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”.