Script Out Passages: "If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off."
Hespeler, 4 October, 2015 © Scott McAndless – World Communion
Mark 9:42-49, Romans 16:17-20, 1 Corinthians 12:12-26
Since the beginning of September, as most of you will know, I have been talking about what I call the Script Outâ passages of the Bible – the verses that we love to hate for all kinds of reasons. What I haven’t told you is that I have done something like this before. I did a somewhat similar series of sermons at my last church where I chose to preach on the worst Bible passages I could find. I am a bit of a bear for punishment.
That time, however, I did make one mistake. We had a prominent sign in front of the church and I had one man who would put my various sermon titles on the sign each week. Well, during this series, this guy came to me and asked me what he should put on the sign. I, foolishly, just wrote out the actual texts of the Bible verses I was preaching on and nothing more. I mean, who could object if we just put the actual words of the Bible in front of a church? And anyways, I had never had complaints about what appeared on the church sign!
But I certainly had a lot of sympathy for the person who called me up. I too have a great many issues with that little saying of Jesus. I wouldn’t have too much trouble with it, perhaps, if I didn’t know how at least some people had read it down through the centuries. There have been too many Christians who have been far too quick to take this verse quite literally and start actually chopping off body parts in an effort to free themselves from sin. In ancient times, there was a saint named Origen who, in his youth, read this passage and decided that it was God’s instruction to him that he should mutilate himself and so he castrated himself.
Many people think that Origen did come to regret what he had done in his youth – regretted it so much that he went onto develop an entire way of approaching the Scriptures in order to avoid literal interpretations. He had come to see how dangerous that could be. But the damage had clearly already been done for him. And Origen wasn’t the only one. There was a Christian sect in Russia, known as the Skoptsy, that also practiced self-mutilation in a quest for perfection and freedom from sin. It is scary to think that we have in our Bibles a text that really could drive people to such extreme and dangerous acts.
So, absolutely, the first thing that I feel I must say about this passage is that it is not to be taken literally. To that end, I have made sure that there are absolutely no knives, axes or saws anywhere in the church this morning. (Okay, there are probably a few knives down in the kitchen but I don’t want anybody touching them, okay?) But, as much as I want that to be perfectly clear, how am I supposed
One thing I see is that it is almost impossible to read it literally because a literal reading leads to absurd results. Look at this line: “And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off.” How could that possibly make any logical sense? In what possible reality can you imagine a person stumbling while walking with two feet finding a solution to that problem by choosing, instead, to try and walk only with one? That doesn’t make any sense.
Nor do the other examples really make much sense. I mean, would anyone ever accept the excuse from someone who was arrested for shoplifting that it wasn’t their fault because their hand made them do it. Would anyone pardon someone who was charged with treason because they made the excuse that it was their eye’s fault, and so not theirs, that they looked at state secrets? Of course not! Though we might be tempted sometimes to blame our body and its desires for some of the things that we do that we later regret (Why did I let my stomach talk me into that extra piece of cake!), we all know that such excuses really don’t hold any water.
So I really think that we can clearly reject the errors that people have made by reading this passage literally. But that alone is not good enough. It is not good enough just to avoid the worst possible abuses of a certain passage of Scripture because this is Scripture and, as such, something that has been given to us in order to be a blessing to us and not just something that we need to avoid the negative implications of.
How can we then approach this passage so that it can be a real blessing to us? One thing that might help is not to take it too personally. The tendency is to assume that it is all about me as an individual – about my own personal righteousness and goodness and about getting me into heaven (or at least getting me out of hell).
You see that particularly among those communities who did take this passage literally. The Russian Skoptsy, for example, congratulated themselves that, because of their physical sacrifices, they were obviously better, more pure and righteous than everyone else. When people start thinking that way, even if they don’t go in for self-harming, it usually does not end up in a good place.
But what if Jesus never intended for this to be taken as a lesson on personal righteousness and purity? What if it wasn’t just about getting the individual right and pure with God? According to the Gospel of Mark, these sayings came up, not in the midst of discussions about personal righteousness but about how the community of disciples lived together – about who led and how they treated the “little ones.” What’s more, Jesus was talking about who belongs in the kingdom of God, which for him was always about community and how people treated one another.
