in Ordinary Time
Sept. 30, 2012
Mark 9: 38-48
Christian Bros., Iona
“If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off” (Mark 9: 43).
The gospel reading this evening is a collection of Jesus’ teachings loosely linked by verbal connections. The exorcist who “does not follow us” (9:38) is a disciple of Jesus in some sense; in the previous passage, last week’s gospel (9:30-37), Jesus taught what it means to be an authentic disciple. In today’s episode, moreover, John continues to contend about rank and prestige, which the disciples were arguing about last week.
The 2d verbal link is “in my name.” Last week Jesus taught that “receiving one child such as this in my name” is the same as receiving himself (9:37), i.e., giving pastoral attention to the poor, the weak, the powerless, those on the margins of society and of no worldly account is equivalent to caring for Jesus when it’s done for him. It’s the same teaching detailed in Matthew’s well known parable to the Last Judgment (25:31-46). This week the teaching is about those who ally themselves with Jesus by invoking his name in order to do good (9:39). This, and the following saying about those who assist others “because you belong to Christ” (9:41), remind us that there are different ways of following Jesus, and all who follow Jesus are joined to him and are thus joined to one another. We have much that we can do in common “in his name” for the benefit of the Church and of humanity, for the advancement of God’s kingdom. Whatever the original context of Mark’s Gospel, today we can say that Catholics and Protestants, liberals and conservatives, adherents of different spiritualities, members of different religious families, ought not to be contending with each other when there are “mighty deeds” to be done—works of charity, works of healing.
Then Jesus returns to “these little ones” (9:42). This could mean, literally, children, like the child whom Jesus embraced when speaking of receiving children (9:36). It could, on the other hand, mean those who are little in the world’s eyes because they’ve humbled themselves by becoming the servants of their brothers and sisters. It could mean those who’ve become lowly in the world’s eyes by embracing the teaching and the cross of Jesus, which is, as St. Paul wrote, “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Cor 1:23).
In any case, “these little ones,” whether children or believers in general, are sacred to Jesus. To “cause one of [them] to sin,” is literally to “cause someone to fall,” to “scandalize” someone; that’s the verb used here, and it’s the same word that Paul uses in noun form, “a stumbling block.” Jesus identifies genuine scandal as a terrible crime that deserves a terrible punishment. The punishment that Jesus mentions (9:42) was practiced by the Romans and others, and the Roman Martyrology also records the deaths of some saints by that practice.
A “scandal” or “stumbling block” or “cause of sin” doesn’t mean what it’s come to mean in common English—the “scandal sheets” of the daily newspapers or the supermarket tabloids reporting the shenanigans of the rich and famous or the outrageous behavior of some clergy and religious that has blackened the name and the moral stature of Christ’s Church. No, “scandal” really means leading another person to sin thru one’s bad example or false teaching. Contemporary examples would be politicians who condone abortion or embryonic stem cell research and thus make those sins more widespread; theologians and religious leaders who give their approval to moral behaviors that the Church consistently teaches are sinful; parents or coaches who habitually lie, cheat, or use abusive language and so teach those habits to their children or players; religious whose lax observance of their rules encourages others to do the same; chronic criticism of others that so easily becomes a “chapter of faults” completely devoid of any charity. These are all examples of how we can “cause others to stumble.”
The verbal link “causes one to sin” brings us to the graphic examples that Jesus uses, including the punishment for sin that’s far worse than “a great millstone.” There are at least 3 ways to read Jesus’ words here about “your hand,” “your foot,” or “your eye” causing you to sin. Origen, the great 3d-century Church Father from Alexandria, seems to have taken the passage literally in regard, we suppose, to sexual temptations, and that seems to be why, almost alone among the Fathers, he’s never been venerated as a saint. I suppose we could also say that the strictest adherents of Sharia law in the Muslim world are practicing these sayings literally when they cut off the hands of thieves. It’s also what lies behind the severe bodily penances that some people have practiced—almost literally beating their bodies into submission lest passions ever get the upper hand.
But mainstream Christianity has always taken them metaphorically. The more common interpretation is that our following of Jesus on the way to eternal life must be total, without reservation. Nothing must come between us and his teachings, his way of life. Anything that might separate us from him, anything that might induce us to sin, is to be avoided (we pray that in the traditional Act of Contrition) at all cost. “Death rather than sin” was one of St. Dominic Savio’s First Communion resolutions (not bad for a 7-year-old).
|One of the oldest sketches of Savio. He holds a scroll with 2 of his Communion resolutions: "My friends will be Jesus and Mary," and "Death but not sin."|
Another interpretation kind of flips the sayings. Our hands, feet, and eyes really can’t cause us to sin. What does? Do you remember Jesus’ dispute with the scribes and Pharisees about the traditions of the elders, which was our gospel 4 weeks ago? Jesus explained: “Nothing that enters one from outside can defile him; but the things that come out from within are what defile. From within people, from their hearts, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these evils come from within, and they defile” (Mark 7:15,21-23). Thus, not the individual parts of our bodies but our inner selves, our deep desires, our attitudes—these are what we have to examine to find the real causes of our sins. And these are what must be cut off, plucked out, uprooted, that is to say, what must be converted so as to reflect the desires and attitudes of Jesus, so that our inmost self may become what God created it to be: an image of himself.