My four-year-old granddaughter’s disability restricts her mobility, limits her manual dexterity, affects how she communicates, and leaves her legally blind.
None of this diminishes my affection for her. She makes me smile and warms my heart. As people like to say these days, I love her to the moon and back.
And I suppose it may be because of this tender relationship that some of the stuff that Jesus said struck a nerve. Honestly, his words shocked me. Here’s what I have in mind. (Mark 9:38-50)
Jesus tells his disciples that you should cut off your hand, hack off your foot, and gouge out your eye if they cause you to stumble. He assures them that it’s better to be maimed, lame, and blind than to burn in hell.
Now that I think about it, it’s not just the apparent callousness about disability that got under my skin. What he’s suggesting about God doesn’t sound like, well, God. God is love. A healer. Not a vindictive punisher. So, Jesus’s words are shocking on both counts.
As it turns out, that’s probably his aim here. Jesus says shocking things to shake us out of our narrow concepts of God, self, and neighbor. By showing us who God really is, Jesus aims to help us become who we truly are and to change how we relate to our neighbor.
I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s back up and look at the larger context of Jesus’s shocking words.
Jesus has been teaching his friends to consider the effect that their own actions and attitudes have on other people, especially the people who aren’t on their radar. He put it like this:
“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.”
Commentators have interpreted “little ones” in various ways. And I invite you to try this reading.
Little ones are those we don’t take into consideration for the most part. People who are effectively invisible to us. That may be the poor, people of different races, women, or people living in distant lands.
We are all interconnected whether we realize it or not. And even when we act on what seems like noble motives, we may diminish the lives of others. Our economic gain may come at their expense. Our comfort may damage their ecosystem. Our political or social status may diminish theirs.
Eventually, the harm we cause others will make a mess of our own lives. We would be better off wearing a millstone in neck-deep surf.
So when Jesus turns to his distasteful self-mutilation talk, the “stumbling” he’s got in mind is the harm we do to others with our habitual ways of navigating our world.
Our hand might represent how we commonly do things. Our economic system. How we treat the environment. Our legal and political system.
We walk toward a goal with our feet. The goals we pursue can be narrowly focused on our own well-being at the expense of the common good.
We perceive with the physical eye and also with the eye of the heart and the eye of the mind. The challenge for us all is to see the Christ in everyone whether they can see it for themselves or not.
Our habitual practices, our aspirations, and our attitudes can make our neighbor stumble. Make our neighbor suffer. Diminish our neighbor’s freedom. Deny the respect due our neighbor as a child of God. That is when some painful cutting, hacking, and gouging is called for.
Jesus’s point is not that a wrathful God will condemn us to hell for wayward behavior. On the contrary, in Jesus we see that God is in solidarity with us. And to be one with Christ is to be bound to one another.
In his life, death, and resurrection Jesus is teaching us that we are all in this together. Each of us is free only when all of us are free. The misery we cause for anyone eventually becomes the suffering and sorrow borne by all. And finally, we will all be healed together.
So, actually, I have to admit that Jesus’s shock treatment is having its effect on me. I want to undergo some painful growth. To listen to voices that I’ve heard only dimly and to hear stories that will stretch and change my own narrative.