Reflection on the Gospel of Mark 9:38-50
September 30, 2018
You may not know this, but St. James is the patron saint of walkers, joggers and anyone who likes to run. I only learned about this last Christmas when I was gifted a statue of St. James along with an explanation. Had I only known – just a few months earlier.
It was just about this time last year that while out walking that I stumbled, planted my face on the pavement, broke my favorite glasses, put a gash on my forehead, bleed like a pig and still had more than a mile before I reached home.
The next morning, I awoke to discover a big black eye and all I could think about was “gee this will look great when I get married in a few weeks. Well the good news is it was gone by then thanks to the raw pineapple, but that’s another story.
The point I’m making is that from time to time we all stumble and stumbling is the theme of today’s gospel – stumbling as we live out our lives at the intersection where real life and real faith meet. Today, Jesus warns of two different dangers causing others to stumble and causing ourselves to stumble and these can be very serious issues.
As Christians and as the Church the last thing we want to be is a stumbling-block to others or to ourselves. What, then, do we need to watch out for?
Well Sometimes – we cause others to stumble
In today’s gospel the disciples think they’ve unearthed a scandal: someone outside their elite little circle has been caught in the act. Doing what? Sinning? No. He was acting in Jesus’ name (in this case, casting out demons in his name).
How rude! We’re the Twelve the Chosen! That’s our job.
And how ironic that is because earlier in Mark’s gospel, none of the disciples could exorcise an unclean spirit from a boy. Now they want to forbid someone who is doing the same thing, but successfully.
So, Jesus puts them in their place and tells them to cut it out and to stop resting on their assumed privileged status. He was acting in my name – that is, the man was acting under the authority of Jesus. How can that be wrong? ‘In the name of Jesus’ isn’t simply a formula to stick on the end of a prayer, it is meant to express the reality of a life lived under the reign of God, and therefore with his authority.
But this man whom the Twelve have encountered is by any generous reckoning a disciple too. He has a God-given ministry. He is doing the work of the kingdom. What on earth are you doing opposing him, says Jesus? And least we forget, we all have a God given ministry, a God given purpose in his kingdom. And yet, we are often quick to judge others and quick to cast aspersions on those who don’t agree with us or do things our way.
And so, Jesus turns up the heat both positively and negatively. Positively he says that if you act compassionately giving a cup of water to a someone, that will please God. Negatively, he talks about the perilous danger of causing ‘one of these little ones who believe in [him]’ to stumble.
The ‘little ones’ are those who believe in Jesus and I believe Jesus is saying that: you’re in danger of causing a believer to stumble, by trying to prevent him from exercising his ministry. You won’t let him, as it were, ‘give a cup of water’.
How does this challenge us? What are the ways in which
we might risk causing other disciples to stumble? In what ways do we prevent our brothers and sisters in Christ from exercising their calling?
As an example, until recently, the church prevented women and members of the LGBTQ community from exercising their calling to ordained ministry. Now, we’ve come to realize that certain biblical texts don’t necessarily mean what we wanted them to mean in a male-dominated, sometimes misogynistic and in some cases homophobic society. I’m reminded of a cartoon that recently caught my attention. A man was struggling to get the top off a jar and says to his wife “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” His wife responds “It’s a pickle jar honey. Twist the lid not scripture.”
Many churches like our own Episcopal Church and others have struggled but, in the end, followed what the Spirit was doing and saying in this time and in this place. Others are still struggling with equality issues including some of our own and it’s often painful watching them struggle to find their way.
Another example may be found in the false distinction sometimes made between ‘clergy’ and ‘laity’. Historically we have imposed meanings and distinctions that do not exist in the New Testament.
Why bring this up? Well, within any community and that includes church communities as well as our families and our lives in the public square, we sometimes like to keep certain practices to ourselves. One person or group says, ‘That’s my task’, ‘that’s our position,’ and prevents others from serving or accepting much-needed help. Current events certainly hold this to be true. In the church it can happen over music, flower arranging, Sunday School, catering and property – in fact, any part of church life.
