Feb 12th 2017 . Matthew 5. 21- 37. Mark 9. 38 – 50.
With this Gospel we are but a short way into the central teaching of Jesus, his ‘sermon on the mount’. Using the literary device of repetition – a driving almost relentless repetition – ‘you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, but I say to you’ … Matthew paints an almost frightening picture of a radical disturbing figure who in a few sharp sentences reinterprets and supplants the traditional teachings of the Book of Exodus … about anger and resentment … about lust and abuse … about truth-telling
And then to drive home even more fiercely his radical demand for integrity and purity of heart he says … and I quote the earliest version of these words from Mark because, as often with Mark they are even clearer:
If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; If your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out …
What are we to make of this? This Christ barking such judgement, and such demands at us?
The Christian gospel book can be very disturbing. . We carry it high in the gospel procession and declare that it is Gospel – good news. But is it – always? How can this passage and particularly this violent language of self-mutilation possibly be Good News? Cutting off hands, chopping off limbs, tearing out eyes? It sounds repugnant – and psychologically unhealthy – this denying of our shadow side.
So do we ignore it? Is the best thing to allow the liturgy to go on and just forget that we have been told by our Lord at the very centre of the service to cut off and tear out essential parts of our anatomy?
I remember a TV programme about a man who did indeed cut off his own arm.
He was a fisherman who owned a small trawler and went out alone into the North Sea one day on one of his regular fishing trips. On this particular day things did not go to plan. When he was some way off shore dark clouds began to amass on the horizon and the wind speed rapidly increased and a fierce storm began to blow up. So he decided that he had better winch in his nets and head for home.
As the motorised winch on the side of the boat turned, he inadvertently caught his hand and forearm in the cable that was winching up the nets and he trapped his arm in the winch, and jammed it. He was in terrible pain. But worse still, he found he was not able to free his crushed hand and arm from the winch in order to get across the deck to the small wheel house so that he could control the boat and steer it home. And the weather was rapidly deteriorating. And so with the boat out of control and going broadside to the mounting waves he realised he faced an appalling decision. The only chance to save the boat from capsizing, with him being dragged under to certain death, was to cut off his arm above the elbow.
Lying on the deck within reach of his other arm was a very sharp knife that he used to gut the fish, and so … because time was very short … he picked up the sharp knife and began to cut into his own flesh and muscle and bone until the trapped arm was severed.
Despite the pain and loss of blood he did not pass out, and he managed to get back into the wheelhouse and turn the boat, and somehow, using his one good arm, he managed to steer it home. It was an extraordinary story of courage and utterly single-minded determination. As he told it – with his little daughter sitting on his lap with his one good arm around her – he said that what kept him to his appalling task was the thought that unless he persisted, his wife and children would never see him again. As he returned to port and was taken to hospital and his stump was treated, that man entered into life maimed, but freshly aware as never before of the precious gift it was.
Well, please God none of us will ever find ourselves in such a situation. Yet even imagining it brings home something of the force and radical demand that these words of Jesus confront us with. ‘If your hand causes you to stumble, cut if off … if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off … if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out …’
We can perhaps make more sense of the passage if we realise that it may have its origin in an ancient and primitive Hebrew view of the human personality that is called ‘diffused consciousness’. This view held that each organ or part of the body was the seat of one of the psychological forces that make up the total personality. So … take anger, where might that reside? Perhaps in the right arm with which we can lash out at people. Or Lust? Well that must be in the wandering restless eye which goes searching for fantasies, and sees other people as objects to be used for our own gratification. What about pride and arrogance? Well perhaps they are to be found in the foot. How people stand and walk, or strut, can tell us much about them. And Fear and Self-doubt – where might they be located? In the knees perhaps which threaten to collapse beneath us when we panic or maybe in the back and shoulders bent with low self-esteem.
Easy to dismiss it as an ancient primitive view from a pre-scientific age, and yet there is a certain kind of wisdom here, reflecting a deeply Jewish understanding that we are essentially embodied selves. How we are in our bodies and what we do with our bodies reflects how we are in our souls – the two are not two but one. We are not separate mind and body and spirit, as western theology and western medicine has often thought, but profoundly inter-connected, one person.
So what in his utterly single-minded way Jesus of Nazareth is saying to us is: attend to what, again and again, in you, causes you to stumble. Attend to what again and again in you causes ‘offence’ (that is how some translations put it). Attend to whatever in you offends the real you, the creative, beautiful person made in God’s image that you really are … someone you may not even know very well.
We do not just offend others – we offend ourselves. Attend to whatever causes offence, whatever causes you to stumble … to lose your loveliness.
Ask yourself gently, and without a hint of condemnation … what is it? …what is it that causes me again and again to stumble … and even despair over myself.
Is it my my egoism and need, my tendency to self-promotion that actually makes me lonely? Or my brittleness and anger and potential violence … which others round me nervously sense? Or is it my timidity … the tendency to put myself down and dismiss myself as of nothing? That is a cause of stumbling that many of us church people easily suffer from and don’t even recognise to be a sin. Or is it something else …?
And when we have become aware again of what it is … what causes us to stumble and not walk freely, to trip and not stride out, to falter and not go the distance, to retreat and not do the things we are able to … when we have become aware of what traps us in the old patterns of reactive negative behaviour … the passage would seem to say: be courageous. Be determined that it must be dealt with, this cause of stumbling … otherwise what he calls ‘Life’ – will always elude us.
But how, we might well say to this Christ. How? I can’t just tear bits of myself out, can’t just hack away the old deep-rooted patterns and habits, the persistent ways I can react and speak, particularly when in a tight corner, however much I dislike them. It’s deeper than that. And I am more complicated than that.
This particular Gospel can only take us so far. It’s message is: be radically serious about your causes of stumbling as you seek after the Life of God.
But it doesn’t tell you how to find that Life. There are other Gospels for that.
The best known is the one about the young man who had stumbled all over the place, really badly stumbled, … and who at last in desperation makes his stumbling way back rehearsing his speech of contrition … and finds he is not barked at but embraced. Embraced and kissed and celebrated and dressed and adorned and adored, and given a huge party.
He was not barked at … not told to ‘cut that part of yourself off, tear that part of yourself out’ …
Acceptance … and unending forgiving love … that was his key. Everything that causes me to stumble … all the wearisome cracked record … accepted and understood and forgiven.
And when that happens, you can accept and understand and forgive yourself.
And then the sins … those things which cause you to stumble?
Well … over time they just melt away.
No violent cutting off needed.