Jesus Live on Scarth Street Part Two:
Cut off your Hand & Poke out Your Eye
Esther 7; Psalm 22; James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50
Sunday, October 14, 2018 — The Season of Creation and Emergence
Knox-Metropolitan United Church — Regina, SK — Treaty 4 Territory
This morning we continue with the second part of a 4 week series we’ve entitles Jesus, Live on Scarth Street in which we ponder how the person and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth as encountered in the book of Mark, might be received in our contemporary context.
Would Jesus be a popular figure, drawing in crowds eager to hear what he had to say?
Would those who pass him by be eager to move on a quickly as possible?
Would he be considered a polarizing figure, a rabble rouser?
Would his words attract a religious crowd, or might they appeal to others?
Whenever I am able, which is not as much as I’d like, I’ve joined on Thursdays at noon the Making Peace Vigil, as I know several folks here have done, who gather each week, from 12-12:30pm to give out flyers about poverty, the environment, racial justice, and other issues of peace to the crowds moving along the Scarth Street pedestrian mall, to and from the Cornwall Centre and other places where one can find a bite to eat in the middle of the work day, and folks are often moving pretty quickly — and depending on the message of the day, move even faster.
Over these four weeks, the Lectionary (the appointed passages to be read each week) come from this section about midway through the Gospel of Mark.
In the spring of this year we explored through a series of reflections the social and political context of this particular piece of writing, noting that it emerges most likely out of a time of turmoil within Jewish Palestine, during a great revolt against the Roman Army who has occupied this land for many decades.
We also pondered how this text might have been understand within the community in which it was composed and consumed — was it perhaps more akin to a political manifesto, extolling a radical pattern of resistance to the forces of that oppresses and impoverished the common people, rather than a religious biography, as it is often understood within Christian communities today.
If such topics are of interest, you will find these reflections stored on our website.
During these four weeks, our texts come from this section of Mark in which the narrative has Jesus and his companions travelling from the North where they are from into the South towards Jerusalem, the centre of power in their day — where Jesus will come into direct conflict with the ruling elites.
Up until this point, the main action has been miracles which symbolically unmask the tools of oppression and control wielded against the people of militarism, economic exploitation and legalistic interpretations of moral and ethical laws that degrade the communities.
Along the way, Jesus symbolically hints at the possibility of a new social order centred around human to human solidarity and equity, embodying the ancient covenants of the Hebrew people.
Jesus’ teachings in this section, mirror the themes raised in the miracles through which he challenged the established order that created a social stratification in which wealth and influence is in the hands of the powerful who struggle to keep it this way at the expense of those who have little of either.
Jesus instead proposes a new order embodied in a term he repeats as “the way of the cross” a way marked by downward solidarity and service and the embracing of the fundamental humanity of those dehumanized within the existing patterns of society, and the repeated narrative trope throughout, is the inability of Jesus’ closest followers to get it as they argue about greatness and upward mobility in contrast to Jesus invitation move in the opposite direction. This pattern is repeated several times in this section we’ll be exploring over these weeks.
Ched Myers, with whom I’ve been thrilled to study the Gospels (the 4 books which open what we call the New Testament) at St. Andrew’s College, remarks that the Gospels act as both windows and mirrors — in that they invite us to see new things about the world from which they emerge, while also challenging us to see the same dynamics working in our own world, communities and even selves.
So then, how does this vivid image of cutting off one’s own hand or foot, or poking out one’s own eye lead to an ethic of greater human solidarity.
If 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.
Then onto the foot and then the eye — gentle Jesus, meek and mild indeed.
Other English translations sometimes render the word stumble as sin, making this historically a go to verse to speak to moral imperatives, and in many streams of churches this is presumed to speak to sexual immorality, and I would suggest, following the lead from many interpreters who read these verses in their context within the text and within the social context from which the text emerged, that this interpretation misses the point, and is actually deeply problematic and has in too many communities opened the door for violence.
Many such streams who hold a particular ethic of sexual purity highly within their communities that such teachings, that usually involve some teachings akin to sexual activity being nothing but trouble, so you should save it for the one you love enough to marry.
