Tuesday, February 10, 2015

"If your eye causes you to stumble..." (Mark 9:42-50)

Today's Gospel is of course proof that no-one really takes the whole of Scripture literally. "If your
St Lucy - Domenico di Beccafumi (1521)
hand causes you to stumble, cut if off...if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out!" Of course Jesus can't mean this literally. So we end up with a sense that this text means we have to...get serious about things, or something.

In a public lecture here at the Yale Divinity School last year however, Notre Dame New Testament scholar Candida Moss suggested that the almost universal effort to spiritualize this confronting text from Mark may not be as well grounded as we tend to assume. In "The Righteous Amputees: Salvation & Sinful Body in Mark 9" (which I am hoping may show up as part of a forthcoming book), Moss pointed to evidence that quite a few ancient medical and philosophical commentators could see the removal of an offending body part as appropriate for moral or therapeutic reasons. So - perhaps Jesus meant it too?

I don't recall Moss going in this direction in the lecture, but it has occurred to me that there were many people in a first century Mediterranean setting living in grinding poverty, without adequate health care, and subject to the systematic as well as the arbitrary violence of occupation, who would have found themselves one-handed, one-footed, or one-eyed without having faced any real dilemmas about the matter, prior to being in it at least.

For such hearers of these sayings, their significance was not merely spiritualized, but on the other hand would not in all likelihood have implied the need for further voluntary mutilation. Rather they might have functioned as a sort of beatitude: "you have only one eye? Better far to enter the kingdom with one eye than to be two-eyed and cast into hell." "You have only one foot? Better to stumble towards the kingdom than run towards hell." And so on.

There is certainly something to ponder here regarding disability, but today in a group without such obvious experiences visible, I will fall back on offering us a different version of the spiritualizing route to consider these sayings. While we have hands, eyes, and feet, each of us has experiences of difficulty and suffering which affect our capacity to live, and to serve others. Our psychological or emotional limits, imposed or inherent, can also affect how we perceive ourselves and our capacity to progress to the kingdom. The Gospel however suggests we should take courage however we find ourselves, and use who we are and what we have. It does not mean that suffering or oppression are justified or to be celebrated, but that our real embodied existence, even if it results from them, always offers cause for thanksgiving nonetheless.

The other reading, from 2 Timothy, captures something of this same message, reminding each "Timothy" who apparently lacks confidence not to despise their own gifts; for "God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline" (2 Tim 1:7). So whatever it may be, let us "rekindle the gift of God that is within" us (v.6) as we progress towards the kingdom, just as we are.

[Preached at St Luke's CHapel, Berkeley Divinity School at Yale, February 10 2015]