Stumbling blocks

30 September 2018
Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 21B (RCL)
Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22
Psalm 124
James 5:13-20
Mark 9:38-50

Let me start by saying that when I was doing my CPE on the rehab floor at Mass General Hospital in the mid-1980s, there was a young man on the floor who was having his hand reconstructed. On the basis of this passage, and feeling guilt about what teenage boys do, he laid his right hand on a railroad track. I’ll never hear this passage in Mark without remembering that young man and the horrible guilt and pain this caused him. We need to use care in reading.

That said, this collection of sayings seems a bit strung together. I believe Mark has a purpose for putting them together and in this order, but it’s not immediately apparent. This passage follows immediately on Jesus’ second instruction about the passion, and the disciples arguing about who would be the greatest. Jesus has just taken a pais, a child or slave, and embraced it, and said, whoever welcomes one such pais in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes not me, but the one who sent me. In chapter 10, v. 13, Mark will again report Jesus taking children in his arms to bless them (and scolding his disciples for trying to prevent their mothers). Here is another example of Marcan intercalation. The ‘bread’ of the ‘meat’ of the sandwich interpret each other. The ‘bread’ in this case is Jesus embracing children (or a slave), and the ‘meat’ is these sayings about preventing someone casting out demons, a cup of cold water, causing little ones to stumble, entering life maimed and salt, and then a teaching about divorce. What do all of these have in common?

Boundaries. John, who tried to prevent another exorcist, was trying to control the boundaries of those who invoke Jesus’ name. Anyone who places an obstacle in the way of a ‘little one’, it would be better for such a one to have millstone tied around his neck, and be thrown into the sea. If your right hand is an obstacle for entering life, cut it off. Better to enter life maimed, that to go with two hands into Gehenna (the town dump), where the worm never dies and the fire never goes out. So, here’s the puzzle. Those with only one hand, or one foot, or one eye, would be considered (in every age) as less than perfect. Better to be less than perfect, and in the community, than perfect and on the outside. Jesus says, “If your right hand causes you to stumble (or, is a cause of stumbling to you), cut it off.” He does not say, “If your right hand causes you to sin.” There’s a big difference. A cause of stumbling is an obstacle in the way forward, or the way into the community. So, Mark wants us to consider what is preventing our full inclusion into the community. Is our desire for seeming perfect in the eyes of the world preventing us from allowing ourselves in?

The little ones would have no such pretensions. Do we? I think James is telling us the same thing. If you are sick, call the elders of the community to pray with you. Admit your incompleteness, and you sins will be forgiven. All too often, we put on our “Sunday best” to go to Church, and don’t want anyone to know our weaknesses. That is an obstacle to being a part of the community.

Jesus ends his teaching about divorce by again embracing a child. I think he is reminding us that children are considered non-entities in the divorce, and that puts an obstacle in the way of their full participation. So, all of these saying point to the same issue – exclusion.

And the saying about salt fits here as well. Salt is a sign of the covenant with God. Leviticus 2:13 enjoins that no cereal offering may be offered without the salt of the covenant. Numbers 18:19 speaks of the dedicated portions of an offered animal being given to the priesthood, as a covenant of salt. Excluding people from the sacrifice would go against the covenant, and its salt.

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