38 John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” 39 But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. 40 Whoever is not against us is for us. 41 For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.
42 “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. 43 If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. 45 And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. 47 And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, 48 where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.
49 “For everyone will be salted with fire. 50 Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
For those who were raised with conceptions of God as an angry overlord who is eager to punish, I know this text can trigger all kinds of past trauma with its talk of unquenchable fire and amputation and hell. So right off the bat, it is important to note that what Jesus is speaking to here is not punishment for certain bad people, but natural consequences for choices we make. This is not about an angry God meting out wrath to people who don’t live up to God’s expectations. This text is Jesus’ attempt to shake his followers awake to understand the reality of the path they are headed down at that moment.
You see, when Jesus speaks of “these little ones”, he’s hearkening back to a few verses before when he brought a child among the disciples, who were arguing about who was the greatest, saying to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me…” (9:37a). Children in this culture were not primarily associated with innocence or naivety. First and foremost, children were known as a class of people without legal protection, without the basic rights of safety and security. They were the ones that Jesus’ culture had made the most vulnerable to danger through systems that were not designed to protect them. And so when Jesus says “it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea” than to cause one of these little ones to stumble, he is not telling them about a punishment God will bring upon those who abuse the most vulnerable among them. Instead, he is waking his followers up to the reality that their fate is inseparable from the fate of the most marginalized members of their community. Their liberation is bound up with the liberation of those most ignored, those most invisible, those most oppressed in their midst. And so to cause one of these little ones to stumble was to willfully march down the path towards one’s own destruction.
Never has this reality been more relevant to us. I remember this month last year wearing a mask for two reasons – first because COVID cases were on the rise in our community, and second because there were multiple wildfires raging in our region, causing the air quality to be dangerous for breathing. What a stark reminder that even if we do everything in our power to stay safe individually, we are only as protected as the most exposed essential workers on the front lines, those most vulnerable to misinformation campaigns about COVID-19, and those the most endangered because of their lack of access to affordable healthcare, the “little ones” among us. And what a jarring wake up call to the reality that those who are fighting hard to divest our society from fossil fuels, Indigenous water protectors marching on Washington and chaining themselves to pipelines under construction, they are also fighting for our own ability to literally breathe clean air that is free from the smoke of climate devastation. Americans would love to believe that each person makes their own destiny. But our experience tells us that this could not be further from the truth in this interconnected web of a world that we live in.
And so I know it doesn’t sound like it, but in this context, when Jesus speaks of amputating body parts that cause us to make these “little ones” stumble, what he is really saying is “I want you to live! And since you don’t see or understand yet that the fate of the least among you is also your own fate, I am using this shocking language to wake you up to reality. Believe me, my beloveds,” Jesus is saying, “it is well worth even the most radical changes to your way of being if it will get to the root of what’s stopping you from seeing your inextricable connectedness to the people, plants, animals, and entire creation around you. It is worth amputating even the parts of your life that you once considered essential to your way of living if it allows you to start caring for the world around you as you would care for yourself, which would make this a place where everyone has what they need, where everyone realizes that their thriving is attached at the hip to the thriving of their neighbor.” Maybe what Jesus meant by “love your neighbor as yourself” is that to love your neighbor is to love yourself. Remember that the salt referenced at the end of this passage was, in Jesus’ day, an element of preservation, a mineral that preserved life. Jesus wants us to stay salty, to preserve the lives of every living thing around us, because that is literally the way we too can preserve our own lives.
I recently heard about a white, working class woman living in Appalachia named Beth Howard who started a movement called “Rednecks for Black Lives.” (“Rednecks for Black Lives,” Southern Crossroads, June 4, 2020.) The term “rednecks” arose in the 1800s as a slur describing poor, white, southern farmers with necks red from the sun, but it was reclaimed by these same people in part during a labor uprising in 1921, when a multiracial coalition of coal miners in Appalachia, which included both working class white people and Black coal miners, wore red bandanas on their necks to identify themselves as pro-union. According to the article I read, “the full force of the government was brought down on these miners in what became known as the Battle of Blair Mountain in West Virginia. Many of them died fighting for a union that never came to fruition.” “I want us to reclaim the word redneck,” Howard told a reporter. She had grown up in a poor mining family in rural Kentucky, and she remembers being enraged that poor people were sacrificed for a few to be rich. Howard says her community had taught poor white people like her to scapegoat people of color for their struggles instead of the real instigators of harm – “billionaires, politicians and big businesses.” But soon, that lie fell apart for Howard when she began to understand the reality Jesus taught here – that her fate was actually literally tied up with her Black siblings who suffered most under the oppressive systems of white supremacy and racial capitalism in our country. Howard realized that her people’s long-simmering resentment towards people of color needed to be amputated for her and her community to truly thrive and find life in the Kin-dom Jesus is creating. She knew the fate of “rednecks”, in her parlance, was inextricably connected to the fate of their Black siblings and neighbors. “And our history… is made up of people rising up together,” Howard said, “that gives us hope — and we need a lot of hope right now.”
What are those things in our lives that keep us from living into the reality that our liberation is bound up with that of others? Is it the myth that every person needs to earn their right to have what they need? Is it the lie of scarcity, that there is not enough to go around? Is it the idea that when it comes down to it, each of us can operate as a human island, a self-sufficient person who never needs to ask for help? What beliefs, assumptions, and practices need to be cut off in your own world to follow in the pathway that will lead to life for all?
And now, take a moment to dream with me. In what ways will you actually experience the abundant life of Christ if you get swept up in the movement to liberate all people, all creation? What is your own personal stake in a world where everyone has what they need? Is it your grandchildren playing outside in the summertime free of wildfire smoke? Is it a society where neither you or your relatives are stressed about how they will pay for the life-saving healthcare they need? Is it a world where your children’s children’s children will never associate the name of Jesus with racism, homophobia, or sexism, but rather inclusion, compassion, justice, and grace? What do you picture in your mind’s eye when you think of how the liberation of “these little ones” will mean liberation for you and your family in the days, weeks, months, and years to come?
As we close this time together, hear the good news: Jesus wants you, wants us, to live, to thrive, to revel in the abundance that God has intended for every living thing. Whatever we lose so that we can walk in this way of Jesus, it is nothing in comparison to the beautiful reality of God’s interdependent kin-dom family that we will get to be a part of building together. This week, start asking God about what needs to be cut off in your life for you to get swept up in God’s liberating way. And keep ever before you those images of your own liberation that will keep you in this good fight. May those visions give us the hope to sustain us in the days ahead. Amen.