What do we do with texts where Jesus is saying some frankly disturbing things? Like, “cut off your hand/tear our your eye or you will burn in hell” kind of disturbing? As I talk about in my sermon below, I don’t take these texts literally. And I think they probably made more immediate sense to Jesus’ first-century audience than they do today. But, we’re not well served by ignoring such statements just because we think they’re metaphor or hyperbole. Because if we don’t engage these difficult texts, the only people talking about them will be those who do take them literally and who use them to do harm to others. So, as always…let me know what you think in the comments.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
“If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off…and if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell.” The Gospel of the Lord.
A few years ago on the TV show Grey’s Anatomy, a patient arrived in the emergency room because his roommate had found him trying to saw off his own foot. He was convinced that his foot was causing him to stumble, leading him in sinful ways, and he took this verse from Jesus 100 percent literally and tried to cut it off.
They got the one doctor who knew anything about the Bible to talk to him, and she tried to explain that she didn’t think Jesus meant for this man to hurt himself. It was one of the thousands of times in watching Grey’s Anatomy that I’ve thought, “This hospital needs a chaplain!” That man, in addition to needing medical care and psychiatric care, would have benefited from some spiritual care.
The doctor was right, though. These extreme, graphic words of Jesus aren’t meant to be taken literally. They’re hyperbole, a way of super-exaggeration to make a point. Jesus does not want us to hurt ourselves. But just because these words of Jesus aren’t meant to be taken literally, that does not mean they aren’t meant to be taken seriously. Jesus knew that this would raise some eyebrows. He knew that this was over-the-top speech. He did it because he wanted to get the disciples’ attention. What he was saying was important!
And the context of these hyperbolic statements matter, too. It comes right on the heels of our reading from last week. Jesus is holding a child and teaching the disciples about welcoming vulnerable people. John, seemingly interrupting him, tells Jesus about how he and the other disciples tried to stop someone who was healing others in Jesus’ name because “he wasn’t one of us.”
Jesus’ response leaves no room for misinterpretation: do not put up roadblocks to other peoples’ faith. Do not cause a little one to stumble in the faith. And just to show how seriously he intends this: it would be better for you to cut off your hand, or cut off your foot, or cut out your eye, than to do such a thing. Better to be maimed than to cause another to stumble.
Jesus wants our full attention here. He wants us to take seriously the effect that our actions have on other people. There are worse things than losing a body part, he says. It would be worse to be cut off from God. It would be worse to be responsible for someone else losing their faith. Our actions have consequences in other people’s lives for far longer than we might realize. If you have ever been hurt by another person, it can take years and decades to recover from the trauma. A little trip, a little stumble, can lead to a big fall. And Jesus is calling on his disciples and on us to take those consequences seriously.
So what are the stumbling blocks that we put in others’ paths? Sometimes in our own path, too. Jealousy, competition, a selfish desire for control. The readings this morning are full of it. In Numbers, when Moses and the people are fed up with one another, God decides that Moses will share the spirit of leadership with seventy others. They gather in the tent of meeting and the Holy Spirit comes upon them and they prophesy.
Except for Eldad and Medad. They missed the meeting for some reason. But no matter, because the Spirit found them where they were, and they too prophesied. But Joshua, Moses’ assistant and eventual successor, sees this and runs and tells Moses: stop them! They weren’t with us in the tent, they shouldn’t be prophesying! He can’t handle the idea that God was at work in ways that he didn’t understand. In ways that he wasn’t a part of.
It’s the same with the disciples. John says to Jesus, “We tried to stop someone from casting out demons in your name because he did not follow us.” We tried to stop someone who was relieving pain and suffering, who was giving new life and new opportunities, because he was not one of us.
Moses and Jesus have the same response to these roadblocks being put up. Don’t try to stop people from the good they are doing, just because they aren’t part of your group. “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets!” Moses says.
In a world that is more polarized than ever, along every dimension, can we imagine that God is at work in and through someone who bears the name of Christ but who disagrees with us? Can we accept a cup of cold water from someone who does not follow in our way of thinking? Who is not part of “our” group?
Can we take a step back with Jesus and take seriously the way that our actions have long lasting effects on other people? Even if they’re people we disagree with? Even if they’re people we’re never going to meet? What if, instead of trying to stop others, trying to hinder others, we were able to say this:
“Lord, we saw some people who were casting out demons, or working for justice, or advocating for the homeless, or caring for veterans, and more all in your name. They do not follow us. In fact, we really disagree with them. But we did not stop them.” What if, instead of seeing other people who we don’t agree with, we were able to see the God who is at work in them, despite our differences? Perhaps it could be a starting point to have real dialogue, where we listen to one another. Where we take seriously the ways our actions can hurt one another.
Jesus says to cut off whatever is causing you to sin. You could cut off your hand, or your foot, but your sin would remain. Those are just metaphors. But what if we could cut off what is really causing our sin? Cut off our pride, our prejudices, cut off our fear of change, cut off our need for control. Go in with a surgeon’s scalpel and excise the things that keep us from accepting even a cup of cold water from someone we disagree with? I’m too much of a realist—and too much of a Lutheran—to think that we could ever cut it all out. We are human, and to be human is to have to struggle with our faults and with our selfishness.
But even if we can’t ever get all those stumbling blocks out of us, I know this: God will not be limited by them. God will not be limited by our prejudices, God will not be limited by our fears, God will not be limited by our pride and jealousy. Because the Spirit is at work in people that we think aren’t qualified. The Spirit is at work in people we turn away from. The Spirit is at work in people that don’t look or think or talk or vote like us. And the Spirit is at work in you and me, too.
We don’t have to try to control God’s Holy Spirit, to control grace. No matter how hard we try, we won’t be able to. Grace doesn’t need to be controlled, and neither does God’s Spirit. Because the more they are shared, the more they abound. In places we don’t expect. In people we don’t expect. In moments we don’t expect. We can try to put a stumbling block in front of grace, but it will not be held down. We can try to contain God’s Spirit to those we think deserve it, but it will not be held back. God’s grace is for all, and God’s Spirit is for all people. And that is the Gospel of the Lord. Amen.