Cutting Off What Kills
September 28, 2003
Mark 9:38-43, 45, 47-48
Louise had been married to Tom for seven years. It wasn’t easy. Like most couples their marriage began romantically enough. But soon it became apparent to Louise that Tom had a drinking problem. When he came home drunk, which became more and more frequent, he became abusive. At first it was only verbal, but then it became physical as well. On several occasions Louise required medical attention and found herself making up stories to disguise the real source of her bruises from the doctors: “Oh, I fell down a flight of stairs,” or, “I walked into a door.”
On one occasion Tom came home particularly inebriated. He flew into a violent rage and began to throw things around the house. Their four year old son, who was awoken from his sleep, came into the room. Louise saw Tom’s anger when he saw the child. He took a step towards the boy but then checked himself and retreated into the bedroom, slamming the door behind him. As she picked up her son to console him, Louise could not forget the anger in Tom’s eyes. Surprisingly, for the first time in her life she realized that the violence which was usually directed against her could affect her son as well. That very night after Tom had fallen asleep, she took her son with her in the car and drove to a women’s shelter. A very painful divorce followed, but Louise never looked back. In the months and years that followed as she talked to counselors and friends, they often asked her, “Why did you stay with Tom as long as you did?” Louise would always give the same answer: “Before I realized that he could hurt my son, I couldn’t imagine leaving Tom. Divorcing him was like rejecting a part of myself. It would have been like cutting off my hand.”
Sometimes the things that most endanger us appear to us as normal and acceptable. Sometimes the greatest threats to our lives are the things that seem a part of our very selves. Therefore the thought of leaving those things behind is unthinkable, impossible for us to imagine. It is for this reason that Jesus uses such shocking language in today’s Gospel. He suggests that we cut off our hand or our foot or pluck out our eye. Jesus knows that at times there are things in our life that need to end. And even though it seems like we are cutting off a piece of ourselves, refusing to take that step would endanger something of even greater value.
We might love our work. We might thrill to the excitement of accomplishing things and finding success in our job. But if the energy and time that we put into our work begins to strangle our relationship with our spouse and our children, then we might need to change our job or at least the way that we do it. That possibility might seem like eliminating a very part of ourselves. Yet it would be better to do that than to continue to work full throttle and lose our family in the process. There may be somebody in our life who consistently manipulates us and tears us down. It could be a relative, a friend, perhaps even a parent. If, after repeated attempts to correct that relationship, we realize that this person will never change, we might have to sever ties with the one who hurts us. Although that might seem like tearing out the fabric of our lives, it would be worse to find ourselves sinking into depression or losing our mental health. We might recognize that we have an addiction to alcohol, to drugs, to excessive overeating. It might become clear that if we are to remain healthy we need to stop the addiction. To stop, however, might seem impossible, like cutting off our hand. Yet it would worse to let that addiction control us and possibly destroy us.
Jesus uses such strong language in today’s gospel because he knows that removing deadly things from our life is not easy. It is like losing a piece of ourselves. He also understands that taking such strong action is not possible by willpower alone. God’s grace is necessary.
Here is where the good news emerges. For we believe in a God who calls us to life and happiness. We believe in a God who will assist us when we need to make hard decisions and attain those things that God has promised. We might have to wait for the right moment, but we as a people believe that God will not abandon us. We believe that God will be there to give us the strength we need to move towards life. Louise found that right moment and she seized it to save herself and her child. We need to believe that God is with us and will give us what we need to control our overwork, to protect ourselves from manipulation, to say “No” to that next drink. These threats might seem so much a part of us that removing them might feel like cutting off a limb or plucking out an eye, but with God’s help it can be done. For with God all things are possible.
Standing on God’s Side
October 1, 2006
Mark 9:38-43, 45, 47–48
At the height of the American Civil War, Abraham Lincoln was invited to address a large gathering of Union Forces who were rallying in support of the war. The emcee who introduced the president asked him to come forward and the lead the assembly in a prayer that God might be on the Union side and help win the war. Lincoln came up to the podium and the first thing he said was “Sir, I am not really concerned about whether God is on our side. I am very concerned whether we are on God’s side.”
We all want God to be on our side. But how do we be on God’s side? What does that mean? Today’s readings reveal two truths about God’s side. The first is this. God’s side is always bigger then our side. We spend a lot of time making decisions that separate good from bad; people we trust from those we do not trust; those with whom we identify and those from whom we will push away. Making such decisions is necessary. We live in a dangerous world. There are things in our world which can hurt us. We need to make decisions which will protect ourselves, our family, and our country. But once we have made those important and necessary decisions, once we have grouped together all the people who we deem as good and those we can trust, the believer in Christ always has to admit that the group that God would draw together as good and worthy is larger than our group.
