It should be obvious, but I feel I should say this clearly every time we read this passage: Jesus does not want you to cut off your hand or foot or poke out an eye. Every so often a hospital will have a patient whose mind has gone off into frightening and horrible paths, and who has latched onto some of these verses, who decides that rather than fall into some sin that tempts them, whatever it might be, that the preventive measure is to harm his or her body. Let me assure you that even someone who takes every word of the Bible as if it were dictated letter-by-letter would not hesitate to say that these words are not to be taken literally.
The hand and the foot may be used to commit sins. Smash that windshield, grab the package on the carseat, then run! There are sins that begin with sight: David, looking down from his palace, saw Bathsheba in her swimming pool and didn’t care that he was married and she was married. Yet not all theft involves break-ins and some theft is even accomplished through legal means. Blind people fall in love, and are also capable of forgetting themselves. Changing our physical capacity to sin might eliminate some opportunities, but not the desire, and God, who sees into the human heart, judges that. Jesus said, after all,
“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.” [Matthew 5:21-22]
By those standards, most of us would be walking around without being able to speak, because we would have had to cut the tongues out of our mouths.
What we need to get rid of or to curb are the impulses within ourselves that lead to the actions that our bodies and our minds carry out. That is an amputation that is far more difficult, and probably more painful, than a once-and-done lopping-off of a limb.
A good example is what happened one day when the disciple John discovered someone that neither he nor the other disciples knew had been going around and casting out demons in Jesus’ name. Instead of being glad for the people the man was helping, John just saw this as a sort of copyright infringement, stepping on the disciples’ prerogatives, diluting their special role and their unique standing. He couldn’t stand for that, and so he took the matter to Jesus, probably expecting Jesus to shut the man down for unlicensed use of his brand.
“But Jesus said, ‘Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us.” [Mark 9:39-40]
Chop! Sorry, John, but there went your need to control anybody else’s ministry. Oops! It looks like a section of your self-importance was still attached.
Maybe another way to express it is to say that some of the losses we experience are losses that we need to undergo if we are to be whole, which is what Jesus was telling us. It’s better to lose whatever keeps us from entering the kingdom of God in its fullness and wonder. The most difficult part of that is depending on our own abilities and our own achievements, rather than trusting entirely on God’s grace, and the more you have going for you the harder it is. Sometimes God goes to great lengths to get through to us on that.
I like the story of Elijah that is found in I Kings, where Elijah faces down King Ahab’s idolatry and stands up to the way that the people have turned away from God.
“Then Elijah said to the people, ‘I, even I only, am left a prophet of the Lord; but Baal’s prophets number four hundred fifty.” [I Kings 19:22]
He faces them down successfully and then when Queen Jezebel threatens him (and this is a measure of how scary she must have been) he runs away to hide. Out in the desert, God speaks to him.
“‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ He answered, ‘I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life to take it away.’” [I Kings 19:9-10]
Then Elijah is told to stand on the mountain and there is a mighty wind, but God does not appear to him through the wind, nor through the earthquake that followed the wind, nor through the fire that followed the earthquake. Then came what the Bible calls “a sound of sheer silence,” and in that
“there came a voice to him that said, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ He answered, ‘I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life to take it away.’” [I Kings 19:13-14]
The Lord doesn’t respond to that, except to give Elijah his next assignment, his marching orders, telling him whom to set up as the next set of kings and to appoint Elisha as his own successor. And then, at the end of the list, he lets him know, Mr. I-Alone-Am-Left, that there have been seven thousand other faithful people in Israel that he either didn’t know about, or wasn’t paying attention to.
The Lord was letting Elijah know, as Jesus would later let John know, that the usual suspects may not be the only game in town, and it would be a good idea to cut out the self-importance in order to get a real sense of what is going on as the kingdom of God is growing right there under his own nose.
We all need to be kept humble. Wise people may even know how to do it gently, but effectively. Years ago, I was a summer intern at a country church in North Carolina that had a very active men’s group who met over breakfast one Sunday each month. One of the leaders was a wonderful guy, whose name was Buck. He did, however, have very clear notions on how to divide up any job and was quick to assign roles. This one Sunday, I don’t know why, but he overslept. The men were all at church in the kitchen, but Buck wasn’t there to make the biscuits. Rather than have breakfast without biscuits, somebody mixed up the dough. Buck wasn’t there yet. Somebody else rolled the dough out. Still no Buck. Then somebody cut the biscuits out and put them on the cookie sheets. No Buck. It was getting late, so finally someone went and called his house, because they had done as much as they could without him and Buck and only Buck could put the biscuits into the oven. Ten minutes later, Buck was there, with the sleeves of his pajamas sticking out of his shirt cuffs, and he stuck the biscuits in the oven, gave permission for someone else to take them out when they were ready, and went home again to get ready for church.
I’m emphasizing pride in these stories, because that seems to be one of the issues that Mark alludes to when he talks about John’s complaints. There are a multitude of other amputatable (is that a word?) attitudes, like envy or bitterness or apathy or fear, that we do far better without, and those, too, the Lord can take care of for us. Michelangelo said, “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” I wonder sometimes if God doesn’t see us blockheads that way: as wonderful works of his own art just needing to be chipped away a little here and smoothed out a little there, with a major chunk on this side that will have to go, but just the right grain over there to reflect the light.
If so, maybe we should be patient with the way that he works on us and, for that matter, learn to admire the rest of the masterpieces-to-be that are all around us.