And what if the consequences of the “sin” he was talking about weren’t just about what we traditionally think of as heaven and hell. Jesus talks about entering the “kingdom of God,” which we often take to mean entering heaven after death. But I am convinced that most of the time, when Jesus was talking about the kingdom he was talking about a present reality – about experiencing the presence of God in this life. So maybe when he talks about avoiding “hell” and the “unquenchable fire,” he is also talking about avoiding a present reality as well – the particular hell that we build for ourselves when we hurt and wound and fight each other.
That makes me think that maybe, a good application of what Jesus was really talking about in this passage might be found in the reading we had from the Letter to the Romans this morning. Paul addresses the Christians in Rome and says, “I urge you, brothers and sisters, to keep an eye on those who cause dissensions and offenses, in opposition to the teaching that you have learned; avoid them. For such people do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites.” You see, the sin that affects us all the most is the sin that occurs in community and particularly when people in a community get so caught up in their own appetites – taking care of what they see as their own needs and building their own little power centres – that they stop caring about how they might hurt others.
You hate to think that such things can happen in the life of a church, a place that is supposed to be dedicated to peace and reconciliation, but they do. And the effects can be so destructive that the kind of response that Jesus was talking about may sometimes be necessary. Sometimes there are people who need to be cut off from the community of the church.
That is not something that we generally practice in our church today. There was a time when it was very common. Today we will be celebrating communion and Presbyterians used to practice something called “fencing” the communion table. Prior to communion, instead of just inviting people to come to the table and share in communion, the minister would build an imaginary fence around it by telling the congregation who was not welcome to come to the table sometimes by saying which personal offenses disqualified them from coming and sometime by specifically naming the people who were not permitted to take communion.
It was not a nice practice, especially because it was most often used as a way to control people’s personal lives and to impose a personal righteousness and purity that may not have been helpful. It was more about judging people than helping people. I’m not really all that interested in returning to that kind of practice. But I can’t help but think that there might be some times when people who are causing hurt to others need to be cut off from the community of the church.
Yet, even there, actually telling someone that they can no longer be a part of the church is surely something that we ought not to have to resort to except in very extreme cases. For surely, when people do that, when they become so caught up in pursuing their own power or desires, that doesn’t come from nowhere. Often they will do it because, somewhere deep inside, they are struggling maybe with their own insecurities or because they are carrying around the wounds that other people have inflicted on their spirit.
And, let me ask you, when someone is hurting other people in the church because they themselves were hurt by someone they trusted in the past or because they feel like they have to get everyone to do things their way because they never got the approval they needed when they were growing up (I only use these cases as made up examples but when there’s something like that going on), what needs to be cut off? In the vast majority of cases what is needed is not to cut that person off from the church. Maybe what is needed is for the church to help them to cut off the things that they carry that cause them to behave in such ways?
You see, the reality is that your hand isn’t what causes you to sin, neither does your foot or your eye. These things are just the tools that you sometimes use to do bad things. My dream and my hope for the church is that it could be a place where we help people to deal with the things that actually do cause them to hurt others – where we are able to bring the things that we carry around inside us that have hurt us or have made us afraid and help each other to cut them off from our lives. Now, that is not something that is going to happen easily. It is going to have to take some trust and honesty. It is going to take being willing to open up with each other in ways that might even be uncomfortable. It is certainly nothing that is going to happen overnight. But I think that it can happen.
The communion that we will celebrate in a little while will be open to all. I won’t build any fences around the table. But I hope you don’t come carelessly. We need a community that is mutually supportive, where we deal with the things that may make us sometimes hurt and wound one another if we are not careful, where we are a blessing upon one another. The communion, that mutual sharing, is supposed to be a symbol of that. It is supposed to be that moment where our unity and harmony is on display.
I hope, as we approach this table, we can all examine ourselves and find that our inner lives are in accord with this outer symbol. I hope that if there is anything that is keeping us from doing that, that with God’s help and the help of our sisters and brothers, we can cut it off.