A Fierce Parable

All of a sudden Jesus began to say some very severe — and alarming — things to his disciples about what to do to avoid sinful conduct. What sin could the Lord have been thinking about that inspired such a strong reaction?

The Scripture

Mark 9:37-50
as retold by Deborah

Jesus brought a little child into the circle and, giving her a hug, said, “Whoever welcomes a child like this in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the One who sent me.”

John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we prevented it, because he wasn’t one of us.”

But Jesus said, “Don’t do that! Anyone who heals in my name does me no harm.

“Whoever is not against us is for us.

“I’m telling you: anyone who gives you so much as a cup of cool water because you carry the name of Christ will be rewarded.

Gently brushing the toddler’s hair back from her face, Jesus continued, “If any of you put up barriers to keep these little ones from reaching me, it would be better for you if the Mafia put you in a cement overcoat and threw you off the Brooklyn bridge.

“If your hand gets you into trouble, cut it off; if your feet lead you astray, cut them off: it is better to go through life maimed than to be physically whole and spiritually crippled.

“And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God half blind than to gaze unblinkingly upon acts of evil and so tumble into Hell.

“For everyone will be seasoned with fire. Spice is good; but if it loses its flavor, it’s useless. Be fiery within yourselves, and be mild with one another.”

Photo of a flower

Cut It Off! by Deborah Beach Giordano

What???

questionsWait a minute..... Did Jesus just say we should cut off our feet? Or our hands? Or pull out one of our eyes?? Why on earth would he tell us something like that? What is he talking about?

Taken literally it sounds like the Lord is encouraging his disciples to engage in self-mutilation as a “cure” for sinful conduct. But that notorious Teller of Parables was much more likely to be drawing on the power of our imagination.

Hyperbole & History

listening inThen, as now, speakers used extreme examples in order to get their points across. They also knew that hyperbole was a great way to get their hearers’ attention.

It certainly seems to have worked for Jesus. The Gospel writer remembered what He said and wrote it all down, long after the words were spoken.

As an important note: There are zero reports of early Christians roaming around Palestine with their eyes gouged out or limping into the Coliseum on one leg. That’s pretty solid evidence that the disciples didn’t take these sayings literally.

Embodied Parables

Those who followed the Lord understood this dramatic narrative for what it was: a kind of short-form parable. Simply put, it is more important to be intact spiritually — wise and well-formed, than it is to be physically whole.

And, in case we miss it, Jesus has given us a series of powerful visual images to drive home the point: wicked actions are crippling. When we turn our hands to doing harmful and hurtful deeds, it is as if we have cut them off: for they no longer do the work of Christ’s Kingdom, but serve a dreadful purpose. They no longer offer praise to God nor bring healing or blessings to those we meet; they do not build up, but tear down.

tied up in ourselvesWhen we ignore others’ pain and suffering, it is as if we are stumbling blindly through life — heedless of the damage we do. When we follow evil ways, it is as if we have become the shades that Dante meets in Hades: pursing meaningless, unattainable goals, bound up by dark desires that distract us and lead us away from the Source of love and light.

Jesus was warning his followers that our choices have serious — perhaps everlasting — consequences. The things we do and say can harm not only the lives of others, but the health of our own souls, as well.

An Extensive Community

It is important, too, to recall what set this fierce parable in motion.

It began when the disciples bragged to Jesus that they had prevented someone from doing a healing work in His name. The Lord reacted with immediate disapproval; what they did was wrong. Apparently there were already “other flocks” who were ministering in Jesus’ name and through His power — the twelve didn’t know everything.

cold waterJesus was not establishing an exclusive, Insiders club, but an extensive, ever-expanding community of believers who would spread the Good News to all the world (Mk 16:15).

What matters isn’t which group we belong to, but that we seek to establish the Holy Kingdom. It isn’t necessary to bring about great miracles or build grandiose structures; a simple act of Christian charity — the giving of drink of cool water to a thirsty traveler — is a blessed work. What matters is that love and peace abide in us and flow out from us.

Interference

sad child

It was at this point, perhaps, that one of the disciples reached down to take the child from Jesus’ lap. Suddenly pulled away from her comfortable nest, the little girl let out a shriek and reached out pleadingly for the Lord. “That’s what it is like,” Jesus told them, taking the toddler back into his arms, “when you block the little ones from coming to me.”

It is not up to us to “protect Jesus” by creating obstacles to those who seek him, or trying to prevent those who would minister in his Name. The Lord Christ condemned such actions, warning of the risks to those who presume to set others apart, and the suffering it causes to those who are excluded.

The choice is ours: we can love and bless God and embrace the extravagant varieties of God’s people — or we can cut our souls off at the knees.

Virtual hugs and real-time blessings,

Deborah +

This Week's Suggested Spiritual Exercise

Consider this:

What you are is God's gift to you, what you become is your gift to God.
~ Hans Urs von Balthasar, Prayer