When I was thirteen, in the summer before eighth grade, I discovered Bob Marley, and this amounted to a sort of spiritual awakening. I loved Bob Marley’s music, I listened to it all the time, I spent just about all the money I earned working that summer on Bob Marley CDs. I had a nearly complete collection by the time eighth grade started.
I thought my connection to Bob Marley was unique among my middle school peers. I was happy for my friends to share this new passion with me, but, as the school year started it wasn’t all that long before I heard somebody else — not one of my friends — mention that they like Bob Marley, and I thought “What business do they do they have listening to Bob Marley? This is my thing; they’re not part of my group.”
Of course, this is absurd, but it connects quite well, I think, to what we hear at the beginning of today’s Gospel. We hear the disciple John, one of Jesus’ closest friends along with Peter and James, saying to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”
John sees a competitor — somebody casting out demons in Jesus’ name who is not part of their crew — and his reaction is, “Hey! What right does he have to use Jesus’ name?”
Of course, Jesus is not having any of this. He says, “Do not stop him… whoever is not against us is for us.”
Jesus is always calling his disciples — calling us — beyond such narrow-mindedness and tribalism. Jesus’ vision is expansive; his mission is universal.
Now, that sounds pretty good. If only we could leave it there for the day, but no! After the last few Sundays of Gospel readings from Mark in which Jesus:
- Seems to insult a woman
- Predicts he will die, and tells his disciples that they too must take up their cross
- Calls St. Peter “Satan”
…we now have Jesus using violent language involving self-injury and people being thrown into hell.
Where did the family-friendly gentle Jesus go? Is he available?
I’m starting to wonder how people make children’s Bibles out of the material this guy gives!
But, as usual, when we explore what Jesus says in context, some things begin to make more sense. So, let’s take a look:
We hear Jesus saying today that, “If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, * it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand or foot or eye causes you to stumble, cut it off or tear it out; it is better for you to enter life maimed or lame or with one eye than to have two hands or feet or eyes and to go to hell.”
Is Jesus really calling for self-injury in order to avoid sin? No. Jesus is using Hebraic hyperbole; that is, a Jewish teaching method which uses extreme examples and language to get a listener’s attention. We can be confident that Jesus is not literally recommending self-harm because, after all, God created us — created our bodies. We are made in God’s image, and when God makes us, he calls us good. And so, defacing God’s creation — God’s image — is not God’s will. Furthermore, Jesus was a healer; he healed bodies, he never harmed.
So, what is Jesus getting at? Perhaps he is signaling what the stakes are, the seriousness of the matter at hand. God’s will for us is wholeness, and so perhaps Jesus is saying: “if you think it’s bad to lose a hand, a foot, or an eye, it’s even worse — more damaging to yourself and to others — to be living in and perpetuating the condition of separation from one another and from God which we call sin.”
Now, just as we’re settling into this idea, we get hell thrown at us! Yes, hell: every Episcopalian’s favorite topic of conversation.
Out of only 13 appearances of the word “hell” in the Bible, 11 are from Jesus, and 3 are in today’s passage. So, as much as we might want to sweep this topic under the rug, Jesus makes it hard to ignore.
Let’s look at how he’s using it here:
The Greek word translated “hell” is Gehenna. Gehenna was a valley — a physical place — southwest of Jerusalem. Some time before Jesus, it became a garbage dump, and the garbage was always burning — on fire. And, because of all the garbage, there were also maggots or worms, and so we can understand why Jesus talks about hell as a place of unquenchable fire and worms. It’s very physical; even straight-forward, in a way. It’s a powerful image of the consequences of our destructive actions and attitudes.
In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus’ focus is very much on this world. When he talks about the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven, he isn’t talking about a disembodied, spiritual reality that we experience after death. His message is that the kingdom of God is at hand; it’s here; near us; among you.
And so it is, I think, with hell. Jesus’ first words in Mark are an announcement that the kingdom of God has come near, accompanied by a call to repent, or turn toward God. Likewise, Jesus warns about the consequences of not heeding this call. In doing this, Jesus mirrors Moses, who, in the book of Deuteronomy, says to the Israelites, “I have set before you life… and death… choose life.”
What Jesus is getting at is that there is no neutral territory; in fact, there are hardly any neutral actions. It seems like just about everything we do, say, and perhaps even think, is moving us — and everyone else with us — closer either to heaven on earth or hell on earth.
Of course, we can imagine — and see with the light of faith — that these realities also continue beyond death, but the journey — and the experience — begins here. Richard Rohr recently quoted St. Catherine of Siena as having said, “It’s heaven all the way to heaven.” and added that the opposite holds true, as well.
Looking at the state of our world, nation, and even community, with all its strife, conflict, division, and chaos, it’s not hard to think of the ways in which people bring about hell for others and themselves: Violence, obviously — exploitation, aggression, and oppression. But also: resentment, gossip, greed, jealousy, rivalry, self-assertion. In other words, all of us surely bear some responsibility. As we have already seen today, Jesus’ closest disciples fell short.
But even as Jesus corrects his disciples, he never gives up on them; at the end of this passage, he calls them “be at peace with one another.” And so today we are reminded that Jesus calls us — invites us — to another way than the way of the world; a better way; a way that leads to life; to the kingdom of God which is already here. The path and the goal are ultimately one and the same. We travel it by seeking God with our whole heart, and by loving one another; practicing mercy and kindness; being guided by care for one another and laying aside our self-preoccupation. Let us walk this path and be at peace with one another. Amen.