Mark 9: 38-50
This is a carrying on of what we heard and shared last Sunday. We’re in the same chapter of Mark that we were. The flow from being the greatest is found in being the last of all to welcoming the forgotten and ignored to whoever is not against us is for us is one section. After Jesus corrected the disciples for arguing who was the greatest among themselves, I always find John’s admission of stopping an exorcist using the name of Jesus a distraction from Jesus’ correction. As if he was a child trying to win favor again from his parent, John, the brother of James, tells of their actions proudly. As if, “See, we’re not so bad after all.” A father complaining to a friend said: “Things were a lot different when I was a boy. In his room, my son has a TV, a computer, a Blue Ray player, a refrigerator and a stereo. When I want to punish him, I have to send him to my room.”
Jesus’ primary answer to John was simple and, again, addresses their sense of false superiority. “He was not following us (vs. 38),” John said. Jesus told him, “Do not stop him. . . Whoever is not against us is for us. (vss 39, 40)”
Then Jesus gets blunt, real blunt. No parables, no word pictures that prompt a mystery of understanding to be sought. He’s curt, forthright and outspoken with his friends who he will leave soon. When I first meet someone who is blunt in their language, it puts me on my heals, but I find them usually precise and unwilling to waste my time or theirs. A young politician in England once sought advice from Prime Minister Winston Churchill on public speaking. “It’s quite simple,” Churchill told him, “Say what you have to say, and when you come to a sentence with a grammatical ending, sit down.”
“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me (the forgotten and ignored from last Sunday and the exorcist using Jesus’ name today), it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. (vs. 42)” If you’re more interested in arguing about who’s the greatest among you than welcoming the forgotten or encouraging those from another group of Jesus’ followers, you’re either putting or maintaining stumbling blocks in front of the young and struggling believer. If so, your YMCA lifesaver training won’t help you.
Our stumbling is the stumbling we willfully permit or cause among those ignored or who we refuse to bless because they’re simply not like us. The New International Version of the Bible, among our versions, use the word ‘sin’ in place of the word stumble in the New Revised Standard Version. If our hand, foot or eye causes us to sin, they should be cut off or plucked out. The sin in this lesson is the stumbling we cause others. Jesus spoke directly about the stumbling we may cause that harms those who believe in him, and if your hand, foot or eye cause the harm get rid of them.
Symbolically, the hand in Hebrew represents authority or power. If our authority granted to us were to cause a fellow believer to stumble in their walk with Christ, it would best if we lost that authority. Symbolically, the eye in Hebrew represents character (also, the window to the soul). If your character was a weakness that directed you to trip up another believer’s walk with Christ, it would best to withdraw from others so your character couldn’t impact them. The foot represents free will. If in your freedom to do as you please and you bring harm to another believer’s life, it would be best if you limit your freedom so others would not be harmed.
This language of self-mutilation, cutting off and plucking out, often leads us to legalism and personal holiness. Cutting your limbs off is not personal holiness. An old newspaper story told of a man who wanted to get a license to serve wine in his restaurant in what was a dry county of Georgia. In making his case to the county commissioners, he pointed out that Jesus drank wine when he was here on earth. One of the commissioners, who was a Baptist deacon, answered in an angry voice, “I know! And he has always been an embarrassment to me.” A truly Methodist understanding of holiness is that all holiness is social. Your holiness, your relationship with Jesus Christ and your commitment to apply revelation from God in you and through you, is reflected in who you accept and who you don’t, who you reach out to and who you don’t, who you welcome and why and who you don’t and why, and what grudges you keep and what grudges you’ve let go.
Being in the inner circle with Jesus doesn’t make you impervious to sin. Being in the inner circle with Jesus may make you egotistical and arrogant if you focus on the benefits of the relationship rather than sharing the good news of God in deed and word to everyone in your path. Earlier in this same ninth chapter of Mark, a father came to Jesus, telling him his son had a spirit that made him unable to speak, dashed him to the ground, caused him to foam at the mouth and become rigid. He then said, “I asked your disciples to cast it out but they could not do so. (vs 19)” These are the same disciples a few verses later who argue among themselves who was the greatest. Their arrogance was greater than their faith, and their egos were greater than their compassion for the broken. But they were quick to try to stop somebody else doing Kingdom work because that person was not following them. The disciples were the sinners. The disciples were coming close to erecting blocks in many paths impeding others who needed the followers of Jesus to bring them grace and mercy, power and love. Being a member of a church doesn’t make you impervious to sin. In fact, sometimes, being a good church member, a faithful preacher, may make us egotistical and arrogant if we focus on the benefits of God’s love rather than sharing the good news of that love to everyone in our path.
The story is told of a church in a small town that got a new preacher. Everyone in the town was talking about how wonderful he was. Then the town skeptic asked one the church deacons, “Why is this preacher so much better than the last one you had?” The deacon answered, “The last one told us we were sinners, and that unless we repented and trusted Jesus, we were all going to hell.” The skeptic asked, “And what does this new preacher say?” The deacon said, “The new preacher tells us we’re all sinners and unless we repent and trust in Jesus, we’re all going to hell.” The skeptic shrugged his shoulders and said, “I fail to see any difference between the two.” And the deacon answered, “The new preacher says it with tears in his eyes.”
(Preached at Lincoln UMC in Lincoln, AL, September 26, 2021)