God sees a goodness that we do not perceive. God sees possibilities that we cannot imagine. That’s why God is God, and we must be very cautious about pretending to know who is on God’s side. Joshua makes that mistake in today’s first reading. He objects because God’s power came upon two men who he thinks do not deserve it. John makes the same mistake in today’s Gospel. John complains because someone who does not belong to Jesus’ company was nevertheless driving out demons in Jesus’ name. Both Moses and Jesus know better. They know that God’s power cannot be limited only to those who we define as worthy. Both Moses and Jesus realize that there are more people on God’s side than we are able to see. God’s side is bigger than our side. This is a truth which all of us who believe in God must accept.
This leads to the second truth in today’s readings: standing on God’s side is not easy. Making room for God’s bigger vision of others is difficult. It means that we must commit ourselves to listen to others who we believe are wrong, just in case they might be on God’s side too. It means we must accept those who are different from us and difficult for us, just in case they might carry a truth that we cannot see. It means we must love our enemies and dialogue with them, because only if we do might we discover common ground by which God intends to build the future.
It is difficult to stand on God’s side because we will look foolish to all those who are sure they are right. We will be ridiculed by those who have no interest other then circling the wagons and protecting those who they deem worthy of protecting. Standing on God’s side is difficult. Perhaps that is why Jesus uses the violent images that he does in today’s Gospel. Because letting go of the security that we hold the complete truth can be as difficult as cutting off our hand. Pushing away stereotypes, prejudices, and false fears that tag another as an enemy can be as painful as cutting off a foot. Resisting the primal impulse to return violence for violence and hatred with hatred can be as unthinkable as plucking out an eye. But, if we want to stand with God, that is the price we pay. Those who follow Christ then must be humble and courageous: humble to know that God’s vision is always bigger then our vision, courageous to make room for that vision even if we seem foolish or hopelessly naïve.
Jesus calls us to that humility and courage—to believe in God’s kingdom and to be agents of its dawning. It is difficult to stand on God’s side. Perhaps that is why there are so many people who prefer simply to proclaim that God stands with them.
Valuing the Other
September 27, 2009
Mark 9:38-43, 45, 47-48
A man and a woman in their eighties fell in love and married. On their wedding night as they were both excited but also a bit afraid. The woman came to the doorway of the bedroom and saw her husband standing by the bed. She said, “Honey, how do we begin this?” He said, “Don’t worry. Everything will be fine, but I’ll need a few minutes to get ready.” So having said that he took out his glass eye and put it in a box at the side of the bed. Then took out his teeth and placed them into the box. Then he sat on the bed and unscrewed his prosthetic leg and took off is toupee. Those ended up in the box as well. Having done all of this, he climbed into bed and said, “Honey, I’m ready.” Still standing in the doorway the woman responded, “Thank you. But I’m not sure whether I’m supposed to get into the bed or the box.”
Parts of our bodies are parts of ourselves. That is what makes Jesus’ words so challenging in today’s gospel. Jesus says that there can be an advantage in plucking out our eye or cutting off a hand or a foot. Now of course, Jesus is not speaking literally. He is not asking us to maim our bodies. He is saying that there can be certain things which we need to remove from our lives. And the things which need to be removed can be very close to us, almost a part of us. Therefore removing them can be difficult, perhaps as difficult as cutting off a hand or a foot.
What are these things that we should remove from our lives? There can be a long list: a habit of sin, a destructive entrenched attitude, a desire for revenge, or a false and unhealthy pride. We could go on and on. But today’s readings emphasize one particular thing to be removed: an attitude of intolerance. Intolerance is an attitude that sees no value in the action or the ideas of another person. Our scriptures speak against it. In the first reading, Joshua complains to Moses because some people who were not under Moses’ authority were nevertheless prophesying. Moses rejects Joshua’s intolerance and says that God is free to grant God’s spirit, even if it does not come through Moses. In today’s gospel, John complains to Jesus because there were some people who were using Jesus’ name to cast out demons and they were not Jesus’ disciples. Jesus rejects John’s intolerance and tells him, “Whoever is not against us is for us.”
The attitude of intolerance flourishes whenever people adopt an “Us vs. Them” mentality. There are sure signs that this kind of thinking is growing among us. Internationally we see more and more examples of one country vilifying another. In our country politicians who disagree with one another are more frequently turning to personal attacks. In our own family and relationship this attitude of “Us vs. Them” can also take a foothold and hurt us. I found an effective description of this attitude in a passage called us “Us Versus Them.” I would like to read it to you.
There’s us. And then there’s them.
We’re all right. They’re not.
We’re justifiably concerned for our family’s livelihood. They’re in it for the money.
We’re resting. They’re self-indulgent.
We’re pragmatic. They’re manipulative.
We’re teasing. They’re mean spirited.
We know the truth. They don’t understand. They’re ill-informed.
We’re concerned for the common good. They’re out to grab whatever they can get.
Don’t ever question our good intentions, our values or our patriotism.
But watch out for them.
You can trust us. But be afraid of them.
We’re all created equal. But some of us are more equal than others.
We are all children of God. But we’re God’s favorites.
We’re the people of God. We pray for them.
