“There is a crown for those who in times of persecution fight the good fight; there is a crown too for those who in times of peace keep true to their conscience.” – St. Cyprian
Mark 9:38-50: John said to him, ‘Master, we saw a man who is not one of us casting out devils in your name; and because he was not one of us we tried to stop him.’ But Jesus said, ‘You must not stop him: no one who works a miracle in my name is likely to speak evil of me. Anyone who is not against us is for us. If anyone gives you a cup of water to drink just because you belong to Christ, then I tell you solemnly, he will most certainly not lose his reward. But anyone who is an obstacle to bring down one of these little ones who have faith, would be better thrown into the sea with a great millstone round his neck. And if your hand should cause you to sin, cut it off; it is better for you to enter into life crippled, than to have two hands and go to hell, into the fire that cannot be put out. And if your foot should cause you to sin, cut it off; it is better for you to enter into life lame, than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. And if your eye should cause you to sin, tear it out; it is better for you to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell where their worm does not die nor their fire go out. For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is a good thing, but if salt has become insipid, how can you season it again? Have salt in yourselves and be at peace with one another.’
Christ the Lord Jesus is generous. The slightest (or mightiest) good deed done for him or for his Kingdom will not go unrewarded. Our King lavishes his blessings on everyone who lets him. We, as his followers, ought to do the same. Unfortunately, many times we, like the apostle John in this passage, are less generous than our Lord, and concern ourselves with hoarding the grace of God, refusing to give freely what we have freely received (cf. Matthew 10:8), or pettily envying the good that others are doing as if it somehow detracted from the good we are doing. But it is not for us to limit the range of divine benevolence; it is for us to extend it.
With some great leaders it is not necessary to take sides, you can just admire from a distance, but Christ leaves no room for neutrality: “Anyone who is not against us is for us.” Sooner or later, everyone must take sides with Christ or against him; since he alone is the everlasting Lord, no other option remains. The choice must be made. Everything else in life comes and goes, but the gaze of Christ is steady: beckoning, inviting, challenging, and hoping that we will give in to the reign of his Divine Heart.
Christ the Teacher St. Mark spared no words. Here, as in many other passages, he sprays his readers with monumental lessons one right after the other, like machine-gun fire. First he specifies the grave responsibility of those who lead others astray by their teaching or bad example – he clearly recognizes that it will occur; otherwise he wouldn’t have been so vehement in his warning. Second, he vividly describes sin as what it really is: an invitation to hell. (Gehenna was the public incinerator on the outskirts of Jerusalem, a valley that had been used for human sacrifice during royal apostasies in Old Testament times. Since then it was considered good only for worthless and rotten refuse, which smoldered stubbornly and refused to be completely burnt up – a striking image for the state of eternal separation of a soul from God, and the unending spiritual frustration such a separation entails.)
The point about sacrificing one’s eye or hand if they cause you to sin in order to avoid sin would have been perfectly understood by his hearers. Eyes and hands don’t cause sin; sin is a decision of the heart to prefer one’s own will against God’s will. It always indicates that we are attached to some good and valued thing (after all, these members of our body are most precious to us) so much that we prefer it to something much better – friendship and communion with God. Thus, at times a certain relationship provides us with comfort or pleasure, even though it leads us to violate God’s commandments. Or perhaps we treasure our reputation or popularity so much that we compromise our Christian values in order to protect it. To give up such obstacles to our friendship with Christ hurts – as if we were cutting off our hand or gouging out our eye. But our Lord teaches us that pain is nothing compared with the sorrow of cutting ourselves off forever from God’s love.
Christ the Friend Real friends tell each other the truth – even when it hurts. Here Christ shows that he is a real friend, making it perfectly clear even for the most obtuse of his listeners that sin is real, hell is real, and unchecked sin leads to hell. These are harsh sounding words for us gentle moderns. And yet, sometimes, modern gentility is a mask for selfish fear: we are afraid to tell our friends the truth about Christ because they might reject us. Christ faced the same fear (Do you think everyone who heard him welcomed his teachings? Certainly not those who crucified him), but he overcame it with the strength of his love. He knows that we need to know the whole story; the truth will set us free – if we let it. He’s hoping that we will.
Christ in My Life We are so used to sin, Lord. It swirls all around us and constantly lulls us into a dangerous mediocrity. You hated sin – you still hate sin, because you know what it does to our souls and to your heart. Teach me to call sin by its true name, first and foremost in my own life. Teach me to hate it out of love for you and your Kingdom. Never let me fear seeking your forgiveness…
You often talked to your followers about rewards. It is no sin to look forward to heaven. You are leading me there. All of earth’s joys are whiffs of heaven. Dear Jesus, I believe that you died on the cross just so we could look forward to eternal life with you in heaven. Thank you for the invitation. I accept: Thy will be done…
I am foolish to be reluctant to bear witness to you with my words and actions. What greater thing could I do for my neighbor than shine a little bit of your light around them, seasoning their life with the salt of your love? I am still attached to others’ opinions of me. Purify my heart, Lord. Give me courage, humility, and zeal. With the love of your heart, inflame my heart…
PS: This is just one of 303 units of Fr. John’s fantastic book The Better Part. To learn more about The Better Part or to purchase in print, Kindle or iPhone editions, click here. Also, please help us get these resources to people who do not have the funds or ability to acquire them by clicking here.
Art for this post on Mark 9:38-50: Cover of The Better Part used with permission. Fallen angels in hell, John Martin, circa 1841, PD-US author’s life plus 100 years or less, PD-Worldwide, Wikimedia Commons.