassuring ourselves that, obviously, Jesus isn’t telling anyone to literally chop off their hands or feet. It’s clearly a metaphor. And then we move on to chapter 10. But I want to talk today about how we read this passage and take it seriously. Because this is the Word of God. Jesus spoke these very words to Peter and the disciples, and Peter remembered them and he taught them to Mark, and the Holy Spirit inspired Mark to write them down, for us. It’s important for us to know how to listen to God’s Word – to all of it, even to passages like this that are confusing and a little scary – to listen with our ears and our minds and our hearts open so that we can receive the gift that is in them for us. And the first thing we need to do with any passage, if we want to understand it, is to make sure we are reading it in context. Which means making sure we know all the W’s – who’s there, and where they are, and what they’re doing, and when it’s all happening, and why? Well, the who is Jesus, and he’s speaking to his disciples here, as they’ve been traveling to Capernaum. And if you remember what we read last week you know that Jesus has taken his disciples aside, privately, for a time. It’s a season of training and preparation for them. The Passion lies ahead of them, the shadow of the Cross looms over them. But none of the disciples understand that yet. Meanwhile, Jesus has a lot to teach them about what it means to be his disciples. Another part of the context is some interpersonal issues. Last week we read how Jesus caught his friends arguing among themselves about who was the greatest, jockeying with one another, in their foolishness and insecurity, for a good seat at the table. Today we see them huffy and offended all over again, this time because they see some people casting out demons., They’re offended because these are people who aren’t even followers of Jesus. They aren’t members of the club, as it were. “So we told them to cut it out,” they tell Jesus. It’s not hard to see that there’s a lot the disciples have to learn about discipleship, and life in the Kingdom. Jesus seems to be feeling a sense of urgency here about preparing and training his disciples. It’s a serious business being a disciple. The Twelve need to understand that. We need to understand that. This is no time to be arguing with each other about who’s the greatest. This is no time to worry about who’s in the club and who’s not. Dark days are on the horizon, and the disciples need to be ready. That’s the context for what we read today. And that’s why Jesus uses words that are so strong, so shocking, really. So, that’s why, but what is he telling them? Two times, Jesus talks about “entering into life,” and again, in a parallel way, about “entering the Kingdom.” And we might be inclined to think that Jesus is talking about “going to heaven,” the afterlife. But now that we know the context, it’s pretty clear that that’s not what he’s talking about here. Jesus is clearly preparing his disciples for life in this world in the very immediate future. When Jesus speaks of the Kingdom, he’s not talking about life in the clouds. He’s talking about the Kingdom that he taught his disciples to pray for: Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. By “entering into life” Jesus means entering into the life of God’s Kingdom, that Kingdom where the last comes first, and where the greatest is the servant of all. The Kingdom of Heaven isn’t in the “sweet by and by.” God’s Kingdom is anywhere and everywhere the will of God is done, even something as small and simple as giving a cup of cold water to a thirsty person. Dallas Willard said it well, “The gospel is less about how to get in the Kingdom of Heaven after you die, and more about how to live in the Kingdom of Heaven before you die.” That’s why the Word of God isn’t just something that gives us information. The writer of the letter to the Hebrews says: “The word of God is alive and active….” This Word that we read today calls us to action, it calls us to make a choice. And the choice is between life and death. And Jesus wants to make it very, very clear that choosing life, choosing the way of the Kingdom, isn’t the easy way. He wants to make that so clear to his disciples that he uses these brutal images of cutting off a hand or a foot, of gouging out an eye. And notice how he chooses those particular parts of the body – a hand, a foot, an eye. Our hands are for choosing to do the works of God…or the works of evil. Our feet take us where we choose to go – the right path…or the wrong path. Our eyes see our fellow creatures, with love…with contempt, with compassion…with envy. With our eyes we see another person as our brother or sister, or we see them as objects to be used or discarded. Jesus wants us to know that choosing life or death isn’t a simple matter of picking A or B. There will be things we have to cut out of our lives if we are to enter into the life of the Kingdom. Sinful things, obviously: stealing and lying and murder and adultery and all those “Ten Commandments” kinds of things. We know that we have to say “no” to all those things – not that we don’t fall into sin all too often. But that’s not what Jesus is talking about here. Or at least he’s taking it a step further; he’s taking it deeper. Jesus is talking about getting rid of a part of our very selves, even something good and useful in and of itself – like a hand, or a foot, or an eye – if that something has become a distraction to us, if it threatens to block our way into the life of the Kingdom. All the disciples had already had to do that – they had all given up parts of their lives to follow Jesus. They had left behind their homes, their livelihoods, their families. It wasn’t an easy thing Jesus had called them into. “Birds have nests, and foxes have their holes, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head,” Jesus once said. And that meant no bed and no home and no security for his Twelve followers, either. But Jesus was preparing his disciples to go even deeper than that. In the days to come, especially when Jesus had gone from them, when they were left with the momentous task of being his witnesses in a hostile world, how many things, perfectly good and useful things, would each one of them have to cut out of his life in order to follow in Jesus’s footsteps and choose the way of life? Every one of the Twelve had to learn the truth for himself: “It is better to enter into the life of the Kingdom, even with great loss, than to hold onto the things of the world and sink into death and destruction.” Even Judas learned that in the end, I believe. But this Scripture isn’t written down just so we can understand the lives of the Apostles, but also so that we can learn what Jesus’s words mean in our own lives, as we learn how to be his disciples. And that’s where this passage gets less confusing and more challenging, I think. Because it calls each and every one of us, if we want to be his disciples, to consider the things in our own lives, our possessions, our relationships, our habits, our convictions, the things that make up our identity – all those things that are as much a part of our very selves as our hands and feet and eyes – to consider whether they are instruments of life or death for us. Let us consider today: Is there any thing that I am holding onto that is tripping me up, or blocking my way, as I try to walk in the way of the Kingdom? Is there anything in my life that has become too important to me? Do I hear the Spirit speaking in the quiet of my heart, pointing out something that I have made into an idol? Is there anything that that demands my attention, my affections, my time and energy, getting in the way of my love for God, or for my brothers and sisters? Because what Jesus is teaching is that in discipleship there are two choices before us. We choose life, or we choose death. We choose love, or we choose fear. We choose the Kingdom of mercy and forgiveness and humility and servanthood, or we choose the kingdom of tribalism and bitterness and consumerism and the endless quest for power. There is no via media. There’s no middle ground. It’s not “us” against “them.” It’s life against death. Moses spoke these words to the people of Israel as they prepared to enter the Promised Land: “See, I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice, and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days.”

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