The Seriousness of Sin

Mark 9:38-50                                                                       Ordinary Time

Elizabeth M Deibert                                                           27 September 2015


A couple of hundred years ago, it would be common to hear a hellfire and damnation sermon in any Sunday, any church.   How do you think the tradition of sitting on the back pew got started?   Get me away from that firey preacher!   Preachers such as Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield were called "fire and brimstone preachers" during the Great Awakening of the 1730s and 1740s. Edwards' “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” is one of the best-known sermons of this time period.   Fear can be an effective motivator, and the Bible speaks of the fear of the Lord and the wrath of God, so it is easy to see why so many sermons and theology are built on this understanding of God.


But our modern culture likes to emphasize God’s acceptance and love.   And there is good Biblical warrant for that.   John 3:16 God so loved the world that God gave his only begotten Son….God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world but that the world through him might be saved.  1 John 4 – God is love and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.   (so anyone who abides in love has God in them) There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.   So it is easy to see how we moderns can justify sermons and theology built on this understanding of God.  


So which is right?  Are we sinners in the hands of angry God?  Or are we beloved children in the hands of an embracing God?   Or both?   God expresses love in anger, because surely God has more love than a parent who calmly asserts a consequence for bad behavior in order to teach the child good behavior.  God is the refining fire, purifying us like gold.  We think too much of God as a harsh judge, and not enough of God as a physician, who is treating the disease of our sin, and helping us, sometimes through pain, to be more well.  


Let’s read the Gospel lesson today and see if we can get some help with this:



Mark 9:38-50

John said to him, "Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us." 39 But Jesus said, "Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. 40 Whoever is not against us is for us. 41 For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward. 42 "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. 43 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. 4445 And 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., 4647 And 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, 48 where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched. 49 "For everyone will be salted with fire. 50 Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another." (NRS)

The disciples start with simple-minded tattle-tales.  “Teacher, that guy is not following the rules.   He’s trying to be one of us, without being one of us.”   And Jesus says, “The larger rule, the Spirit of the Law, is that goodness is goodness, wherever it is found.”   Anyone who is doing anything in the name of Christ, or by the power of Christ is not to be stopped because they have moved far from evil every time they do something good.   Whoever helps you with the simplest but valuable gift – a cup of water – will not lose the reward.   So anyone doing any good is blessed.   And truth is truth, no matter the source.   But we know Christ to be truth incarnate, the One through whom God has created all goodness.

Next thought:  Anyone who makes it more difficult for another to believe in Christ has committed a grave error.   Death by drowning would be preferable.   He goes on to elaborate – if you hand, your foot, or your eye causes you to stumble, cut it off or out,  cause it is better to have one hand, foot, eye than go to Gehenna, the place of the dead, where worms never die and the fire is never extinguished.  

Now we need to be aware that every time hell is mentioned here, the word is Gehenna.  Gehenna was a real place, the valley of Hinnom on the east side of Jerusalem, which had once been the place of worship of a horrible, heathen deity, Moloch, a place where children were sacrificed. It was in Jesus’ day a trash dump, with fires burning all the time and maggot worms all over everything, including the bodies of criminals that were burned there after their death.  Gehenna was a vivid image of rubbish and death for anyone living in the area.  This is to be distinguished from Hades, a neutral place where dead spirits depart.   

So Jesus makes a serious point.   Do not put a stumbling block in front of anyone, little ones in particular.   Jesus used the diminutive to speak of children and of those with little faith.   So now let’s talk about what a stumbling block really is.   The Greek word is skandalon, from which we get the word, “scandal and scandalize” but what it really meant in Jesus’ day was the stick in the trap that springs up to catch someone or something in a snare.   It is not an accidental slip.  It is setting a trap.

So here’s what I think Jesus is concerned about – the peace/shalom/ wellness/faithfulness of all his people.   He is interested that we spread love and grace and power, such that anyone can use his name for good.  If a Muslim or Jew or Hindu or Buddhist speaks well of Christ, speaks of his truth -- great.   No problem.   We do not possess rights.  The disciples are competitive and possessive of Jesus’ name and power.   They think it needs to be protected, hoarded, like we do with copyrighting intellectual property and logos.  If you try to use someone’s name or logo, you are stealing in our world.   But with Jesus, it’s a ministry of multiplication, not subtraction.  

