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:
- The disciple complains that outsiders are hijacking their exorcism ministry. He sees a threat to the disciple community from the outside.
- 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.