Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 26, 2021
Focus: God gives us a great reward.
Function: That the hearers salt the earth (fight against corruption while preserving the reign of God).
Whatever Causes You to Sin, Cut It Off
Just a couple of weeks ago, we were looking together at some of the difficult words that Jesus spoke in Mark’s gospel. And today, we’re presented with more. My time in the Office of Holy Ministry hasn’t been all that long, but already, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked about what Jesus said in our text for today: “did He mean it? Should we really cut off our hand and pluck out our eyes?”
And I don’t like the usual answer. The normal response to reading about cutting off your feet here is that Jesus is just trying to show you how bad sin is. But I think that weakens Jesus’ argument. If He wanted to show you just how bad sin is, all He’d have to do is tell you that your sins have damned you. Even just one of them. You’re dead. Just like Adam and Eve in the Garden some six thousand years ago. Or, for us today, He could simply point us to the nearest crucifix, as a reminder of just how horrific our sin truly is, that we killed God with it.
If you want to get the full picture of what Jesus is saying here in Mark 9, then yes, at least for a moment, we’re invited by Jesus to consider what He’s saying in its literal meaning. So let’s imagine it together.
There are many sins that the hand can commit. One such sin is theft. When you took your classmate’s pencil from their desk when they weren’t looking, or snagged something from their lunch. That time you were shopping and “accidentally” slipped something into your pocket. The punishment for theft in many cultures historically has been to cut off the thief’s hand. So down you go. One hand gone.
Physical violence is another sin we commit with our hands. How many times as a child did you strike your sibling? Or hit your parent as they sought to discipline you or even console you? How many times have you struck an enemy or a close friend? Each and any of these according to the words of Jesus would qualify as breaking the 5th Commandment. There goes your other hand.
Let’s move on to the feet. One of the blessed gifts that God gives us with our feet is the ability to walk and to go places. So consider, how many times have your feet taken you places you ought not to have been? Certainly walking into a pagan temple would be an example, where you would worship an idol. But what about that time you thought you slipped in and out of the gentlemen’s club unnoticed? As though God doesn’t see. What about that time you went to that boy’s house even though you were pretty sure you knew what was going to happen there wouldn’t please God or your parents? Then there’s those times you’ve wandered into the casino, as though that’s somehow a good use of what God has entrusted to you to put the work of His kingdom. You know where your feet have gone when they had no business doing so. And since they were in cahoots together, cut them both off.
That leaves us with the eyes. For this example, let’s look no further than last week’s sermon text, from James’s epistle to the churches. “You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel.” James gives it two statements. As does our list of the Ten Commandments, with coveting covering the Ninth and the Tenth. And yet we do it anyway. We spy with our little eye something that our heart longs for. And we want it. Houses, cars, influence, fancy stuff, food, even basic necessities, whatever it is. There goes one eye. Plucked out.
And then we’re reminded of Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount, where He teaches us that “everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” And yes, we can turn those around. 80% of today’s youth and young adults view pornography monthly. And yes, you can read porn with your eyes. There goes the second eye.
I’m surprised Jesus didn’t add the tongue to the mix, as we lie, and deceive, and gossip, and slander, and poison our relationships in this world. There goes another.
If you’re following along at this point, imagine what’s left of you, what do you look like? We’re just a torso with a head. And here’s where the picture really pushes us to understand the depth of our sins. Because lying there, incapable of just about anything, what would we do? Just as Jesus taught two chapters before, the things that defile the man come from his heart. From our hearts, from our minds, would still flow thoughts and feelings of hatred for others. For those who’ve wronged us. For those who participated in our sins that cost us our limbs. Even a hatred and despising of God Himself. We would be so frustrated, so livid with God for our present state. Rather than blaming ourselves, we’d blame God like Adam did.
And so your heart, your mind, must be cut off. And if we do that, we die. That shows us the purpose of the words of Christ. Just how deep does your sin run? Just how desperate should the plight of man in this world be? One sin would damn us. And yet, we sin far more often than that each and every day. Consider, how long would it’ve actually taken for each of us to reach that final spot where we’ve lost each limb? None of us would’ve escaped childhood. Would we even last a day?
