Sermon – September 27, 2015 Mark 9: 38-50
What are we to make of this reading? Does Jesus really want us to cut off our hand or our foot or gouge out an eye? Does that sound like the miracle worker and healer of all manner of ailments? Of course not. So what are we to make of this reading? What’s going on here?
As with all of the New Testament readings, they really only make sense when read in context. So, we look at the times when Mark wrote his gospel. In today’s reading, Mark has the disciple John ask if it’s a good thing for strangers – not members of the community – to be casting out demons in the name of Jesus. We know this is probably a concern during Mark’s day, not as much when Jesus was alive, because Jesus probably had not gained that level of notoriety when still alive. The character Jesus replies that what is happening is perfectly fine because, “those who are not against us are for us…” and there were plenty of folks against the Christian movement by the time Mark wrote his gospel, such as Jewish officials, and the Roman judicial system, which did not recognize Christianity as a legitimate and legal religion. So this section of Mark’s gospel is to be understood in terms of those who are against the gospel, and those who are in union with it.
But look how Mark expresses the concern –in terms of the body parts. We can hear his illustration in a literal sense and think of our own personal body parts, or we can think of this image functioning on a communal level as the “Body of Christ”. This “body” analogy had already been used by the apostle and letter writer, Paul, in a couple of his epistles. Remember when he writes that a single unified body has many parts, each part contributing its particular gifts for the good of the entire organism? Mark is using this analogy for those whose actions are consistent with the gospel, they should be “cut off” so that the entire body is not infected.
At the time Mark wrote his gospel the Christian faith was brand new and the general public was coming to conclusions about its validity based upon the lifestyles and actions of its members. If some of the members of the body were working against the values of God, that is, if they were “stumbling” or “sinning,” then they should be cut off and removed, so that they wouldn’t lead others astray, or present a false front to the general public.
Mark chooses three body parts for his illustration, and I don’t think it’s at random. The hand, the leg, and the eye, have three specific and I think, symbolic, activities. We work with our hands. They are the primary instruments for us to accomplish the work we do. A general worker is called a “handyman.” With our hands we swing hammers, we hold pens for writing, we knead dough for bread, we arrange flowers, we plant crops, we comb our hair, and the hair of our children, or our elderly, invalid parents and grandparent. I could go on and on, of course, but I think you get the point. If a member of the Christian community “sinned” with its hands, it means they would be working in ways not consistent with God’s ways. They might be picking locks, or putting a little extra weight on the scales at the market to increase profit margin, or maybe wielding a knife to illegally enter a house to rob it. Hands can work for good or for evil. Last week, during his visit to America, Pope Francis spoke of hands, in effect, when he addressed Congress. He told our national legislators to use the power and wealth of this great country to do great things. Preserve our planet from harm. Establish systems that benefit everyone in this global village, not just the wealthy donors of election campaigns. Use your hands to write laws that bring hope and allow people to use their God given gifts to elevate themselves to a dignified level. Mark believes that if the hands of one of his community are not working for good, but are working evil, cast them and their hands out. It is better to have diminished numbers, than for the entire community to have a stain on its reputation.
Next, Mark tells us that if our leg causes us to sin, cut it off. Legs are our chief and most basic mode of transport. From our very first year, one of our first goals and milestones is to walk. Get up and go. For the Christian community our legs represent evangelism, going out to others, strangers, foreigners, people not like us, and being of service to them – proclaiming gospel not just with our words, but in more powerful ways, with our actions, with those hands just mentioned. In the early days, Christians were active, they used their legs in a variety of ways to proclaim good news. For example, if a prisoner died while serving a sentence, the Roman magistrate did not waste tax money to pay for his funeral. If no family could be found, the dead body was usually transported by soldiers to the local dump and tossed on the heap. The early Christians regularly walked into the courts of Roman magistrates and asked for the bodies of dead prisoners so that they would receive a dignified burial. TheChristian communities paid for the burial plots from the alms gathered at their Eucharists.
When Pope Francis addressed the bishops, priests, deacons, and nuns of the Catholic diocese of NY, he told them to get up and get out of their offices. He wants them to spend more time with the poor and the needy, than in the office. And if your legs cause you to sin, by just sitting around being inactive, cut them off and throw them away. (Get yourself a new set of legs.) They are not contributing to building the reign of God.
Finally, the eye. We see with our eyes, both literally and figuratively. In another part of Mark’s gospel he writes, “There are those who will look and look, but not see.” He’s talking of course about perception. You can open your eyes and see houses and trees, and cars driving by, but can you really see what’s going on? Can you see truth? When Jesus was alive he could see a time, he could envision a world in which all people could live lives of dignity and value. Can we see that? Or, are we blinded by our own fears and anxieties about the future. Pope Francis called on us all to see the world through God’s eyes, and not be blinded by the dazzling brightness of luxury, pleasure, and wealth. If all we can see is the ever-growing balances of our portfolios, then we are blind to God’s goodness and grace. God will not abandon us, even if markets crash, and bank accounts are emptied. God is with us always. But can we see it?
Hands, legs, and eyes symbolize elements of Christian ministry. Both Mark and Francis are calling us to live lives consistent with the gospel: to use our time talents, and energy to be of service to those in need, to go out – taking the good news of life abundant beyond the lines of familiarity and comfort and finally to see the truth of what is happening around us and respond faithfully, even if it means we don’t get what we want. Our personal sacrifice may result in everyone’s gain. Mark and Francis are calling us to live the gospel so that it can restore the world. I hope it works.
In Christ’s name. Amen