Notes on the Lectionary with Deacon Lincoln Anderson. Visit the series page at AnglicanCompass.com/NotesOnTheLectionary
“And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’” (Mark 9:43-48, ESV)
A Hard Teaching
I’m going to say it straight out – this is a hard teaching. My first reaction to reading this passage is to recoil at the harshness of what Jesus is saying. After getting over my initial shock, I want to exempt myself from what Jesus is saying, or to make his lesson less hard. Surely he doesn’t mean that I should literally cut off my hand or my foot, or pluck out my eye?
This teaching is so difficult and threatening to us because of our flesh. As embodied souls, it is difficult to consider a life where we are missing an appendage, or a key sense. Jesus knows this, and he tells us that there is something worse than being crippled. Being shut out of the Kingdom of Heaven is a worse fate than losing any of our body parts.
So, what exactly does Jesus mean here?
Remove the Temptations to Sin
I do not believe that Jesus says anything lightly or flippantly. At the same time, we don’t have any accounts of the disciples literally following through with putting out their eyes or losing their hands or feet to avoid sin. However, we do know that they each gave up their very lives for the sake of the Gospel, in some sense as a way to avoid the sin of apostasy.
It goes a long way to understand what Jesus is getting at if we see that the teaching is not “if you sin with your hand or your foot or your eye” but “if your hand or your foot or your eye causes you to sin.” I cannot think of a time that my hand or my foot or my eye (or any other body part) has caused me to sin. Temptations come from outside of a person, but responses come from the heart. Removing my hand, or my foot, or my eye doesn’t solve a problem of the heart that continually gives in to temptation.
Commenting on this passage, Clement of Rome says plainly that Jesus is not advocating the literal removal of hands, feet, or eyes. No, Jesus is requiring that we remove the temptations to sin from our lives. So that we do not sin, we have to be as extreme in removing temptation as we would be if we had a gangrenous sore on a limb, or a tumor in the eye.
What is Better?
The refrain throughout this lesson is that it is better to lose some part of your mortal body and enter the Kingdom rather than to be whole and be denied entry into the Kingdom. Part of the difficulty with this teaching is that we can forget the promises of the Kingdom. The disciples did not yet have the example of Christ’s resurrection. Because we do have this example, we know that the same Spirit that raised Christ from the dead can surely restore a lost hand, foot, or eye.
But even if this weren’t the case, the lesson would still be true – it is better to be in the presence of God in whatever lowly estate we find ourselves than to be cast into hell. The Kingdom is worth any loss suffered here on earth for its sake.
Any added and seemingly fruitless toil we experience from holding to ethical conduct while colleagues lie and cheat and have earthly success is worth it because we will receive the Kingdom. The man or woman who remains chaste and does not experience sex in this life because of their commitment to Christian sexual ethics in the end loses nothing and finds the fulfilment of all desires in the Kingdom. The person who endures imprisonment, poverty, persecution, and even death for the sake of the Gospel finds freedom, riches, acceptance, and life in the Kingdom.
Cleanse us from our sins
This week, the Prayer Book puts on our lips the petition for God to “grant [his] people pardon and peace, that we may be cleansed from all our sins, and serve [him] with a quiet mind…” If you pray the Daily Offices regularly, this Collect probably looks familiar to you. This is what deacons and laity pray after the opening confession that starts Morning and Evening Prayer.
Consider how this Collect relates to the teaching about avoiding temptation and sin. Where does this Collect stand in relation to the teaching about radical avoidance of temptation? Does asking for “pardon and peace” remove the charge to cut off sources of temptation from our lives? Please answer in the comments!