Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were put around his neck and he were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed than with two hands to go into Gehenna, into the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut if off. It is better for you to enter into life crippled than with two feet to be thrown into Gehenna. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. Better for you to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into Gehenna, where 'their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.'
What did Jesus mean here by ‘sin’?
Most would reflexively answer that he meant an egregious failure to be altruistic – to engage in murder or assault for instance, or to be insensible of the dire needs of others. For this, some of us might agree (on a really bad day), eternal damnation is justifiable and proportionate.
But in Jesus’s time, the concept of sin had not yet been narrowed to ‘being a nice person’. Sin principally meant a violation of one of the 600+ rules of Torah. Those rules certainly included a prohibition against murder and a prescription for altruism (“care for the widow and orphan”) but also included a great many rules we would consider arbitrary and that we violate without hesitation today: keeping kosher and keeping the Sabbath, for instance.
We might be inclined to take this passage at face value: that some of us are going to hell (undoubtedly assuming we will find a loophole for ourselves). Some of us will dismiss this passage (and perhaps all of faith) altogether for its apparent harshness. We should look deeper.
So, if not a stern warning to follow Torah impeccably, what might this passage mean?
In the last line, Jesus is quoting the very last line of Chapter 66 of Isaiah. In fact, it is the second-to-last line of the entire Book**. That part of Isaiah is actually written by an author that biblical scholars call ‘Trito-Isaiah’ – one of three authors of the Book of Isaiah. Almost all of Chapter 66 is an extraordinary, poetic message of hope for the exiled Israelites. They will return to Jerusalem and they, together with all Gentiles, will enjoy prosperity and peace in this kingdom of God. According to Trito-Isiah, it is the nasty Canaanites, with their sacrifices to Ba’al, the god of fertility, that will be disgraced - burned outside the city gates in Gehenna, where (ironically) Canaanites traditionally had sacrificed their firstborn to Ba’al on pyres. They have no faith in the one true God.
Another hint appears in the first line of the Gospel passage. Jesus is warning those who make those “who believe him” to sin.
In the last line (which did not make the Lectionary version), Jesus says if salt loses its taste, you cannot restore it with seasoning. In other words, there is no substitute for salt.
We reflexively assume Jesus is warning everyone to be altruistic or suffer terrible consequences at the hands of an angry god. More likely, he is exhorting us to take our faith seriously. Failure won’t literally land you in Sheol, Hades or Gehenna, but the consequences are nonetheless severe. Faith should be the most important thing in our lives. We should not allow anything to get in our way. There is no substitute for faith once lost.
** interestingly, Jesus is misquoting. Where Trito-Isaiah says, “their fire”, Jesus says, “the fire”.
Jesus and his disciples left from there and began a journey through Galilee, but he did not wish anyone to know about it. He was teaching his disciples and telling them, “The Son of Man is to be handed over to men and they will kill him, and three days after his death the Son of Man will rise.” But they did not understand the saying, and they were afraid to question him.
They came to Capernaum and, once inside the house, he began to ask them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they remained silent. They had been discussing among themselves on the way who was the greatest. Then he sat down, called the Twelve, and said to them, “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.” Taking a child, he placed it in their midst, and putting his arms around it, he said to them, “Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but the One who sent me.”
The second part of this Sunday’s Gospel invites a commentary of pious drivel.
Did humanity need Jesus to tell us to be humble or to be kind to children or to each other? As a firm believer in the inspired nature of Scripture and in the truth of the Incarnation, this is simply unbelievable to me.
Every major religion comes to the same principal conclusion: All of creation, including humanity, emerges from the same Source and returns to the same Source. We have a divine inheritance. In Eastern religions, this is usually expressed as full-blown identification: humanity is part of the divine. The self is just part of the great Self in the Hindu Upanishads. The recognition that the ego is illusion is a major goal in Buddhism. In Western religions, the divine remains distinct from us, but there is a tight connection: God made us in His image, God declared us His own at Mount Sinai and that He would dwell with and within us, His Son became incarnate – both human and divine, Jacob’s ladder formed a bridge between earth and heaven, and at Jesus’s death the veil between the Holly of Holies and the rest of the world would tear in two.
In this Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus declares that he will die and rise again. He returns to the Source and emerges from It effortlessly and the implication is that we will too. This is immediately followed by an exhortation to understand that any sort of dualism is simply wrong: there is no greatest or least, blessed or cursed, there is not even a distinction in the mind of God between sinner and saint. How would we live if we understood this in our bones? We would be compassionate - not because it is commanded by a demanding god ready to punish us for failure; and not because it will benefit us in an afterlife, but because we are all one and one with God. When we receive a child, we receive ourselves, we receive each other, and we receive God.