However, there are now brave stories emerging from within these communities (and I don’t mean all churches that are part of such movements) of assault and exploitation particularly of young and predominantly female, and a new narrative is emerging about how such stereotypical norms of purity are becoming twisted into means that seek to control the same vulnerable members who are now finding courage to share their stories and call their communities to account.
A lot of this comes from the idea that sin is meant to refer to personal moral failings that alienate one from one’s own self, from God and as consequence from the community.
But the ancient world held no such understanding of sin. Sin was always relational, it was about what humans do to other humans and their dignity, rather than an individual failing to abide by an unattainable level of perfection or morality.
I think that unpacking the concept of sin (which can be such a triggering term for many depending on ones religious background) and how it is has been used within Christian communities, particularly in the past century and decades is a worthwhile project to return to.
Jesus use of hard analogies began by noting that ‘If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. I think that the key to understanding where this passage picks this up is by stretching back in the narrative to before where our appointed reading for this morning picked up so that we can decode what is meant by “one of these little ones”.
The previous paragraphs which despite being broken apart in the Lectionary, really do flow together, and what we didn’t hear was first the 12 disciples who are closest to Jesus arguing about which one of them was the greatest, and in response, Jesus first reminded them Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and a servant of all and then brought forward a child saying Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me and if we read these together, then the child is still in the centre during John’s concern about someone else casting out demons in Jesus’ name despite not being part of their group, and is still there and is the most likely subject of these little ones.
Now perhaps we’ve seen pictures depicting this moment, Jesus surrounded by cherub-like well-groomed (and likely well-mannered) children, which tends to colour our perception of this moment.
In first century Jewish Palestine children were indeed the most vulnerable part of society, holding no rights and often treated as property. Indeed today a recent UNICEF report notes that globally, 1 in 2 children live in poverty, 1 in 3 have inadequate shelter, 1 in 5 have no access to safe drinking water and 1 in 7 no access to health care — and many communities, far too many being Indigenous, in our own country reflect these statistics.
So as Jesus frames for his listeners, a vision of a social order that will contrast with the stratified norm of his day, the exposing and condemning of which has been the focus of his ministry to this point, he places as the centre a new moral barometer — the welfare of the most vulnerable.
So then first comes the aforementioned millstone, a huge heavy circle of rock used to grind grains into flour, a ubiquitous object to Jesus’ rural audience. It is also a repeated symbol throughout Scripture.
When the Philistine King Abimelech, known for enslaving conquered peoples sacked the Israelite city of Schechem the survivors took shelter in a tower in the centre of the city, Abimelech was about to set fire to the tower when a woman dropped a millstone from the top, crushing his head.
In the book of Revelation, which I would suggest is not about the end of the world, but a vivid image laden condemnation of Imperial practices of violence and dehumanization, the City of Babylon (certainly a metaphor for Rome) is personified and condemned, for among other things, buying and selling human beings like property, and in consequence, has a millstone hung around their neck, and is thrown in the ocean.
So in a deeply divided society, where human bodies and labour are used for their ability to create wealth for the elite and controlled by untenable legal systems and divisions sown by the powerful, Jesus extols a new way of being that is centred on resisting forces that oppress and wherein a community ethic should be judged by either its intentionality in improving and protecting the welfare of the most vulnerable (including but not limited to children) or it’s apathy and refusal to acknowledge its own complicity.
So far from a graphic portrayal of personal morality, this passage is a challenge to become aware to the invisible suffering that is ever hidden Imperial systems, and once aware acknowledging ones own moral agency.
So how would this play on Scarth street today?
How would Jesus draw attention to those who pass by the invisible violence to land and human bodies and the life and death urgency to discard apathy and challenge self-justification, and accept moral responsibility — not the same as moralism or guilt (although guilt can be a powerful motivator).
Would people stop and listen? Or might people respond with claims like, that has nothing to do with me? If I can’t see it, if it doesn’t affect me, why should I respond?
I’d suggest that this reading is a window into Jesus’ ethic of the welfare of the invisible who both in his day and ours, is ignored and even obfuscated, and perhaps a mirror calling us to name that human wealth has alway come at the expense of other human bodies and the welfare of the earth. How might we learn to render visible that which we may intuitively know to be true despite the troubling implications that would follow — is this, far from being a fringe social justice practice, in fact central to following in the way of Jesus of Nazareth, a call to radical empathy?
For in life, in death, in life beyond death.