David A. Davis
September 26, 2021
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I laughed out loud in my office this week as I read a commentary on this passage from the Gospel of Mark. I can promise you that it is not common to find humor in a biblical commentary. That’s not to say that biblical scholars lack a sense of humor (or at least any that might be here in the room or joining in worship virtually!) One would just not expect to find something funny when it comes to the genre of biblical commentaries. But here is the sentence that made me chuckle: “…most interpreters…insist that Jesus would not have intended that his followers maim themselves.” Most…not all.
Maybe when Jesus brought the rhetorical heat, it came with a cadence that encouraged some call and response. “If your hand causes you to stumble…cut if off…And if your foot causes you stumble” And he waits, and a few of the disciples shout “cut it off”. “And if your eye causes you to stumble. “Tear it out” comes the response with a shout. Though you would probably need to mention a few more body parts to really get the congregation into the hellfire and brimstone sermon. The turn or burn sermon. But, of course, for any teaching or any sermon there is always the chance that the rhetorical flare or the hyperbole or the illustration or the example or the joke, for that matter is remembered more than the intent, the meaning or the content. That might be true even for Jesus here in Mark. “Most interpreters insist that Jesus would not have intended that his followers maim themselves.” The sentence sort of indicates at least some distraction in the history of interpretation.
In the narrative of Mark’s gospel, this language from Jesus comes just after the disciples were arguing with one another about who was the greatest. You remember that Jesus said “whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Jesus also took a child in his arms and said to them “whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” Then, according to Mark, it was John who ask about someone casting out demons. John is playing the role usually reserved for Peter. The disciple spokesperson not getting what Jesus is trying to say and then asking the wrong kind of question or saying the wrong thing. “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, we tried to stop him, because he was not following us. Not following…US.
Some have suggested the reference to “us” excludes Jesus himself. John provoked the response from Jesus because the disciples were worried people were not following them. But even if the royal “us” includes Jesus, the question certainly continues the theme of the disciples’ misguided concern for themselves and their desire to claim parochial ownership when it comes to teaching of Jesus. No, it didn’t take long for the followers of Jesus to stake an exclusive claim to the gospel. It started right away and pretty much never stopped. The church and the “ its our way or the highway” approach to biblical interpretation, theology, discipleship and pretty much the whole of Christian life.
Jesus implies that the one casting out demons was doing it in his name and says “Whoever is not against us is for us.” Whoever is not against is for us. Jesus turns that old rallying cry “whoever is not for us is against us” on its ear. But my colleagues on the church staff pointed out this week when we talked about this passage in Mark out under the tent that in Matthew Jesus says “whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.” That was in a discussion with the Pharisees who were accusing Jesus of casting out demons in the name of Beelzebub. Here the turn around is in a conversation with the disciples as Jesus yet again tries to challenge the relentless urge of the disciples to always make it about themselves. The relentless urge to make the gospel of Jesus Christ all about us rather than them. “Whoever is not against us if for us.”
Jesus again turns to the example of a child, a little one, “one of these little ones who believe in me.” Hopefully those little ones in Mark had gone off to worship explorers before Jesus speaks of lopping off body parts! “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little one who believe in me…” Stumbling block. The take on stumbling blocks tends to go one of two directions. There is the morality approach. That stumbling blocks come with human sinfulness. With one of my sins, I am then leading someone else to sin. Or a stumbling understood more in terms of faith. That something in my behavior, my language causes someone else to falter in their faith. To backslide as some would say. Doing or saying anything that could cause someone to lose faith.
In Romans, the 14th chapter, Paul puts stumbling block in the context of judgment of others. “Let us therefore no longer pass judgment on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another.” (Romans 14:13) In I Corinthians, stumbling block comes up again in the conversation about which foods to eat or not eat. “Take care that this freedom of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the vulnerable.” (I Corinthians 8:9) If the question is whether stumbling blocks refer to leading someone into sin or causing faith to falter the answer seems be to yes. Anything that puts a wedge in someone’s connection with God, seeds disinterest in a relationship with Jesus, causes someone to care a little less when it comes to believing, following Jesus. Anything that tears a bit at the life of discipleship. Stumbling blocks.
In Matthew, Jesus calls Peter a stumbling block when he was talking his own suffering and death and Peter would have nothing of it. “Get behind me Satan!” Jesus said. His familiar stumbling block sermon that talks of body parts comes in Matthew simply with the question Jesus asked to the disciples: “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And Jesus puts a child among them and then launches in on the sermon. But for Mark’s Jesus, the “stumbling block riff” comes in response to the disciples own self-absorbed conversation. Think about it. Jesus brings some rhetorical heat when he gets apocalyptic. “Nation will rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.” (Luke 21:10-11). Jesus certainly gets fiery with the religious leaders. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” (Matthew 23:29) But here in Mark, all the rhetorical heat, the fiery threat of the worm that never dies, the salty language about ripping out body parts, it’s all in response to the disciples’ inability to learn that the gospel of Jesus Christ is not just about them! Jesus must have been convinced that the relentless urge to make the gospel of Jesus Christ all about us rather than them was going to drive people away from him. Yes, Jesus was convinced and apparently more than a little bit passionate about it as well.
One of the worst feelings in the world for a pastor has to be when someone leaves the church because of you because of something you did or didn’t do or something you said or didn’t say in your sermons. I’ve certainly had my share here at Nassau Church. The first was in the first weeks I was here when someone came to my office to tell me they were leaving because of all the fuss that came with the arrival of the new pastor after four years of an interim. “No one should be that important in a church” was the summary. There have been others and a bit more after the election in 2016. I was being too political in my preaching they told me.
But leaving a congregation, or course, shouldn’t be equated with a widening rift in a relationship with God. That is a heavy and harder thought for any of us to ponder. That any of us would somehow do harm when it comes to someone else’s walk with God. But an even heavier thought, an even harder thought, is to then try to wrap head and heart around the collective nature to it, the collective reality to it. After all, Jesus wasn’t responding just to John, he was responding to the disciples, to all of his followers, and to the church of Jesus Christ ever since. It’s a heavier thought, a harder thought because we know it’s true. The church as a stumbling block. One doesn’t need to take a church history class down the street or look around today very long or far to find examples of the church claiming parochial ownership of the teaching of Jesus, or the church staking an exclusive claim on the gospel, or the church and an “our way or the highway” message, or the church and the relentless urge to make the gospel all about us rather than them. And before anyone thinks I am just pointing fingers elsewhere, we could all read the history of the First Presbyterian Church in Princeton together. It’s our history.
Back in the summer, a journalist who was writing about the Roman Catholic Church’s sacramental theology and decisions about who should receive communion or not wrote that the church had a responsibility to protect the sacrament. I can’t speak to sacramental theology in the Roman Catholic Church but I do know that the sacraments, the grace of God, and the gospel are not ours to protect as if they somehow belong to us. No one who hears that sermon from Jesus wants to be a stumbling block. And the place to start, the first thing to do, the part to work on right away, is worry less about the gospel and us and think more about the gospel and them. All the fiery rhetoric in the world can never distract from this: “whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Yes, Jesus said that too.