Feb 23, 2011

Jesus: A case of exaggeration?

"A great millstone were put around his neck . . ."

Mk 9: 41-49

Jesus said to his disciples:
“Anyone who gives you a cup of water to drink
because you belong to Christ,
amen, I say to you, will surely not lose his reward.

“Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin,
it would be better for him if a great millstone
were put around his neck
and he were thrown into the sea.
If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off.
It is better for you to enter into life maimed
than with two hands to go into Gehenna,
into the unquenchable fire.
And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off.
It is better for you to enter into life crippled
than with two feet to be thrown into Gehenna.
And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out.
Better for you to enter into the Kingdom of God with one eye
than with two eyes to be thrown into Gehenna,
where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.

It seems we may have caught Jesus in a bit of exaggeration in this Thursday’s Gospel: “. . . it would be better for him if a great millstone were put around his neck . . . if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. . . if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off . . . if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out . . .” While all this talk about throwing, cutting, and plucking may be enough for all of us to wince a bit, Jesus must be up to something else in this important passage. He could not possibly mean for us to undertake such self- mutilation. If that were so we would all be walking around crippled, blind, and lame.

In this hyperbolic imagery, Jesus manages to emphasize the responsibility we all have to remove obstacles in our lives which prevent us from doing the will of God, from respecting the boundaries between ourselves and others, and to recognize that the source of sin may well come from within us. Our hands, eyes, feet are extensions of our bodies through which we can bring great good to others: a kind word, a gentle touch, a loving embrace, a choice to walk away from my own interests to immerse myself in those of another; to be compassionate as Christ is compassionate.  Here at the parish we have a wonderful group of very compassionate folks in our Stephen Ministry program. They go through long training in order to learn the important skills needed to be present to those who have experienced some sort of crisis.

At the same time we can do much harm: physical abuse, sexual abuse, a vindictive tongue lashing, disrespect, and other ways that we may minimize the dignity of the person before us. Such things are obstacles to our growth in the grace of God and the virtues of empathy, compassion, respect and charity towards others in particular.

Did Jesus exaggerate the point? Well, it emphasizes the seriousness of the sin we bring upon another if we did so with the intent to bring harm upon them. Especially upon the "little ones" who could be children, those new in the faith, the poor and elderly, the unborn and those who have no defense. As a result, our fate may be worse than the harm we concoct.

The images of a Gehenna where, “the fire is not quenched” certainly wakes us up. Such language is particular to rabbinic teaching but it also serves the purpose of calling us to attention about the choices we are faced with on a daily basis.

As Lent approaches let’s begin by clearing our minds, hearts, and our souls as we look forward to our annual pilgrimage of faith.