On amputations in the body: some thoughts on Mark 9.38-50

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February 19, 2014 by jmar198013

One of the more bizarre and difficult things to parse out among the sayings of Jesus is this doozy from the Sermon on the Mount:

And if your right eye causes you to fall into sin, tear it out and throw it away. It’s better that you lose a part of your body than that your whole body be thrown into hell.  And if your right hand causes you to fall into sin, chop it off and throw it away. It’s better that you lose a part of your body than that your whole body go into hell. (Matt. 5.29-30 CEB)

The reason this passage is so frustrating is that people instinctively know that Jesus didn’t mean it literally. No one–not even Origen–was actually practicing this. Indeed, it would be pretty foolish to suppose that Jesus actually believed that a one-eyed, one-handed person could not commit adultery.

But that’s a discussion for another post. Mark’s Gospel has this saying in a completely different context. In short, the disciples–who have just had a crisis where they were unable to cast out a demon (Mark 9.14-29)–now come to Jesus complaining about outsiders who are successfully casting out demons in his name. Jesus’ use of the amputation saying is embedded in his response to the disciples:

John said to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone throwing demons out in your name, and we tried to stop him because he wasn’t following us.”

Jesus replied, “Don’t stop him. No one who does powerful acts in my name can quickly turn around and curse me. Whoever isn’t against us is for us. I assure you that whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ will certainly be rewarded.

“As for whoever causes these little ones who believe in me to trip and fall into sin, it would be better for them to have a huge stone hung around their necks and to be thrown into the lake. If your hand causes you to fall into sin, chop it off. It’s better for you to enter into life crippled than to go away with two hands into the fire of hell, which can’t be put out. If your foot causes you to fall into sin, chop it off. It’s better for you to enter life lame than to be thrown into hell with two feet. If your eye causes you to fall into sin, tear it out. It’s better for you to enter God’s kingdom with one eye than to be thrown into hell with two. That’s a place where worms don’t die and the fire never goes out. Everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt loses its saltiness, how will it become salty again? Maintain salt among yourselves and keep peace with each other.” (Mark 9.38-50)

Two things stand out here immediately:

  1. The disciple complains that outsiders are hijacking their exorcism ministry. He sees a threat to the disciple community from the outside.
  2. Jesus replies by warning about threats to the community from within.

It is within this warning that Jesus’ saying about cutting off offending body parts comes into play. It is worth noting that these words seem to correlate to Jesus’ threat: whoever causes these little ones who believe in me to trip and fall into sin, it would be better for them to have a huge stone hung around their necks and to be thrown into the lake. That’s when he begins, If your hand causes you to fall into sin, chop it off. It’s better for you to enter into life crippled than to go away with two hands into the fire of hell . . . It makes better sense of Jesus’ argument overall to see the hand/foot/or eye that causes offense and needs to be cut off from the body as a metaphor for a person, and not as a statement about literal hands, eyes, or feet.

Indeed, to understand Jesus’ meaning along these lines fits in well with imagery we find in Paul, where the church is said to be Christ’s body (Rom. 12.4-8; 1 Cor. 12.12-27; Eph. 4.4-16). Likewise, the warning in James 3.1-11 about taming the tongue is probably not a general admonition to watch what we say. Rather, James seems to be referring to teachers in the church, who guide the body to faithfulness or unfaithfulness by their words.

On this reading, Jesus is saying that if we have people in the disciple community–even people who seem as essential to the functioning of the body as an eye, hand, or foot–who are harming, betraying, or mistreating others in the church (especially if there is a power imbalance involved; cf. 1 Cor. 12.22-23), then the appropriate way to deal with them is to expel them from the community where they cannot continue to harm others.

This way of viewing Jesus’ words here again fits in well with some admonitions we find in Paul. For instance:

But why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you look down on your brother or sister? We all will stand in front of the judgment seat of God . . . So stop judging each other. Instead, this is what you should decide: never put a stumbling block or obstacle in the way of your brother or sister. (Rom. 14.10, 13)

In Mark 9, the alternative to judgement (hell/Gehenna) is to remove those who scandalize others. In Rom. 14, the alternative to judgement is that we commit ourselves not to scandalize others.

