Pentecost 18 Esther 7.1-6, 9-10; 9.20-22 Mark 9.38-50
This week’s Gospel reading offers us some of the harshest and most graphic language in the New Testament. And the disturbing language comes straight from Jesus’s mouth. It is a disservice if we assume that Jesus means to condemn us with this language.
This passage is not about condemnation; it’s about reality. It’s about what we human beings do. We exclude. We judge. We condemn. We compare. We even designate ourselves as God’s bouncers. In a parish we use the term the gatekeepers for those who take it upon themselves to ensure all is as it should be. As it should be being as it always has been.
Jesus is grimly aware that he has mere days left to prepare his relentlessly undiscerning disciples for what’s coming. You can feel in this Gospel passage, in its exaggerated and violent language, Jesus's growing sense of urgency. What sets Jesus off in this particular instance is his disciples’ complaint that someone else - an outsider – is casting out demons in Jesus’s name.
We tried to stop him, they tell Jesus proudly, because he was not following us. Not following us. Rather than . . . we tried to stop him because he’s not following you, Lord. We tried to stop him because his practice, his path, his way of doing faith, doesn’t look like ours. Oh dear. We know this is not going to be well for the disciples.
The radical nature of Jesus’s openness, inclusivity, and hospitality can be overwhelming. We may think our circle of inclusion is wide enough, then we hear Jesus say Make it wider. Your circle is still too limited and restrictive. And for some this can be most disconcerting. Especially if there is a gatekeeper lurking within who like it as it is now. Whoever does not oppose the beautiful and salvific works of God – mercy, love, kindness, justice, liberation, peacemaking, healing, nurturing – is on Christ’s side. Or more significantly . . . Christ is on their side.
That is the challenge for Christians who love institutional, denominational, doctrinal, and socio-cultural groupings. And if the challenge of recognising God in all people and in all places is one which takes your breath away, beware. Jesus speaks of much more being taken. Jesus says four ominous times It would be better for you - if you were thrown into the sea – maimed - lame -blind in case we’re tempted to dismiss what he has to say. 2 Jesus wants us to think carefully about what it costs to become path clearers.
Stumbling block removers. People of God who actually help each other succeed. Succeed in being people of God. There are times the process of removing a stumbling block from the path of faith can feel like surgery without pain relief. Saying goodbye to a harmful relationship, surrendering a cherished point of view, breaking an addiction, forgiving a family member, making a significant lifestyle change, welcoming the oddball Other – all of these things can feel like deaths as we make way for the path of faith.
Jesus knows what he’s talking about ; it hurts to change. It hurts to cut off the precious, familiar things we cling to for dear life – even as those things slowly kill us. The bottle. The affair. The obsession with money. The decades-old shame. The resentment, the victimhood, the self-hatred, the rigidity. And if we can’t, or simply won’t - we will be thrown out. Tossed away. Like rubbish. Thrown onto the rubbish dump of wasted life. That is the hell being referred to in Mark’s gospel, Gehenna. Gehenna – the valley outside Jerusalem which served as the city’s rubbish dump.
Jesus so wants us to avoid wasting our life. He wants us to rid ourselves of what gets in our way of life. Gets in the way of living. Even if it be a hand – which won’t stop touching something, taking something which is not ours to touch or take. A foot – which keeps taking us to places we have no right to be and away from where we need to be.
An eye – which keeps our focus on what fills us with dissatisfaction and jealousy. When the slave Queen Esther was asked what her request was, she answered Let my life be given me. This is what Jesus wants for us. That we receive our life with the freedom to live our lives fully, not to waste what we have been given, not to throw it away, not to be thrown away, not to live as slaves to work, or ambition, or greed, or jealousy, apathy or disappointment. And in this free, full life Jesus so wants for us, he has another want – that we be salt.
Living in a salt fearing world, Jesus is referring to the kind of salt that Elisha added to the water of Jericho and it became wholesome where neither death nor miscarriage would come from it. This is the salt we are called to be – the kind which brings forth new life, full life. Jesus is telling us to - Preserve what is best. Bring out God’s flavour in the world. When others work for the Kingdom, don’t stumble them.
Make the world taste a better place.