Last week, as we read through the book of Mark, we saw how Jesus coached His disciples in dealing with those who were not members of the “in” group. An exorcist was casting out demons in Jesus’ name, but this exorcist was not a part of the inner 12. Jesus sternly said, “Do not stop him for someone who does such a deed in my name will not soon turn against me.” These are powerful words as we deal with our fellow Christians who do not believe as we believe. Jesus name is what unites us, and doing what we do in His name renders most differences moot.
Then, Jesus spoke about those who do not follow Him as a disciple. “Truly I tell you anyone who gives you a cup of cold water because you bear the name of Christ, that person will not lose the reward.” Again, hearing Jesus’ words is important because this isn’t about the things we do–this is about how people treat Jesus’ disciples. If a non-believer gives YOU a cup of cold water, then they will not lose the reward. If Jesus regards even a non-believer this highly, the disciples should as well. For Jesus came to save the world, not just a select few. Only those who blatantly reject Jesus, whose hearts are consumed by other things, who seek their own satisfaction and self-preservation will bear some serious consequences.
This is why Jesus teaches what He teaches in our snippet from Mark chapter 9 this morning. Jesus shifts the focus from those who are outside the faith, from the outer life, so to speak, to the inner life of the believer. Jesus cuts through all external things and gets to the heart of the matter. This is extremely important to grasp, especially since today is Reformation Sunday–a special day for those of us who call ourselves Lutheran Christians–a day when we strongly emphasize God’s grace and our inability to save ourselves. How does this all come together? Let’s turn to the text.
Jesus begins with some powerful, strong words: 43If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. 45And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell., 47And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, 48where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.
It is important to note that in the ancient Jewish world, people literally did blame their extremities for sin. William Lane in his commentary on Mark says, “It was not a Palestinian custom to refer to an abstract activity but to the specific member of the body which is responsible for it.” So, in the culture, it was acceptable to say, “My hand sinned. My foot sinned. My eye sinned.” Jesus confronts this thinking and says, “Well, if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. If you foot causes you to sin, cut it off. If your eyes cause you to sin, pluck them out.” Jesus pushes the culture’s logic to its logical conclusion. It’s better for you to be lame or blind than to be sinful. It makes perfect sense, but it is horrifying.
Not only is it horrifying, it’s also forbidden by Jewish scripture:
Deuteronomy 14:1 reads, “You are children of the Lord your God. You must not lacerate yourselves or shave your forelocks for the dead.”
Deuteronomy 23:1 reads, “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.” (Bet you didn’t know that one was in there!)
There is a reason behind these laws for the Jews understood God to be holy and whole, complete. If you were incomplete. If you were not whole, you were seen as further away from God. You were seen as less than what you should be. For Jew to hear Jesus say, “Cut off your hand. Cut off your foot. Pluck out your eye.” would invoke absolute horror! The Jew would have thought, “You are asking me to separate myself from God–to become incomplete–to make myself less than I should be!”
But is Jesus doing such a thing? Is Jesus telling us to cut off our hands and feet or pluck out our eye. No serious scholar believes such a thing because of this pertinent fact: if you cut off your hand, you will still sin. If you cut off your foot, you will still sin. If you pluck out your eye, you will still sin. The cause of sin does not reside in your hand or your foot or your eye. The cause of sin is much deeper. Jesus knows this. Jesus has taught this. Unfortunately, it is not sinking in.
Remember way back in Mark seven, there was an exchange between Jesus and the Pharisees where the Pharisees were complaining that Jesus’ disciples were eating with unwashed hands. There’s a lot that is happening in that exchange, but eventually, we get to the place where Jesus says this, “4 Then he called the crowd again and said to them, ‘Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.’ 17 When he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable. 18He said to them, ‘Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, 19since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?’ (Thus he declared all foods clean.) 20And he said, ‘It is what comes out of a person that defiles. 21For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
It is from the human heart that evil intentions come. Hear that one more time: it is from the human heart that evil intentions come. Jesus pushes the cultural logic to its horrific conclusions to get people past the absurdity of it. Jesus pushes the cultural logic to its horrific conclusions to show that blaming hands and feet and eyes for sin is asinine. Sin is a condition, not of the extremities, but of the deepest recesses of the human heart.
It is easy to blame a hand for stealing. It is easy to blame a foot for walking into a house of ill repute. It is easy to blame an eye for looking at another person with lust in your heart. It is easy to blame the rich for all the world’s problems. It is easy to blame those on welfare for their unwillingness to work. It is easy to blame capitalism for poverty. It is easy to blame communism for destroying human rights. It is easy to blame Democrats or Republicans or conservatives or liberals. It is easy to blame teachers for kids failing to learn. It is easy to blame elected officials for failing to deal with the problems of a given community. It is easy to put the problem “out there”, residing in someone else. But Jesus won’t let us get away with that. The problem isn’t in the hand. It isn’t in the foot. It isn’t in the eye. The problem isn’t out there with any group or institution or form of government. The problem is in the human heart.
Now, most folks don’t like this. Most folks would like to blame circumstances that are out there. It absolves them of responsibility. However, the Christian faith is not about shirking responsibility. It’s about accepting it, and accepting the fact that each and every one of us is indeed sinful. We are not just people who do bad things–who are imperfect. No. We are much worse. We are rotten to the core. We are self-centered and seek our own self-preservation.
You may not like me saying that, but let me see if I can show you the depths of your own sinfulness. Why do you do most of the things that you do? What is your motivation for getting up in the morning and going to work or engaging in any sort of activity? What drives you? I am not asking you to give me a superficial answer to this question. I really want to know.
You see, I get up most mornings and exercise. I make two laps around Cat Spring doing interval training. Most of you know I have lost quite a bit of weight in the past couple of years, and I want to keep it off. Some of you know my motivation behind it. A couple of years ago, my kids and I were visiting my parents. We were going to go to the Texas State Aquarium, and my kids ran up to their grandpa and said, “Grandpa, are you going too?” Grandpa, my dad, said, “Sorry, I can’t. My knee is hurting too badly.” Now, my dad hurt his knee playing football. He is also on the heavy side. These two things came back to haunt him. I hurt my knees playing football. I was on the heavy side. I saw the future in an instant–a future that if I am blessed with grandchildren that I could face. And I did not like that picture. I did not like the idea of my grandchildren asking me if I could go with them and having to turn them down. I decided right then and there to lose the weight and hopefully save my knees. Now, who did I lose the weight for? You could say that I did it for my children and my hoped for grandchildren. But that is not the truth. I didn’t want to deal with the disappointment of my grandchildren. I didn’t want to deal with their hurt. I didn’t want to see that in their eyes because IT WOULD BOTHER ME. My reasons are selfish. They have nothing really to do with my future grandchildren. They have nothing to do with this body that was given to be by God. My motivations are purely selfish. Purely.
Do I need to give further examples? Do I need to delve into why you get up and drink a cup of coffee? It’s because you enjoy it, right? You like the taste. Would you drink it if you didn’t like it? Would you drink it if you got no benefit from it? Oh, here’s another story putting the crosshairs directly on me. When I was on internship at St. Matthew Lutheran Church in Waco, I did a lot of visitation. I really enjoyed visiting the little old ladies who were all too happy to provide snack for me. They found out I liked to eat, and they were happy to spoil me. One day, I went to visit Emma. I was told that Emma tended to be on the depressed side. She hadn’t done well after her husband had died. I hoped to cheer her up. Emma and I visited, and then she said, “I have something for you. It’s some fresh banana bread.”
A little part of me died inside. I hate bananas. I really do, especially since the taste of a banana makes me gag. Literally. I will gag when I taste banana. So, here is this wonderful lady; who went out of her way to make me this bread, who was a little on the depressed side, who didn’t need her intern making any sort of negative comments; what was I to do? I choked down the bread. I did something I didn’t like in the least. Hiding my gags and chugging water, I got that darn bread down. Self-sacrifice? Hardly. I wanted Emma to enjoy the visit. I wanted her to think positively about me and what I brought to her. I choked that bread down for purely selfish reasons.
Are your motivations any different? Do you engage in activities that you get no benefit from; no enjoyment out of; no satisfaction at all, yet continue to do so because it is the right thing to do? Most of us don’t. Not in the least. In fact, most of us know the right things to do, but we don’t do them because it costs us. It costs us dearly.
Which is why Jesus says, “Everyone will be salted with fire.” Most scholars are perplexed by this saying, but interestingly enough most of them link Jesus’ saying with Leviticus chapter 2:13, “You shall season all your cereal offerings with salt; you shall not let the salt of the covenant with your God be lacking from your cereal offerings; with all your offerings you shall offer salt.” These offerings were sacrificial offerings. They were offerings set forth showing a radical dependency on God. They were offerings saying, “Lord, we trust that you will get us through thick and thin, and we bring the first fruits of our grain to you to be burned in fire, with salt.”
But Jesus is taking this offering a step further. It’s not the first fruits that are offered and burned and refined and salted–it is us. We are refined and salted. We endure the fire and refinement as living sacrifices. St. Paul puts it this way in Romans chapter 12, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”
This is the calling Jesus gives to His disciples. Don’t be superficial. Don’t look at your hand, your foot, or your eye. Look at the deep recesses of your heart and let the sinfulness of it be burned and refined. Offer your very self as an offering to God. Discipleship is not for the faint of heart.
Now, anyone who grasps this and understands this should be terrified. Really. If you understand what I have proclaimed to you to this point, you should be shaking in your shoes. For Jesus is demanding your entire being. He is asking you to walk away from all the desires of your heart. He is asking you to walk away from your own motivations and selfishness. He is asking you to forsake your identity and your well being to follow Him. It’s not a very good sales pitch. Most of us, if we were honest, would say no. We would say not a chance. None of us here this morning would accept such terms because they are just too difficult. The need for self-preservation and self-satisfaction is just too strong. We are unwilling to sacrifice ourselves.
But there is One who was willing. There was one who was able. There was one who did such a thing in our place. If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it dozens of times, we must understand all scripture through the cross. We must understand all of Jesus’ teachings through the cross. The cross is the center of our faith and understanding, and Jesus knows you cannot and will not sacrifice yourself. Jesus knows the depths of your sinfulness. Jesus knows the hold that sin has over your heart. And He must break that hold. He must show you that following Him and trusting Him is worth the sacrifice.
And so when you could not sacrifice yourself, He sacrificed Himself. When you were afraid to face the fire, Jesus descended into Hell and faced that fire for you. When you were afraid of the pain of forsaking yourself, Jesus faced the ultimate forsakenness as the Father turned His back on Him as He hung on the cross. Jesus looked at you in the midst of your sin and in the midst of your selfishness, then looked at His Father and said, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they do.” Jesus offered Himself as a sacrifice on your behalf.
When you could not do; when you were in bondage to your self, Jesus did. He saved you from yourself when you could not. This was not something you earned; rather it was given to you by sheer grace. And when you are moved by this, when those chains fall off your heart because you know you are deeply sinful yet deeply loved, you want to die to yourself. You want to become a living sacrifice. You want to be salted with fire. You want to deny yourself, take up your cross and follow Jesus. Your heart beats with a deep gratitude for the One who gave Himself up for you because He loves you.
For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through Him. This is most certainly true. Amen.