26th Sunday in Ordinary Time [Cycle B]
For Reflection: What’s going on here?
Today’s Gospel is situated about two-thirds of the way through Mark’s Gospel. The Gospel of Mark is believed to be the first of the four canonical Gospels to be written, generally estimated to have been put together sometime around 70 CE. (So, about forty years after the death of Jesus.) Much of the material that is included in the Gospel of Mark likewise makes it into Matthew and Luke--the three of these book are referred to as the Synoptic Gospels. Syn = same; optic = view. So, same viewpoint.
In Mark, this current section is part of an overarching ethical discourse. Jesus has just laid out the conditions of discipleship (“Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.”) And he goes on to take advantage of a teaching moment -- two of his disciples arguing about who among them was the greatest -- in order to admonish them that they must become like a child in order to earn the Kingdom. “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all, and the servant of all.”
Clearly, this Kingdom ethic is going to demand some radical change on the part of his followers. In ancient society, a child would have been regarded as having the lowest social standing. And the notion of voluntarily making oneself a servant to others would have struck them as debasing and dishonorable. Then we come to today’s teaching about cutting off body parts. Now it really gets odd.
Am I really supposed to chop off my hand?
In the Gospel of Matthew (Chapter 5), this same advice about morally therapeutic dismemberment is outlined, as part of Jesus’ broad ethical treatise referred to as The Sermon on the Mount. (It also appears in the Gospel of Luke, where the Sermon takes place on a Plain.) Just before Jesus advises his audience that it would be better to pluck out an eye or chop off a hand, he invokes a few well-known parts of the Jewish Law, the Torah.
He begins by saying, “You have heard it said, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment. But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.” Then he goes on, “You have heard it said that you shall not commit adultery. But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Immediately following this -- that is, the very next verse in Matthew -- Jesus continues, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one of your members than to have your whole body thrown into Gehennna. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one of your members than to have your whole body go into Gehenna.” (Matthew 5:21-30)
So if you get angry and are tempted to hit, or even kill someone... you’d better chop off your hand. And if you look at a woman with lust, you’d be better off plucking out your eye. (One can only imagine what other body parts one might lose if one actually acted out the lustful thoughts.) So what’s going on here?
There are two Greek words for anger. One of them means the natural, emotional response you feel when you are upset. Imagine that you find out a neighbor has been abusing his children; more than likely, you will be angry. That’s natural. And that’s NOT the word that the Gospel author uses. Instead, it’s a different word -- one that involves a level of intentionality. It’s more akin to cultivating a grudge or harboring resentment in your heart. A different translation might read, “Whoever cultivates a grudge in his heart will be liable to judgment.”
The same thing with lust. The word used by Jesus does not refer to the instinctual, almost animal (hormonal, neurochemical, physiological) response of finding a person sexually appealing. Rather, the word includes the notion that one is deliberately dwelling on such objectifying imagery. To offer a modern distinction: let’s say you’re a guy at the gym, and you notice that the young ladies on the treadmill are in impressive physical shape. Because they’re in workout attire, you feel an instant sexual attraction to some of them. That’s not the word Jesus is using here. Rather, if you deliberately went to the gym each day at the time you knew certain young women would be there, and positioned yourself on the treadmill behind them, for the express purpose of reducing them to their bodily features... that’s the sort of “lust” Jesus is talking about.
Okay, so what does this have to do with us?
Jesus is challenging his audience to identify certain tendencies in our lives that lead us to sin. Specifically, here, he’s singling out anger and sexual objectification as problematic, but certainly across the whole of the Gospel, there are a range of such sins like envy, pride, and greed. Jesus is asking his listener -- you -- what is it that causes you harbor anger toward your “brother,” whoever that may be? (Perhaps it is an actual blood relative, but maybe it is a coworker, and ex-boyfriend, a boss, or even just a random acquaintance from the bar.)
What is it that allows “anger” to take root in your heart? And how might you “cut” that anger out? Perhaps it is insecurity about your own sense of self-worth. Or fear of rejection. Maybe still it is some deep, unresolved pain from your past -- a raw wound that leads you to be defensive and unhelpfully primed to take offense. Whatever that thing is that might cause you to lash out -- to strike that other person, be it with your words or deeds -- cut that particular thing out of your life.
Returning to the lust example: what is it that continually leads you into suboptimal, even harmful, relationship decisions? Is it drinking too much and failing to respect the lusted-after other person for all of her/his beautiful attributes? Is it spending countless hours staring at old pictures of an ex? Is it engaging in gossip about peers, or envying the blessings of someone else’s relationship? Whatever that thing is that causes you to be less than the person that God made you to be, that the Law (Torah) calls you to be, that Jesus wants so very desperately for you to be... pluck that out.
The great news is: we don’t have to do it alone. Jesus offers his help, and he invites us to support one another through the “rehab” process following this surgery. Think of the Church as a hospital or rehab facility, where all of us, who are recovering from our own amputations, can get better together. Support one another. Give one another hope. Jesus compared himself to a physician, saying he came not for the well, but for the sick. And Pope Francis has called the Church “a field hospital for sinners.” What sort of healing do you need?
Questions for Reflection
1.) When you first heard the part about cutting off hands and plucking out eyes, what was your reaction? Are there any parts of the Gospel that strike you as especially odd or difficult to accept?
2) What sorts of tendencies do you struggle with? Anger? Lust? Greed? Envy? Pride?
3) How might you work on getting the healing you need to remove these proclivities from your own life? And, as importantly, how can you help be a healing presence to others who are going through similar sorts of “surgeries”?