Jesus desires that we give each other a cup of water, an act of generosity, rather than trip one another up intentionally.  I wonder if John Boehner’s resignation comes because he could not hear his beloved pope and continue to play the games he was required to play, games played both sides of the aisle, games that leave all of us worse off.   But I too am a game-playing hypocrite.   The point of this passage that we all should be more worried about ourselves than pointing a finger at others. 

Jesus uses harsh and hyperbolic language when he speaks about our ability to keep sinning, never being willing to give up anything.   Jesus speaks of losing off body parts.  That rather extreme!

Commentator Steven Ramp says in the Lectionary Commentary, and I agree, Jesus does not intend that his followers should be limbless nor blind nor left rotting in Gehenna, but that we should take sin seriously, because sin has serious consequences.  Jesus exaggerates to make a point.   One other notable place he does this is in the Sermon on the Mount when he is warning against angry insults and against lust.   Again there he says, “It’s better to lose part of your body than your whole body to be thrown into hell, Gehenna, that horrible place at the edge of Jerusalem where the fires never stop burning and the worms never finish eating.  

The discussion of the fire in Gehenna then leads to the last two verses where Jesus says, “Everyone will be salted with fire”   Salt is a preservative.   So if we are preserved by salt, and salt is good, then we should not fear fire so much as to be warned that we need to be forged into God’s faithful people, people who care for the little ones, rather than trip them up.  Pope Francis said it well this week when he preached at Madison Square Garden about deafening anonymity of those who are ignored, who have no rights in the city.   He challenged Congress to avoid the temptation of a simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners."  He said, "Our efforts must aim at restoring hope, righting wrongs, maintaining commitments, and thus promoting the well-being of individuals and of peoples."  

Our passage ends with Jesus encouraging the disciples to have salt in themselves and to be at peace with one another.   Again salt was a preservative in these days before refrigeration.   When people in the first century ate something salty, they associated it with being preserved, healthy, not wormy, rotting, dying.   To have salt in yourself would be to preserve the good and the healthy in you.

Jesus came to bring the reign of God.   When he speaks of the kingdom of God, when he speaks of life, he’s talking about present and future.   His living according to the principles of God’s reign led him to be killed.    Confronted by our hopelessness in sin and death, Christ offered himself, in order to heal us.  

He was in his very person, God’s Word to a dying world.   He embodied the love he came to proclaim.   He perfected royal power in weakness, aligning himself with those who are weak, oppressed, mistreated, forgotten, tortured, and left to die.  

Jesus did not say “Blessed are those who care for the poor, but blessed are you when you are poor, and you when you are broken, and when people hurt you.  That’s when you have the opportunity to draw into deeper communion with God in your weakness.”   (Nouwen)

With no power but power of love, Christ gave ultimate defeat to sin, evil, and death.  There is no sorrow he has not known, no grief he has not borne, no agony of abandonment that he has not experienced with us and on our behalf[ED1] [ED2] .   (from The Study Catechism)   As Henri Nouwen says, “For Jesus there are no countries to be conquered, no ideologies to be imposed, no people to be dominated.  There are only men, women, and children to be loved.”

When we accept the gift of his grace, and grow in that grace, our lives become saltier, they become humbler, they become this great mixture of joy and sadness, a bright melancholy, a quiet cheer, because as James reminds us we are praying with those who suffer and singing praise with those who are rejoicing.   When we grow in the grace of our Savior, Jesus Christ, then we give life to others, like he did.   That’s our calling.  

It has been so refreshing to hear and see and read news of Pope Francis instead of the usual bad news of politics and international warfare.    What I appreciate most about the Pope is the way he keeps asking people to pray for him.   With throngs of people and their praise of his leadership, with world leaders hanging on his every word, he still recognizes his need for prayer.   It is the humble expression of spiritual dependence on God.   It is that spirit of dependence on God that helps us to keep turning from sin, to stop building traps for ourselves and others, to embrace the true life Christ gives us.