The issue is often one of personal identity, worth and value. When we take our sense of self-esteem from the job we do, we make a big mistake.
True self-worth comes from knowing how much we are loved by God, not by what job we do for him.
So, each one of us might ask the question, am I causing others to stumble? Am I stumbling. Am I preventing someone from acting in the name of Jesus? Am I being prevented from exercising God’s purpose in my life.
And Sometimes – we cause Ourselves to Stumble
So, who’s up for a spot of amputation? Jesus’ solution to sin is that you cut off your hand or your foot and tear out your eye. It sounds like the terrifying examples of Sharia Law that we sometimes hear reported from Saudi Arabia, where thieves have their hands forcibly amputated as a criminal sentence? And some Christians have taken this literally. Some have cut off delicate parts of their anatomy to prevent falling prey to temptation. Others have refused to become organ donors in case their eyes were donated to people who would use their eyes for lustful purposes. Rest easy, Jesus’ language here is not to be taken literally.
Jesus, as a good Palestinian Jew, uses graphic, real-life language, not to call us to engage in extreme examples of self-harm, but to make a radical point about discipleship. And so, while I can let us off the hook with regard to the literal content of the words, one thing we can’t avoid is the point he’s making. Nothing is meant to get in the way of whole life discipleship.
Some of us have taken the slogan ‘Everything in moderation’ and seem to think we can have sin in moderation too. Not in the eyes of Jesus. We can’t get away with cherishing our favorite sin even occasionally.
There are no exceptions. It isn’t acceptable to say, ‘But I’ve always had a temper,’ or, ‘I’ve always had an eye for the ladies’, or ‘It’s just the way I’m made’. Help is always available from Christ and from his people as we hold ourselves accountable to one another and support each other. But the bottom line is the bottom line. But, it isn’t just a question of outright sin. Sometimes we take good things and make them into a weight. Instead of receiving things with gratitude to God we take them with greed. We act out of scarcity and not abundance. We turn an aspect of God’s good creation into an idol and worship it. We obsess. It becomes a weight, a great millstone around our necks. Something good is made bad.
Perhaps the biggest danger is to those of us who have been Christians for many years and who have become complacent. We function at a low level of discipleship and don’t like to confront the radical demands of Jesus.
It may have been different when we first found faith or as children in Sunday school, but the enthusiasm wanes and our lives become consumed with responsibilities and challenges that we don’t want and then there’s even more coming our way from the direction of Jesus. We would rather our faith became a comfort than a challenge.
But the reality is that in both these areas – causing others
to stumble and causing ourselves to stumble – Jesus has something to say if we ignore his call. I don’t recall Jesus ever saying that it was going to be easy – do you?
Whether we stumble ourselves or cause others to stumble – Jesus is telling us there is a choice of two destinies in eternity – one full of joy in his Father’s presence, the other empty of it.
The real take away is this: love is love is love. Giving a cup of water to someone in his name, in the spirit of what Jesus himself would do – will be rewarded and that cup of water can be many things. Common human kindness is enough. Help your neighbor, listen to a child, notice the lost, rejoice and weep with your brothers and sisters. By actions such as these we will be known for who we really are.
We might as well have only half a body – one hand removed, one foot cut off, one eye gouged out – than to be fully in our body – but to fail to embody compassion. To be human without expressing our humanity, this is to speak and do evil. It causes us to stumble and sometimes take others with us.
My friends, remember that you will never look into the eyes of someone Jesus doesn’t love and that includes the eyes in the mirror. Be kind to yourself. Be kind to others. Love yourself, love your neighbor. Walk, don’t run and try not to stumble or cause others not to stumble because at the intersection of real life and real faith anything is possible and is more often than not – messy.
Lord, open us to your presence, fill us with your Holy Spirit that we may be faithful servants fully living into the ministries you have gifted us with.