“If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off …. If your foot causes you to sin, cut it off … If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out.” Mk. 9: 42
Today’s Gospel, to put it mildly, is difficult to read.
It is filled with dark and startling images: chopping off hands, plucking out eyes, and cutting off feet.
Why such radical, violent imagery?
I suggest that Jesus spoke these startling words and used these offensive images for a specific purpose:
To get people’s full attention.
Jesus wanted them to be shocked, even appalled, so they would sit up and listen, and to accomplish this, he used imagery that could not be easily forgotten.
Jesus definitely was not promoting self-mutilation.
Instead, he wanted people to begin understanding what his life and mission was truly all about. And he began this teaching, this education by helping them see clearly that he was not dedicated to making people feel more self-righteous, fully capable of lording it over others, and increasingly susceptible to becoming more powerful and self-sufficient.
Instead, his life mission was about revealing, in an unmistakable way, a radically different understanding of who God is and what God wants from each of us.
To put it bluntly, Jesus was interested in helping people do one thing:
Decide to embrace a new set of values.
Decide to welcome a whole new world view.
To accomplish this mission, Jesus became very practical, beginning by emphasizing how some of life’s most essential elements – a person’s hands and feet and eyes – can be made new.
For example, a person’s “hand” conjures up images of one’s own handiwork – what we do or produce, how we make a living. Jesus’ admonition about our hands addresses the ethical issues regarding our work world.
Do we live justly and compassionately in how we approach our jobs? Are we adequately concerned about improving working conditions? Are we sensitive to the issues surrounding suitable pay and sufficient health care? Are we concerned with everyone having the means to find work?
“Feet” summons up images of moving toward a destination, particularly of being citizens of God’s universe. This image can involve parents grappling with how to help their children make healthy life choices. It can involve issues of career change, of retirees considering how to spend leisure hours, of how loving care of the universe we live in can be achieved. All these and more can raise questions about whether our feet are stumbling, rather than carrying us steadily in the direction Jesus is leading us.
The “eye” Jesus speaks of in today’s Gospel implies what attracts our attention. Internet sites are replete with advertisements and attractions that easily draw our attention and wandering eyes can include far more than sexual attraction. Decisions about how one uses time, spends money, and establishes priorities are all based on where the eye is focused.
Taken together, our hands, feet, and eyes are all involved in the way we live our lives. And in our present-day culture, each is tempted to move in a direction that opposes everything Jesus calls us to be and do.
Admittedly, his demands are not convenient, cozy, self-affirming add-ons to whatever else we may hold dear.
Jesus does not offer a happy, feel-good “prosperity gospel” which promises great wealth and achievement. Instead, his offer involves an ultimate, all-or-nothing commitment to values such as charity, forgiveness, compassion, and empathy.
What Jesus asks us to do is singular:
Cut. Chop. Pluck.
Stark and uncomfortable though the words may be, Jesus challenges us to ask ourselves these questions about our life decisions:
What needs to be “cut off”?
What needs to be “chopped off”?”
What needs to be “plucked out”?
What needs to be re-examined and re-viewed in my life?
These questions tell us why Jesus uses stark, even violent, language in today’s Gospel. Because he wants us to do one thing:
Ted Wolgamot, Psy.D.