October 1, 2006
One of these Little Ones
by Julianne Stokstad
Fifteen hundred years ago there was a Christian teacher who taught his students a lesson this way. He had them all stand in a large circle all facing towards the inside. Next, he told the students to begin slowly moving together, one step at a time, towards the center, toward God. As they moved inward, towards the center, the circle got smaller and smaller until the students were shoulder to shoulder. The lesson: you can't get closer to God without getting to closer to each other.
Today's lesson from the somewhat inscrutable scripture is about living closer, about living in church community. It is about discipleship. I must say straight out, I am absolutely appalled and put off by the rough language and violent images Jesus used to instruct his disciples in this passage. Okay, these were images from a violent time, a time of- an eye for an eye -retribution theology. They come from a time where Romans hung criminals to die on a cross. But this scripture is not about cutting off someone else's hand or foot, but ones own. It certainly does get ones attention. And it clearly cannot be taken literally. Do you know any blinded, one handed or one footed Christians? I can't decide if it is a threat or a promise, though I have strong suspicions about the answer.
This passage follows directly after the last several weeks' lectionary scriptures in which first Jesus told his disciples they must carry their cross if they want to follow him. Then he told them they must welcome the weak and vulnerable, even those weak and vulnerable parts of themselves, in order to find places in the kingdom. Jesus now gives further instruction on discipleship and having enough self-awareness to get rid of our own bad stuff.
Traditional interpretation says these sayings are warnings against the causes of sin. The hand, the foot, the eye were considered by Jews to be sites of sinning. The hand was associated with theft, fraud, forgery; the foot with robbery, persistent theft; the eye with adultery and sexual misconduct. For centuries, this text and others like it have been used to keep people to keep people in line. The punishments for sinfulness are clearly laid out: if you sin you can expect violent payback; you can expect to be dumped into hell with eternal fire and worms, torture and mutilation. It is better to mutilate oneself. What is a liberal Protestant church in the 21st century to do with this passage?
Markan scholar Ched Meyers in his book, Unbinding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark's Story of Jesus, challenges us to understand this passage in new way. He says Mark is using the metaphor of the human body for community, rather like Paul does in Corinthians, where hands, feet and eyes are also mentioned as part of the body of Christ. Mark is not calling for physical, literal amputation of the sinful parts of ourselves. This lesson lays out a vision for an inclusive community with the understanding that in order to be radically inclusive and tolerant of others, some serious healing will need to take place within the body that is the church. This scripture is both a threat and a promise. The scripture makes us take our lives seriously because every act has consequences on the community both for the other person and for us.
I'd like to go back to the circle lesson and bring it here. Get into your mind's eye the image of us here in this church holding hands, forming a rather circuitous circle at communion. In this circle that is our community, we need to look both outwardly and inwardly. On this worldwide communion Sunday we can imagine Christians all around the earth holding hands and looking at each other and then looking outward.
First Jesus asks us to look around and see who is in the circle and who is not. Jesus calls for an attitude of inclusivity to those who are outside our circle. This is not our usual way to stand facing, looking outward and it is indeed hard to notice who is not here. The scripture tells us that our ideas about inclusivity needs to be radically reshaped. We are to be tolerant of those doing even the smallest simplest things in the name of Christ, even when they do them very differently than we do. Can we accept good works of others with an openness that transcends religious boundaries and peoples? Can we be tolerant of other faith experiences of the presence of God in Christ even though they may not call it by Christ's name?
Now in your mind's eye, turn and face towards the center of the circle. Jesus calls us to become self-aware and see how our attitudes and actions might be a stumbling block for the "little ones". The Greek word for stumbling block is skandalon, from which we get scandal. The"little ones" Jesus refers to are not children, but the beginners on their spiritual journeys, the new Christians.
When I was a beginner, I was seriously turned off by the church because of what I saw as self-righteous hypocrisy in many in the church I was attending. I watched them say one thing and then do another and I blamed the church. Only much later, did I come to recognize hypocrisy is something all humans must struggle with and I began to see how easy it is to judge others and how difficult it is to see one's own hypocrisy. The faithful need to continually reflect together on what is important and what is not important and it is a constant challenge because we live in especially fast changing times.
Looking outward it is so much easier to see the hypocrisy of other traditions especially the ones that are less tolerant and inclusive than we are. It is much much harder to see where we are hypocritical. Jesus encourages self-reflection within community.
Here is something I have been reflecting on for the last week. We are a mission church. One of the works we are justly proud of developing is Pilgrim Park. This low-income housing facility was built with the vision of helping those who had low income and needed help to live in Marin County. For 35 years it has been right here, next door to our church.
I was saddened that only a handful people from our church came to the Pilgrim Park picnic last Saturday. This time it was even in our courtyard, and I felt like we were hosting them. What is behind this very low attendance, I wonder? Do we know how we in the church are perceived by the Pilgrim Park residents? Might our distance from them be seen as lack of interest, as racism or classism? Might we be hypocritical? Our mission work is done with little or no interaction with those we are helping. What is the motivation behind our mission work?
Underlying all these instructions for discipleship in Mark is the requirement for humility to work out our loving discipleship in the world. Jesus pointed out the simplest most humble action of giving a cup of water in his name was good enough. That involves direct contact. Simple kindness and humility counters the unconscious arrogance and righteousness we can get or be seen to have. With humility comes an openness to love, perhaps love in ways we had not known before. Paul reminds us "love does not insist on its own way but rejoices in the truth.
Finally back to the circle. I'd like to end with a poem:
He drew a circle that shut me out--
rebel, heretic, thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win
We drew a circle that took him in.