And yet, that’s still how we choose to live in this world now. We’re like that little child who tries to see just how close to the fire they can get before they get burned. We try to see just how close to the world we can get before we get burned. And the point of this text is to tell you to stop it. Because the lake of fire burns forever. It would be better to enter Paradise lame, crippled, and blind, than to perish forever in Hell.
And that image brings about another frequently asked question: “does this mean we’ll still have scars in Paradise? That we can be missing limbs?” I don’t know the answer to that question, even if my educated guess would be “no.” I do know that we will be raised from the dead. I do know that the Lord will put us back together again. I do know that our bodies will be glorified. I just don’t know what that looks like. None of us do.
But there is one glorified Body that we do know. Allow me to return to one of my opening comments. Our sins are so horrific that God died for them. They’re the opposite of harmless. They aren’t things that should swept under a rug as if they don’t matter.
Knowing how bad our sins are, and knowing that the end result would be our everlasting death, God said “no.” He chose to put an end to our self-destructive ways. He chose to take your sins and mine and place them on His own dear Son. Those very same sins that would cost you your hand, your foot, or your eye. Those very same sins that you often think aren’t really that bad, and perhaps you might even get away with.
Jesus took all of those sins upon Himself. And then He was cut off from His own creation. In place of you. In place of your limbs. Jesus was cut off. As the flogging cut into His flesh. As the thorns cut into His brow. As the nails cut through His hands and His feet. And as the spear cut into His side. Jesus. Cut off. For you.
And after He rose the dead, those scars remained. In His resurrected and glorified body, the wounds still remain. As He appears to Thomas eight days after the resurrection, He invites him to take his finger and place it in His hand. To take his hand and place it in His side. The cuts that Christ bore for us, He still bears for us. When the disciples saw their resurrected Lord, they remembered exactly what He has done to save them. And so it would be of little surprise if Christ our Lord still bears the wounds that cut Him down in the new heaven and the new earth, because those cuts would be a reminder to us of just how great His love is for us, and just what He had to do to rescue all of our members from the pits of Hellfire that we may live and not die.
Believe it or not, the words Jesus uses to wrap up the chapter are even more difficult. But let me give you a brief description so that you can get the full picture of what Jesus was teaching His disciples that day.
In the Scriptures, in regards to the end of the world and the final judgment, fire actually has two purposes, not one. There is, of course, the lake of fire and sulphur we’ve discussed already. But there’s also these words from the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 3:12-15:
12 Now if any man builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, 13 each man’s work will become evident; for the day will show it because it is to be revealed with fire, and the fire itself will test the quality of each man’s work. 14 If any man’s work which he has built on it remains, he will receive a reward. 15 If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.
Use those verses to interpret verse 49 in today’s gospel, where Jesus says “For everyone will be salted with fire.” One of the ancient purposes of salt was to cleanse and preserve. It could be used to keep something from decaying, from rotting, to fight against corruption. So both salt and fire bear this quality of cleansing. That you are salted with fire is to say that the Lord has cleansed you, purified you, as He baptizes His Church with His Spirit and with fire.
Consider the salt in verse 50 then as the Church, all of us. The Lord has called us to be salt to the earth, that is, He has called you and me into this creation for the purpose of salting our neighbors, battling against sin, death, and the devil. Seeking to aid our neighbor in the face of temptations. Sharing with them instead the hope that we have in Christ. But if we have lost our saltiness, if we are too busy loving the world and its temptations, who then will share Christ with our neighbor?
See how the text flows as a whole unit, almost like a sandwich: on the opening end, the disciples quarrel with an unknown disciple of Jesus who was working diligently to be salt to his neighbor, to cleanse the very evil of demonic possession from him. Instead, as the middle, Jesus says that any who salt this world, even by simply giving a cup of water to care for His people, are a part of His kingdom. But all those who seek to harm His people, are enemies that will be destroyed. And He then warns us that we are at risk of destroying ourselves as He shows us the danger of sin in this world and within us. For the closing end, He returns to the idea that we are, like that unknown disciple, to care for our neighbors, battling against evil in this world, while having peace among all of those who are in the kingdom.
The words of Christ call us to be the Church. To work together for the purposes of His kingdom. Not to love the world and see how close we can come to being burned, but to salt the earth, to preserve our neighbors from the corruptions of temptations in the flesh. We’re salt together, allies against all that would destroy what God has made. So be at peace with one another.