Mark 9:38-50 • September 27, 2015
Brothers and sisters in Christ grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Savior Jesus the Christ. Amen.
Since the words in our gospel reading today were first spoken by Jesus and first written into what we know today as the Gospel According to Saint Mark, people have struggled to interpret the meaning of these words. This happens throughout scripture and maybe most especially when faced with difficult sections like the one we have from Jesus today. And I believe this interpretive challenge of scriptural understanding has been true for centuries. It is still the case for the church today and for those of us who seek to be stewards of God, disciples of Jesus in 2015.
And I’m not going to take on the entire 2,000+ year history of Biblical interpretation in a single sermon or for that matter – in a single lifetime. But there is one method of biblical interpretation that makes today’s text from Jesus especially difficult. It is an interpretive method in some sections of the Christian tradition that has become more prominent over the past 200 years or so. It’s called literalism. Biblical literalism calls the reader to stick to the exact letter with a strict meaning of the word or words; there’s little to no room for figurative or historical or metaphorical use of words.
When Jesus says cut off your hand or pluck out your eye, a strict literal biblical interpretation would mean that you have to do just that. One theologian argues that, “This approach often obscures the literary aspects and consequently the primary meaning of the text.”
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Christian denomination to which Good Shepherd is part of, says this about the interpretation of scripture. I quote this from one of our denomination’s documents – “Despite the diversity of viewpoints and the complexity of the many narratives contained in the Scriptures, Lutheran Christians believe that the story of God’s steadfast love and mercy in Jesus is the heart and center of what the Scriptures have to say.”
Over the years as my own understanding of biblical interpretation has grown and deepened, I’m grateful for the witness of many biblical scholars across the church. Scholars like Karl Barth. Karl Barth is viewed by many to be one of the 20th century’s greatest theologians. When it came to biblical interpretation, Barth often said, “I take the Bible too seriously to read it literally.”
In our gospel reading today, this isn’t some crazy prophet yelling and screaming wildly in the wilderness. This isn’t a disciple trying to reframe Jesus’ teaching into something they could understand or make sense of. These words aren’t from the Apostle Paul trying to encourage an early Christian community of faith.
This is Jesus. These words, as difficult as they are to hear, are from Jesus. Our soft silhouetted picture of Jesus gently holding a lamb on his shoulders is a hard to image to imagine as we hear Jesus telling us to cut off our hands or pluck out an eye for putting a stumbling block in front of one of these little ones.
So, I don’t want us to read these verses literally – I don’t want you to leave worship today and pluck out your eye, even though every one of us has looked at someone in ways that should force us to follow through with the eye plucking. And I don’t want you to cut off your hand either, even though all of us have used our hands to do something or write something in ways that should result in a room full of people today that are missing at least one hand.
I don’t want us to read these verses literally – but I do challenge us to join some of history’s greatest theologians like Karl Barth. Because I do think we need to take Jesus’ words that we just heard today very seriously. After all, this is Jesus, the savior of the world, speaking to you. And to me.
In a reflection on today’s gospel reading, one pastor wrote that this section of Mark 9 “reminds us that we need to focus on our own faults, our own temptations and struggles, instead of pointing the finger at others. When the disciples are concerned because they see someone else casting out demons in Jesus’ name and he isn’t part of their group, Jesus tells the disciples not to stop him for ‘whoever is not against us is for us.’ All too often, we want people to conform to us, instead of to the way of God. Instead of worrying about the faults of others, we need to be concerned about ourselves and what we do to harm another’s relationship with God and with others.” This pastor concluded her thoughts by saying that, “We need to be the salt of the earth, giving all things flavor, blessing instead of cursing, encouraging growth instead of breaking down.”
When Jesus speaks of ‘these little ones’ today, I don’t think he’s just talking about children. He is also talking about you. And about me. I believe that Jesus is talking about those who are sitting next to us today in worship and about those whom we encounter every day who no longer believe that God exists. I believe that Jesus is talking about those whom you may be related to even though you really don’t like them and about refugees fleeing for their lives, leaving their homeland forever in other parts of the world.
So, I want to offer two very simple, yet very challenging questions.
The first is this…
How are you and I placing stumbling blocks in front of God’s children that causes these little ones to stumble?
And the second is this…
How are you and I placing stumbling blocks in front of ourselves that cause us, these little ones as well, to stumble?
I will openly and honestly admit that I got just a little caught up in Pope Francis fever this week as the bishop of Rome visited the United States. One quote from the week, and one that I’ve heard from him before, was particularly impactful on me. Pope Francis said, “You pray for the hungry. Then you feed them. This is how prayer works.”
Several times a month, including this weekend, there are grocery carts placed in the narthex and hallways of Good Shepherd. The food and household supplies that are gathered in these grocery carts are given to local food pantries. Food pantries that serve God’s children who are trying to pick themselves up after hitting a stumbling block or two. Food pantries desperately in need of our help.
So how about, instead of literally cutting off a foot or hand or plucking out our eyes, how about if you and I join together each week by using our feet and hands and eyes to look through our kitchen cupboards before we come to worship for something that can be shared or add an additional package of toilet paper to our own shopping carts once in a while that can be placed in the shopping carts at church?
This might seem like a tiny, insignificant gesture. But if we take Jesus’ words seriously, I believe this small sprinkling of salt might just be the kind of salt Jesus is talking about in our gospel reading today. It may even become salt that will change someone’s life forever and bring peace to a beloved child of God who has never experienced the peace of the risen savior Jesus the Christ before. Brothers and sisters in Christ, this is how prayer works. Amen.