Incidentally, it’s interesting to note that at the end of Mark 9, we see the Evangelist again using a saying we know from the Sermon on the Mount in a somewhat different way than it is used there:  Salt is good; but if salt loses its saltiness, how will it become salty again? (cf. Matt. 5.13). In Mark 9.50, we encounter the added explanation: Maintain salt among yourselves and keep peace with each other. Maintaining salt and peace in the community are parallel expressions. It is the peace shared by those who are in covenant with each other and God. So, for instance:

You must season all your grain offerings with salt. Do not omit the salt of your God’s covenant from your grain offering. You must offer salt with all your offerings. (Lev. 2.13)

Ought you not to know that the Lord God of Israel gave the kingship over Israel for ever to David and his sons by a covenant of salt? (2 Chron. 13.5 RSV; CEB has “unbreakable covenant”)

Now because we eat the salt of the palace and it is not fitting for us to witness the king’s dishonor, therefore we send and inform the king. (Ezra 4.14 RSV)

In other words, Jesus is calling us to be the sort of people who do not scandalize one another, but are bound by a covenant of salt–an unbreakable bond that joins us in peace around a common table. Again, this idea is seen in Rom. 14.19: So let’s strive for the things that bring peace and the things that build each other up.

The things that bring peace and build each other up, or that allow us to maintain salt and peace among our communities, comes in the form of Jesus’ teaching in Mark 9.38-50. We ought not build great walls around our communities, as if the threats were always from outside. We ought to welcome anyone who seeks peace and justice and love and mercy. That’s what Jesus told his disciples when they wanted to challenge the exorcists who weren’t part of their group: Whoever isn’t against us is for us. On the other hand, while we are not to perceive outsiders of goodwill as threats and thus exclude them, we are to be on the lookout for those in the body who mistreat others. Those we must exclude so that judgment doesn’t befall the body entire. Again, there is an interesting thematic connection with something Paul said in one of his writings: What do I care about judging outsiders? Isn’t it your job to judge insiders? God will judge outsiders. Expel the evil one from among you! (1 Cor. 5.12-13)

If we understand Jesus’ words about amputations in Mark 9.42ff as a reference to people within the church who threaten its peace and solidarity, the saying makes a good deal more sense in context. Furthermore, it helps us to appreciate just how often Jesus’ teachings and the story of his life are assumed by and echoed in the epistles.  Paul, James, and the others were not basing their words for the churches they served on general principles or abstract doctrines, but were drawing upon the example of Jesus.

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7 thoughts on “On amputations in the body: some thoughts on Mark 9.38-50

  1. Xyhelm says:

    I disagree with your interpretation of Mark 9. I believe it should be taken literally. You find some interesting and good parallels from the text that surrounds Mark 9:42-48, but those verses themselves make it clear that the person should do whatever it takes to keep HIMSELF from sin or HIMSELF from causing another to sin.

    I’m surprised that people challenge Eusebius that Origen did not castrate himself. The arguments for this are complete speculation. From everything that Origen did, he personified the Sermon on the Mount in as many ways as humanly possible. I agree with Origen’s teaching and Eusebius’ account of him. Origen did view the Sermon on the Mount at literal ways a Christian should live.

    • jmar198013 says:

      Andrew: I have little doubt that Matthew has Jesus referring to the eye and the hand as the site of sexual misconduct in Matt. 5.29-30. But I would also suggest that Matthew (and Jesus) didn’t mean to literally pluck out your eye or cut off your hand (to be fair, even if Origen DID castrate himself, it was to make himself a “eunuch for the kingdom,” a-la Matt. 19–not in reference to the Sermon on the Mount). Cutting off body parts does nothing to stave off adultery. I have given my estimation of Jesus’ meaning here: https://neoprimitive.wordpress.com/2012/07/11/brief-notes-on-the-sermon-on-the-mount-the-exploitation-of-women/ My only reply to your disagreement on that level is that I assume if you are a human, you lust, and if you haven’t yet yanked out a leering eye or chopped off a groping hand, you don’t take it literally, either. Incidentally, the two other times in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus mentions eye problems are both obviously metaphorical (Matt. 6.22-23; 7.3-5).

      That being said, regardless of how Matthew used this saying, Mark seems to use it differently. That Mark would have Jesus using eyes, hands, and feet to signify harmful people in the community makes best sense to me in this context. In rapid succession, Jesus is dealing with disciples arguing about status in the community (vv33-37); and disciples complaining about rogue evangelists (vv38-50). Jesus, I believe, is teaching them to affirm the good person outside of the community (i.e., the strange exorcist), and to cut off the bad from the community (those who cause scandal). Incidentally, scandalize is a technical word in Mark for those who reject the message (6.3), or those who desert Jesus and the community (4.17; 14.27, 29). Likewise, the fate that those who cause scandal in the community deserve–“it would be better for them to have a huge stone hung around their necks and to be thrown into the lake”–is echoed the fate Jesus assigns to Judas the betrayer (14.21). Might it be that Mark’s Jesus is arguing that those who turn against their brothers and sisters and betray them are like Judas? Have you never seen anyone in the church throw their brother or sister under the bus for their own benefit? I have–it has been done to me, in fact. A violent hand, an evil eye, a foot that kicks against the goads–they will destroy the body.

