27 September 2015
Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 21B (RCL)
Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22
I worry that on this particular Sunday, all people will hear is “If your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off.” When I was doing my Clinical Pastoral Education unit, I was at the Massachusetts General Hospital, on the rehabilitation floor. That meant I dealt with a lot of people who had had joint replacements, or bone reconstructions (think motorcycle accidents). There was one young man on the floor, maybe 17 years old. He was having his right hand reconstructed. The process was at the point of the skin graft, and so his right hand was sewn under a skin flap on his thigh. Being pretty young myself, I sat down at the bedside and asked him what had happened. Being a teenager, his right hand (as he saw it) had caused him to sin, and taking this passage literally, he had laid his hand on a railroad track as a train was passing by.
I hope I didn’t show my shock, and probably stumbled over whatever it was that I tried to say. I did have the sense to ask the head nurse whether he needed a psychiatric consult. She informed me that he was already scheduled to be moved to the psych ward, once his hand had healed. I breathed a huge sigh of relief. I cannot believe that this is what Jesus meant. I think the young man (as do many) had misunderstood what it means to enter life. Too many of us hear that as getting into heaven, and think that means keeping ourselves free of “sins” that wouldn’t have entered the minds of the writers of the Gospels.
The sayings about cutting off hands and feet and plucking out eyes have to be read in the larger context of this whole apparent mish-mash of sayings. The passage follows immediately on the heels of last week’s reading in which the disciples had argued about who was the greatest. Jesus had put a child in their midst and suggested that trying to be great will result in being last and least. Then John worries about someone casting out demons who is apparently not part of the right group. So the disciples are worrying about internal structure and external boundaries. Neither of these concerns reflects Jesus’ message. Next, Jesus remarks that if anyone gives a disciple a cup of water, they will not lose their reward, whether inside or outside makes no difference. And if anyone causes one of these little ones who are faithful to stumble, it would be better to be thrown into the see. And, then, if your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off.
The metaphor of stumbling applies to entering life. Whatever prevents anyone from entering life must be dealt with. What does it mean to enter life? Jesus ends this series of sayings with the saying about salt. Salt was an important part of a grain sacrifice. Leviticus 2:13 reads, “However, every cereal offering that you present to the Lord shall be seasoned with salt. Do not let the salt of the covenant of your God be lacking from your cereal offering. On every offering you shall offer salt.” Salt served as the sign of the covenant, of the covenantal community established by sacrifice. We are to be at peace with one another and have salt among ourselves. This is the life which we are to enter, and anything that prevents us from entering it must be dealt with.
James provides some examples of how this life is to be lived. If any are suffering, they should pray (probably in the gathered body at worship). If any are rejoicing, they should sing songs of praise (again in the gathered worshiping body). If any are sick, they should call the elders who should anoint them, and thereby reconnect them with the worshiping body. If someone wanders from the truth, bring them back, and the community will cover a multitude of sins. Every part of life, even wandering from the truth, becomes part of the revelatory discourse of the community, a new opportunity to see God at work among us.
And, what the disciples fail to understand, is that the church, the community of faith, is something like a first fruits offering, offered on behalf of the rest of the world. It’s not about who is in and who is out, and only those in being permitted to do the works of God, but about the church offered on behalf of the life of the world. Our lives should be salty, whether in suffering, joy, sickness or wandering — if we offer our lives to God, the life God intends of all can be revealed.