The Scriptures are not a unified, homogeneous text written by a single author. It isn’t even the case that the various Scriptural authors shared identical opinions about the topics they addressed. The Scriptures are diverse texts, written by very different authors at a variety of times and places. The diversity of the Scriptures requires a certain amount of knowledge and discipline in order to understand the various lessons contained therein. Today’s Gospel reading illustrates the value of relying on the guidance of professional translators and commentators.
In today’s Gospel reading Jesus said, “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.” (Mark 9:43) The scary injunctions to self-mutilation continue with the inclusion of one’s feet and eyes. (Mark 9:44-48)
If Jesus intended these instructions to be obeyed literally, Christianity might not have lasted these twenty centuries. A literal application of Jesus’ words would be devastating to believers today. Given our tendency in this country to malign one another, how many of us would have our tongues remaining in our heads?
Upon reading these words in Mark’s Gospel, one’s immediate hope is that they are meant to be understood metaphorically rather than literally. Fortunately, there is a key to interpretation included in the text. Jesus warned his disciples to avoid behavior that would separate them from God. “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’.” (Mark 9:47-48) The interpretive key is the reference to “Gehenna.”
Gehenna was a dry creek bed outside the city walls of Jerusalem. It had a checkered history. In the city’s ancient past, the dry creek bed was used for infant sacrifice to a pagan deity called “Moloch.” Because of its association with pagan rites, it was considered irremediably impure. During Jesus’ lifetime it was used as the city garbage dump. Hence, the commonly used description of it, “where ‘their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched’.” (Mark 9:48)
Jesus used the city dump, with its associated smells and contents, as a metaphor to describe a life separated from God. We are on safe ground when we assume that he also intended the commands “cut it off” (Mark 9:43), and “pluck it out” (Mark 9:47), to be understood metaphorically. What, then, is the meaning of the metaphor? How are we to understand Jesus’ commands to take radical, drastic actions in order to avoid being separated from God? I can think of a few possibilities.
Jesus might have meant that we are to pare down our lives to the extent that nothing exists in our consciousness, and nothing occurs in our day, that does not directly contribute to our growth in holiness. This sounds very, very virtuous; perhaps, a little too much so. Jesus might have meant that we are to reject anything about ourselves that is not good and holy and righteous. This possibility is both altogether impossible and crazily self-destructive.
Perhaps we should look for another interpretive key to help us understand this teaching. I propose that we look at Jesus’ own life, and the events in which he encountered temptation and evil. Jesus understood himself as sent by God to call all people to a renewal of faith. As appealing as this was, Jesus ran into opposition immediately from the religious leadership of the time. His many conflicts with the Jerusalem Pharisees resulted from their unwillingness to allow Jesus to preach a renewed Covenant. Their faithlessness became an obstacle to faith for the common people. Jesus resisted their disapproval and condemnation, and it cost him his life.
Throughout his life, Jesus’ approach to evil was to resist. He offered healing resistance to the evil that afflicted lepers, the blind, the lame and the dying. He offered saving resistance to the self-righteous religion of the Jerusalem Pharisees. He resisted unto death. (Mark 15:5) Jesus did not win his final contest with evil, but he never ceased to resist.
Jesus taught his disciples to imitate him; this Sunday’s Gospel reading is an example of that teaching. The rather graphic metaphors of chopping off hands and feet, and plucking out eyes, is a lesson about resisting evil, all evil, everywhere, at all times. In our personal lives we are to resist evil by avoiding sin, and by repenting whole-heartedly when we fall. We are also to resist evil in the world. We must have no part in the selfish materialism that rules our culture. We must make every effort not only to live righteous lives, but to call others to do so as well.
In all of this, we must also remember that we can expect no better treatment than Jesus received. Evil is to be resisted, but we must remember that evil will never be overcome by our efforts. A healthy dose of humility needs to be mixed into our efforts to live justly. Evil will be overcome, by God’s power, on the Day of Resurrection. Until then, it is sufficient that we distance ourselves from anything that leads us away from God and away from that Final Day of victory.