This passage from Mark is just one of the many reasons I am not a fundamentalist, or someone who takes the Bible literally. And, in fact, nobody really is a true Biblical literalist. As John Dominic Crossan puts it so nicely, “Just because Jesus is the Lamb of God doesn’t mean that Mary had a little lamb.”
If we were to take this passage from Mark literally, every Christian congregation– evangelical, progressive, conservative, liberal–would be full of torsos with no hands or feet and faces with eyes gouged out. I’m not sure how big that would go over with the television stations.
“If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, [Jesus said] it would 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.”
There is a form of proverbial wisdom, one Biblical scholar explains, “called the ‘better than’ proverb. It presents two sharply opposed choices, one of which is clearly good and the other clearly not.” (Alyce McKenzie, Edgy Exegesis, 9/24/12) “A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favor is better than silver or gold” (Prov. 22:1) is one example from the book of Proverbs. “Better is open rebuke than hidden love.” (Prov. 27:5)
This, of course, was part of the wisdom tradition in which Jesus grew up. And, in good Jewish tradition, he took the form and made it his own–he “borrowed their forms and used them in edgy ways to subvert conventional wisdom’s do’s and don’ts.” (McKenzie, op cit.) The sharp-tongued preacher in the book of Ecclesiastes did the same thing– “I thought the dead who have already died, [he wrote] more fortunate than the living, who are still alive, but better than both is the one who has not yet been and has not seen the evil deeds that are done under the sun.” (Eccl. 9:18)
Jesus was schooled in that tradition, but as Alyce McKenzie writes, “What Jesus does is take a traditional proverbial form used to offer clear-cut options and adds a dash of paradox and big dollop of hyperbole…The paradox is that he presents something clearly painful and distasteful [being drowned in the sea, or cutting off your hand or your foot] as the better choice. He uses hyperbole by exaggerating the choice to the Nth degree–all these self-amputations are better than being whole in hell.” (Op cit.)
“These are not legal rules meant to be enforced literally as general regulations [another scholar explains]. They are meant to make us look at human behavior in a whole new way.” (Robert Tannehill, cited by McKenzie, op cit.)
When people (we) exaggerate, we are stretching the truth. “When I was your age, I walked to school everyday, 5 mi. each way, uphill all the way, carrying my sister, who was pregnant at the time.” That’s hyperbole, exaggeration, stretching the truth. But here, Jesus means to show us how really destructive our actions can be. It really matters if the way you act or what you say causes someone else who’s still searching for faith or trust in God to turn away from God. “People were so offended by Jesus’ exaggeration, [McKenzie writes] not because it wasn’t true, but because it was.” (Ibid.)
This YouTube video defaming the prophet Mohammed that has caused so much uproar and violence is an example of how what we say or do in the name of God really matters. It can have devastating consequences. We tend to think that religion is just a topic for conversation, maybe steering away from off-color religious jokes, but, you know, it’s just religion. Obviously, it’s not just religion and certainly not a joke for millions and millions of people, not only fundamentalist Muslims but for millions of Jews who were killed in the Holocaust because of their religion. It was literally a matter of life and death.
And while we must defend free speech, as President Obama said this week, with the ability now at the touch of a button to spread lies and hatred all over the world, we need to examine and perhaps update both our understanding of free speech and of what we will take offense at, while at the same time, condemning violence against innocents in all cases.
This whole discussion of Jesus’ about the consequences of putting stumbling blocks in front of “little ones” is framed here in Mark in the context (not surprisingly) of community. What are the obligations of community and what are the limits of that community?
The disciples have just complained that they saw someone casting out demons in Jesus’ name who was not in their group. Jesus tells them to expand their notion of “group.” “Whoever is not against us is for us,” he told them. For Jesus, connection is paramount. The alternative is to be in hell. How different a sense of community that is from the statement made during the War in Iraq–”If you’re not with us, you’re against us.” That kind of statement puts up walls, whereas Jesus’ statement builds bridges. In a religiously super-charged world, we can and should be building bridges with moderate Muslims, Jews, and atheists, instead of merely returning violence for violence against radical Islamists. In a politically super-charged season and country, with extremists at both ends of the political spectrum hurling venom and lies at each other, we can and should be building bridges and supporting those willing to engage in conversation across the aisles. “Whoever is not against us is for us,” Jesus said. Build allies. Build community.
And what is the nature of that community? Is it “anything is ok”? Is it so open-minded as to be empty? Hardly. “Everyone will be salted with fire,” Jesus said. “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.”
What makes us “salty”? What is the nature of our community? Is it our radical hospitality? Is it our “friendliness”? Is it our commitment to mission, at least to financially support all kinds of mission projects? What is it? Or, Have we lost our saltiness, or is it diluted? How are we different from any other service club? What flavor and spice to we bring to our community, to our own lives? These are all important questions. “Everyone will be salted with fire,” Jesus said. “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.”
A group of ministers, laypeople, artists, musicians, and their children, initially from the Old South UCC Church in Boston, have gotten together to form what they call “The Salt Project.” On their website, they explain that they are “dedicated to reclaiming and sharing the beauty of Christian life through film, photography, music, poetry and ideas. We aim to build a community of conversation and resource-sharing that, like salt itself, preserves and seasons the best and most beautiful of the Christian tradition.” I urge you, if you do this sort of thing, to check out their website at saltproject.org. What might our “salt project” look like?
“Everyone will be salted by fire,” Jesus said. When potters throw salt into the kiln, they know that salt alters the surface of the pot in ways that cannot be entirely predicted or controlled. “The potter has to trust that when the salt is given to the fire [one artist explains], it will do its work; that, blessed by the intention and focus the potter brings, the salt will make a way for the wild beauty that will come.” (Jan Richardson, Painted Prayerbook, 9/25/12)
“If salt has lost its saltiness,” Jesus said, “how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” “One another” is not just with the two people sitting on either side of you. Community is much bigger than that, including those you might not expect to be included. But that’s the kind of salty community Jesus formed and is forming. It’s so important that it’s worth giving an arm and a leg for.
So may we receive – and be– this blessing from artist Jan Richardson, called “Blessing of Salt and Fire”–
And so, in this season,
may we give ourselves
to the fire
that shows us
what is elemental
that reveals what remains
after all that does not have
substance or savor
May we turn
to the beauty
for which we were formed
and bear with grace
that blossom upon us
who live salted
May it be so. Amen
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark