Jesus’ suggestions that we cut off a hand or a foot or tear out an eye are so shocking that we are pulled away from the previous verse where Jesus mildly says that “whoever is not against us is for us” and that anyone who gives a cup of water will be rewarded. (Mk. 9: 41) It is worth noting that a great many sayings and parables of Jesus take us out of our comfort zones. This particular hard saying takes the cake, a rock hard bad tasting cake at that. The standard way for a preacher to wriggle out of these hard sayings is to say that they are “hebraisms,” that is to say, hyperboles to get our attention. Maybe so, but let’s allow these verses to get our attention and see where they take us.
We get some help from the broader context of these sayings. Earlier in Mark 9, read as last week’s Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples that he will be “betrayed into human hands” and killed. The disciples respond to this warning by fighting about who is the greatest. Jesus responds to this infighting by putting a child among the disciples and saying that whoever welcomes this child welcomes him and the one who sent him. (Mk. 9: 37)
In this context, we can see that the disciples’ complaint about the person who is not “one of us” casting out demons is a renewal of the competitiveness on the part of the disciples. Casting out demons is something Jesus has told the disciples to do and now this other person is doing it. What’s the problem? Maybe the problem is that the disciples had just failed to exorcize a demon as Jesus was coming down from the mountain and they are jealous. Jesus gently rebukes them for their competitiveness by saying that anyone who is not against him is for him. The disciples aren’t the only show in town. Then Jesus echoes his commendation of the child by saying that whoever offers anyone a cup of water will be rewarded. That is, thinking about the needs of others, especially the most vulnerable, and doing something about it, leaves no room for competition.
Then come the hard sayings. Jesus warns the disciples (and us) about putting stumbling blocks before these little ones: the child in the midst of the disciples, the one who should be given a cup of water. It is precisely the competitive behavior that scandalizes the little ones, leading them to copy the behavior modeled by those larger and more powerful than they. Children playing cowboys and Indians, as in my day, or with GI Joe or Ninja toys more recently, may be cute, but aren’t they mimicking their elders too closely for comfort? When children see their elders fighting over who is the greatest, is it any wonder they do the same? The notion that it is better to be hurled into the sea with a millstone around the neck than to scandalize the little ones should make one think. It is worth noting that throwing people off of cliffs was a popular means of sacrificing. Being willing to cut off a hand or leg or gouge out an eye rather than scandalize a little one is drastic, but it makes it urgent that we sacrifice our competitiveness rather than scandalize the vulnerable. Indeed, lacking a limb or an eye (remember Odin?) causes one to be a “random” victim of sacrifice. Moreover, dismemberment is also a common method of sacrifice. (Remember Prajapati?) Of course, it would be simpler and less drastic to offer a cup of water, but if competitiveness through what René Girard called “mimetic rivalry” is a powerful addiction, as Girard suggested, our hands and feet are too caught up in rivalry to make even so simple a gesture.
This brings us to hell where the worm never dies and the fire never quenched. (Mk. 9: 48) It would indeed be better to have one hand rather than two that burn in hell for all eternity. But that isn’t what Jesus is talking about here. The word he uses is “Gehenna,” which means something different. Some scholars think it was a large garbage dump outside Jerusalem whose flames never stopped smouldering. More to the point, Gehenna was the valley where Jeremiah claimed that children were sacrificed to the pagan deities. It does seem fitting that such a cursed place would be turned into a refuse heap. Gehenna, then, is where our rivalrous battles end: a place where the vulnerable are sacrificed to fuel our battles. Maybe Jesus’ words about cutting off limbs is hyperbole, a set of “hebraisms,” but they are warning us of the consequences of our rivalrous ways. One of the clearest symptoms of mimetic rivalry is the sharp divide between us and them, a divide the contending disciples tried to make between themselves and the other person who exorcized people.
Jesus concludes his teaching by referring to salt. Salt was added to sacrifices by both Jews and Romans, but as in the use of the image in Matthew and Luke, salt refers to an inner quality, perhaps a willingness to sacrifice self rather than others. This willingness to sacrifice self is of great value and losing it would be much worse than losing an arm or a leg. Jesus tells us that the greatest value of the inner salt is to “be at peace with one another.” (Mk. 9: 49) Being at peace allows for offering a cup of water to one who has need of it, and such giving creates more peace. Indeed, Jesus himself gave up much more than a hand or a foot; he gave up his life to deliver us from the Gehenna of our own making.