      Furthermore, check 1 Cor. 12.14-18, during Paul’s talk on the body politic of the church. Notice that eyes, hands, and feet are all mentioned.

      I don’t think I’m too wide of the mark here.

      • Xyhelm says:

        Simply because I have not yanked out an eye or chopped off a hand, this does not mean I must not take this passage literally. Amputating a limb isn’t the first line of defense against lust and other temptations of our flesh. I believe it is the last. If we cannot have self-control, if we cannot make a covenant with our eyes, and if our flesh has more free-reign than the Spirit of God inside us… then yes, Jesus calls for amputation.

        Practically speaking, I don’t want to analyze myself or another person as to their spiritual state in their dealings with sin. I don’t want to stand in a place and proclaim when is a good time to amputate or not. I’ve been this kind of analyzer, and this all too easily missing Jesus’ main point. Jesus’ main point is all about how serious sin is. (We can all agree on that!) If a person has tried everything he knows, spent countless time in prayer, relied on God as much as he knows how, yet this person still has a sin problem, then what is left? I believe God has really given us enough tools and Power to conquer our sins. But if we feel like we have tried everything we know to do, what if amputation is the only option left? Will we refuse to amputate just because we believe Jesus is speaking figuratively? Back to Jesus’ point is all about the seriousness of sin, what in this world or what part of our bodies could be more important than being free from committing sin? There should be no cost too great in this life so that we can more easily enter eternal life.

        Therefore, I agree with what you said in the other study: “Think of the fox that will chew off its paw to get out of a trap. Jesus indicates that his disciples must be willing to take action that drastic to avoid transgressing the marriage covenant. he does not speicifically name what that drastic action will be, but he does call for willingness to perform it.” Like what you said here, if amputation is the only way to escape sin, then there needs to be the willingness to perform it.

        Your point about using the parts of the body metaphorically in Matt 6:22-23 and 7:3-5 is a good point. But the point Jesus is trying to make in those contexts are different.

        You tie Mark 9:42ff (cutting off hands, feet, eyes) to Mark 9:33-37. I don’t see Mark 8:33-37 as a teaching on community, at least not specifically. I see it as a teaching on pride and humility–whether inside or outside the church community.

        I see the connection to 1Cor 12:14-18. I can see how there can be an allegorical connection. When Jesus gives this teaching in Mark 9:42-50, do you think Jesus expected his audience to know that He was talking about church (in effect, this means there was no way for them to understand the true meaning of it until a much later time)? Or do you think that Jesus was teaching something that the people could put into practice at that moment? And this is where I find the danger in teaching that Jesus is being figurative about amputations. With this kind of metaphorical interpretation, it would be easy for one to make metaphorical interpretations to turning the other check or other parts of the Sermon on the Mount. I know this is one of your soap boxes. I point this out because I found it surprising and ironic that you explained Mark 9:42-50 as more metaphorically than literally. The feeling you have felt against those people who do not want to turn the other cheek, I get the same feeling when read your post here.

        In the end, I believe we agree on Jesus’ point. Sin must be conquered in us–both by God and by us. I believe to take amputations as anything other than literal is to downplay the seriousness of sin. Again, I believe Jesus teaches about amputations because it should be the LAST RESORT in removing the power of our flesh. Jesus is just preaching that people should have the willingness to do whatever it takes to conquer sin.

  2. Jack Hairston says:

    Q: What “body” does Jesus have in mind?
    * The local congregation, attacked by false doctrine?
    This understanding appears to be responsible for the Church of Christ tendency to splinter into smaller and smaller congregations. One problem with that is, the splintering is often done over opinions, not broken commandments.

    • jmar198013 says:

      I always thought our tendency to split off into smaller congregations over a difference of opinion was because we were Scots-Irish and Southern. 🙂 I read somewhere once where Ed Harrell described us as “the heirs to the religious rednecks of the postbellum South.” Seemed about right to me.

  3. jmar198013 says:

    Andrew: Some thoughts come to mind. It begins with your line of questioning, “I see the connection to 1Cor 12:14-18. I can see how there can be an allegorical connection. When Jesus gives this teaching in Mark 9:42-50, do you think Jesus expected his audience to know that He was talking about church (in effect, this means there was no way for them to understand the true meaning of it until a much later time)? Or do you think that Jesus was teaching something that the people could put into practice at that moment?” One obvious answer–but one I’m fairly certain you personally wouldn’t accept, and that’s okay–is that the amputation logion existed independently and was placed by the Evangelists into their reconstructions of Jesus’ speeches. For me, this poses no difficulty–each of the Evangelists tells Jesus’ story in a way to suit the needs of their particular community. Since Mark is written after Paul’s letters, I don’t think there has to be an opposition here. I am suggesting simply that Matthew and Mark use a parallel saying in different ways. To me, this saying reads differently in Mark than it does in Matthew because of the context in which it is placed. The tension is affirming the good outside the community (represented by the strange exorcist) while resisting the evil within the community (those who scandalize the “little ones”).