Now when we try to push intolerance away, we are not saying that all ideas, all intentions, or all lifestyles are equally good. What we are saying is that there is a value in listening to another person’s opinion, in reconsidering another person’s action, in understanding another person’s motivation. If we are unwilling or unable to extend that tolerance to others, we will never be able to cooperate with others. If we cannot cooperate with others, we will never make progress in our families, in our country, or in our world. Without that progress there is little hope for peace. This is why Moses and Jesus speak out so loudly against intolerance. It is why we must make every effort to avoid that attitude—even if it’s difficult—even if it’s like cutting off a hand or a foot.
God calls us to cooperation, to progress, to peace. But we cannot respond to that call as long as we buy into an “Us vs. Them” mentality. We cannot build the Kingdom of God unless we are willing to see value in the person who is other.
Loving Irritating People
September 27, 2015
Mark 9:38-43, 45, 47-48
Life would be so much better without irritating people. When we run into someone who gets under our skin, our jaws tighten and our stomachs turn. It might be someone in our own family who always rubs us the wrong way. It could be someone at school or at work who routinely says inappropriate or offensive things. It might be the hotrod on the freeway who passes us at 90 miles per hour and throws us a gesture because we are doing the speed limit. Life would be so much better if irritating people would disappear, but they don’t. They keep popping into our lives and disrupting them.
What makes things worse is that Jesus expects us to love them. Throughout the gospels, he is constantly admonishing us to love our enemies, to turn the other cheek, to go the extra mile. It is hard enough at times to love the people we care about. How are we to love these people who drive us crazy? Here is where Jesus’ words in today’s gospel are helpful. Jesus says that anyone who gives a cup of water to drink to someone because they belong to Christ will not lose his or her reward. There are many ways to interpret Jesus’ saying, but certainly this saying has relevance in dealing with difficult people.
It has relevance in two ways. First of all, the action that Jesus describes is a small one: to offer a cup of water. Jesus is saying that the way to deal with difficult people is to use small gestures rather than big ones. We do not need to become close friends with them or invite them to go on vacation with us. But when we see them doing something well, perhaps we can offer a compliment: “Good work. Well done.” When their stapler becomes stuck at the office, perhaps we can offer them ours. When someone pulls ahead of us into the parking space we have been waiting for, perhaps we can do nothing, just take a deep breath and go on looking for another space. Jesus is suggesting that when it comes to loving difficult people, we should aim small. We should offer them a simple action of kindness.
“But,” you say, “What good will that do? The person might not appreciate the action or even recognize it.” True. This is in part what makes them such irritating people. But here is where a second part of Jesus’ saying comes into play. Jesus says that we are to offer a simple action of kindness because the person belongs to Christ. We offer the compliment or the stapler not because the person will recognize our kindness, but because Jesus will. We lay off the horn as the jerk passes us on the freeway not because it will make him a better driver, but because Jesus will see our effort and approve it.
So the next time you have to face an irritating person, try offering a simple action of kindness because they belong to Christ. Your action will not change the world, but it could change your heart. The person to whom you offer the action might not love you in return, but Jesus will. And that is no small matter.
Outside the Lines
September 30, 2018
Francine was a bright, outspoken six-year-old who often surprised her parents with her insightful remarks. So much so, in fact, that at times her parents would push her a little, just to see what she would say. One day Francine was working on her coloring book. She was coloring a picture of a puppy, and she was coloring the puppy bright purple. When she finished her work, she went to her mother and said, “Look at my picture.” “Wow,” her mother said, “I really like that color.” But then, just to see what Francine might say, her mother said, “Francine, look: here and here you’ve colored outside of the lines.” Francine looked at her picture, then she looked at her mother, and then she said, “But Mom, this purple is too beautiful to stay within the lines.”
I think that God would identify with Francine’s attitude. God knows that the good things he wishes to give us are too beautiful to stay within the lines we have drawn. In today’s first reading from the Book of Numbers, God gives his spirit not only to the seventy elders who are assembled to receive it, but also to two others who are outside of that group. In today’s gospel, God gives his healing power not only to the twelve apostles but also to another person who is outside of Jesus’ company. This shows our God to be a God of generous abundance. God knows that the good things he has to give are too beautiful to be limited to only a few people and places. This means that we should expect God’s blessings, even if at times we do not feel that we are the right people or that we are in the right place.
At school, you might not be in the most popular group, the group that everybody admires. But God’s love is too beautiful to be limited only to that group. Already God is acting so that you might find friends in your own group, friends with whom you can share your life. At work, you might not be the star salesman or the person that everyone looks to in the office. But that does not mean that God has forgotten you. God continues to be with you to make sure that your efforts will support your family and that your work will make a contribution. When you see that something is wrong and needs to be changed, you may not have the outspoken quality of this person or the courage of that person, but God is still with you to help you find your own voice, so that you can speak out and insist that what is unjust must be changed.
We live in a world of groups, boundaries, and divisions. But God’s love is too beautiful to abide by any of these. God delights in blessing us. God delights in coloring us with his Spirit, whether we find ourselves standing inside or outside the lines that have been drawn.