A Gospel Message Not to Be Taken Literally

By the Rev. Darren Miner

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be

acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.

Bible Reading

If we were to take today’s Gospel reading literally, this room would be filled with folks with only one hand, one foot, and one eye. Fortunately for us all, not everything in the Bible is intended to be taken literally. Seriously, yes. Literally, no.

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The Gospel starts out with John complaining to Jesus that a non-Christian exorcist has been successfully healing using Jesus’ name. Now, it was the practice of first-century exorcists to call out a long list of the names of God, archangels, angels, and prophets in order to torment a demon into departing the body of an afflicted person. Evidently, one enterprising exorcist had added Jesus’ name to the list. John is bothered by the fact that it’s an unauthorized use of Jesus’ name.

Jesus, on the other hand, isn’t bothered in the least and tells the disciples to leave the exorcist alone. And he makes a little pun on the word power: “No one who does a deed of power in my name will have the power to speak evil of me soon afterward.” Jesus then quotes a proverb: “Whoever is not against us is for us.” Now here is where things get a bit complicated. For in two other Gospels, Matthew and Luke, Jesus quotes a seemingly contradictory proverb. There, he says, “Whoever is not with me is against me.” I think it’s a case where the context makes all the difference in choosing which proverb to quote.

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Having made the point that the exorcist in question is an ally of sorts, Jesus tells the disciples that anyone who gives so much as a cup of water to a thirsty disciple will be rewarded by God. The real point of Jesus’ teaching here is not that some first-century exorcist should be allowed to use Jesus’ name. No, the real point is that the boundaries of the community of the saved are not as clear and precise as we might like them to be. And it is not up to us to say definitively who is in and who is out, who is authorized to do good in Jesus’ name and who is not, who is saved and who is damned.

After speaking about accepting those outside the borders of his community, Jesus proceeds to talk about how those in the very center of his community are supposed to act. He warns the disciples that it would be better to be drowned than to cause the downfall of one of the “little ones” who believe in him. The question immediately arises: Who are these “little ones”? Earlier, Jesus had put a small child in the midst of his disciples and asked them to emulate the vulnerability of a child. So perhaps Jesus is literally speaking about protecting little children. On the other hand, the phrase “little ones” is sometimes used affectionately to refer to all his followers, as if they were his children. In that case, he might be referring to supporting the faith life of fellow believers.

So far, so good! But then, Jesus starts talking about self-mutilation, about chopping off our hands and feet and gouging out our own eyes in order to avoid sin. What on earth is Jesus getting at with this rather grotesque bit of hyperbole?

Well, there are two schools of thought on the subject. One school interprets Jesus’ injunctions as referring to a particular set of sexual sins by men. At first glance, it isn’t at all obvious how Jesus’ references to hands, feet, and eyes have anything to do with sex. The key to this interpretation of the text lies with the writings of sixth-century Rabbis in Babylon. They condemn a couple of sexual sins that are euphemistically referred to as  “adultery of the hand,” and “adultery of the feet.” And Jesus himself, in Matthew’s Gospel, defines lust as a form of “adultery of the eye.” So, in this interpretation of today’s scripture, Jesus is strongly condemning three forms of sexual sin by men. And the point is that a male believer should do whatever it takes to prevent committing these three particular sins.

More likely, I think, the sins of the hand in question are sins actually committed with the hand, such as theft, robbery, assault, and murder. Sins of the feet would be putting ourselves in what theologians call “occasions of sin,” locations or situations of temptation—for example, an alcoholic hanging out in a bar or a parolee associating with known criminals. And last but not least, sins of the eye would include not just lust, but also envy. In this interpretation, Jesus’ point is that we should do whatever it takes to avoid committing any sin, sexual or otherwise, because the ultimate consequence of fully yielding to sin is eternal death.

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Jesus ends his teaching with a group of unrelated sayings about salt, an ancient symbol of wisdom, purity, and sacrifice. The most enigmatic of these sayings is this: “Everyone will be salted with fire.” The reference seems to be to Temple sacrifices that were sprinkled with salt and then offered up to God by being burned. So perhaps the meaning is that all of us will be offered up to God, like a Temple sacrifice. And like the Temple sacrifice, God will judge whether or not the sacrifice is acceptable to him.

Today’s Gospel is, admittedly, a bit of a hodgepodge of teachings. So let me conclude with a four-point synopsis. 1) Refrain from judging those outside the Church, and acknowledge the genuine good that they do. 2) Protect and support the vulnerable among us. 3) Do everything in your power to avoid sin. And 4), remember that you will one day be offered up to God for judgment. Do these four things, and in the words of the Collect of the Day, you will be “partakers of [God’s] heavenly treasure.”

© 2018 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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