The gospel for Sunday September 30th (Mark 9: 38-50) includes verses that shock or confuse some people.
At the end of last week’s passage from Mark, Jesus took a little child and put it among the disciples; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” While there is some intervening discussion about someone who is healing in Jesus’ name but who is not a disciple, the child is still nearby.
Then Jesus spoke the words that create consternation, “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 causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire.
And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell.
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, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.
The phrase, to put a stumbling block before one, is a literal translation of a Greek verb. It means that someone has made a person change his or her path by creating an obstacle that may cause a person to trip or fall. Sometimes the verb is translated as “scandalize” meaning that one has done something so disgusting that people avoid them…and the situation where they can be found. Sex abuse scandals in various churches are examples of behaviour that drives people away from the path to God.
A stark set of three warnings follows about the consequences of putting a stumbling block in front of people or scandalizing them: better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, … better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell…better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell…
Some interpreters see the phrases where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched as emphasizing hell as a place of physical torture. It is a graphic image. Anyone who has suffered a burn never forgets the searing pain and knows the agony this represents. Other interpreters see this as a metaphor for the psychological pain of separation from the love of God. Either way, it suggests extreme and everlasting suffering as a consequence of putting a spiritual obstacle in front of someone.
Significantly, this gospel comes in the context of Jesus’ prophecy of his own death (Mark 9:30-32).
As gruesome as cutting off body parts or burning is, we know that Jesus would suffer excruciating physical pain during his passion and death as a result of people who led others astray. His suffering was the direct result of the sin of the chief priests and scribes who misled the Jewish people. He took on the burden of sin so that others could see and change their ways.
The next phrase has a variety of different translations because it is so strange. The lectionary version reads, “For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”
In Old and early New Testament times salt and fire were both used for ritual purification. If the disciples, or other followers of Christ, who are supposed to be salt of the earth, (Matt. 5:13), become corrupted, contaminated or lose their saltiness then they are worthless.
Scandal seems like a quaint idea these days. But the reality of forcing people away from their path to God is serious. Jesus makes this clear in this gospel.
• If you were talking to children and looking for an alternative to salt as a purifying agent, what would you use? Wipes? Soap and water? Hand sanitizer? … How would you explain contamination?
• Do you remember burning yourself ever? The pain is like no other. You probably withdrew from the source of the burn immediately. The idea of the pain of everlasting fire must have both frightened and impressed Jesus’ listeners with the severity of the consequences.
• Have you been scandalized by anyone or anything? Did someone who represented good and ethical behaviour betray that trust? How did you react?