    That being said, whatever the logion’s provenance, Mark intended for the church to which he addressed his Gospel to put that logion into practice at that moment. I would suggest that there is no way for us to get behind the text and try to decipher what the “historical Jesus” might originally have “meant” when he said it. But what we can do, and ought to do, is understand the demands placed on the hearer/reader by Mark and Matthew’s use of it. Again, all I am saying is that Mark means something different by it than does Matthew.

    Most importantly, the parallels for “scandalize” (or “fall into sin,” as the CEB has it) in this passage themselves suggest a reading such as this. “WHOEVER (not WHATever) causes these little ones who believe in me to trip and fall into sin, it would be better for THEM . . . ” Then it is all, “If your eye/hand/foot causes you to fall into sin, chop it off. It’s better for you . . . ” The body parts thus qualify the “whoever causes these little ones to fall into sin.” In other words, because you have very particular structural and semantic echoes between the “whoever” warning and the “eye/hand/foot,” then it seems most natural to read them as troublesome PEOPLE in the disciple community.

    Furthermore, I am NOT–and I don’t believe that either Matthew or Mark were, either–suggesting that we use this passage to condemn someone else for their “sin problem” and thereby throw them out of the church. In Matthew’s use, Jesus is obviously calling on each of us to judge our own hands and eyes. Although I do think that Mark’s use says something about maintaining community boundaries, notice that he is not simply referring to a general “sin problem.” His use of “scandal” as a description for the ones under judgment is telling–in Mark it is a technical word for apostasy and desertion (4.17; 14.27-29). Again, the language about the fate of the one who causes “scandal” to the “little ones” is echoed in Jesus’ warning about the fate of Judas (14.21). I don’t believe that those are accidental. It’s one thing if I “judge” you for a “sin problem” and shoo you out of church. It’s another thing if you engage in malicious and violent behavior that threatens the “little ones.” By that, you show that you are not willing to live in a peaceful, forgiven community. “Cutting off” such a person simply acknowledges that they have demonstrated that they have no interest in “maintaining salt and being at peace” in the community.

    Now, why even speak of this? Because Mark is probably dated to around the time of the first Jewish revolt. The figure of Judas is prominent in Mark. This passage, on my reading, speaks on how to deal with Judases in the church. Again, to me what makes the most sense IN MARK’S LITERARY CONTEXT is that you have this tension about social boundaries–the strange exorcist disciples are told to affirm, but those in the community who “scandalize” the “little ones,” they are told to cut off. It’s interesting that Jesus ties the two concepts together by saying, “No one who does powerful acts in my name can quickly turn around and curse me.” Interestingly enough, Judas and even Peter did just that. In the end, Peter was convicted and converted, while Judas chose to remain “cut off.”

  4. Xyhelm says:

    I see what you’re saying about this passage having a different purpose in Matthew and Mark. Yes, I don’t think I agree with you. But I’m your loyal opposition, haha! 🙂

    It’s interesting how your interpretation of “whoever” and “eye/hand/foot” is the opposite of mine. I read the same thing and concluded that Jesus isn’t talking about community. As I experienced in many debates back in college, we may both be correct. That is, Jesus/Matthew/Mark could have both our conclusions in mind.

    Your comments on scandal/apostasy/desertion and sin problem are well said. I totally agree with you. I’m sure we have both met many people who are way too condemning of others who are different than they are. In their [selfish] efforts to keep the church reproach-free, their actions bring new reproaches upon the church. This is so sad!

    I think you’re on to something when it comes to Mark’s literary context. Based on the words of Papias (120 AD) and the internal evidence in the Scriptures, I concluded Mark was written within 62-64 AD. Though this places it a few years before the first Jewish revolt, it does place this within another context about causing little ones to fall. I’m not sure if you know what happened to Simon the Sorcerer after his story in Acts 8. The very short version: the Pre-Nicene Christians wrote that Simon set up a counter-religion to Christianity. When Peter was in Rome (62-64 AD), Simon was there and amazed the Senate with his magics. Peter publicly opposed him in Rome. There’s more I could share about this, but Mark’s words about not causing a little one to stumble would certainly fit the context of Peter and Simon. Additionally to tie this all together, Papias records that Mark wrote his gospel while in Rome as he heard Peter preach. Therefore, we have lots of evidences that show that Mark’s literary context is based on Simon’s evil works that could cause a little one to stumble.

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