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. 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. 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. 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, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.
‘For everyone will be salted with fire. 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.’ (NRSV)
Jesus’ harshest words are often reserved for the faithful. A ‘millstone’ was so heavy it could only be turned by a full-grown beast of burden. Clearly there was little hope of swimming to safety while attached to one! This conversation is taking on shades of terror.
Jesus’ words point to ‘the little ones’. Theirs is a fragile, growing faith. Perhaps the faith of the disciples – though they may not recognise it – is also small. They still catch only momentary, baffled glimpses of all their teacher is doing. This, however, is about the disciple’s relationship with those who understand even less.
Jesus does not refer to an explicit, calculated sabotage. These more subtle stumbling blocks stem from within. Perhaps the disciple’s zealous, well-intended attempt to stop the unknown exorcist is this reality working itself out. Their actions may have made this man’s faith journey unnecessarily difficult.
Jesus leaves the disciples with little doubt that Gehenna – translated here as ‘hell’ – is anything but a good outcome. In fact it is more undesirable than hands, feet, and eyes are desirable. Such gruesome talk of cutting and maiming can be taken seriously – if not literally. After all a literal approach would rapidly see followers of Jesus characterised by their lack of hands, feet, and eyes. Somehow despite this reading – and many zealous followers of Jesus – the church has never been known for such action.
So what is this all about?
Our passage, I suggest, is a stern warning of our potential to make the path of Jesus unnecessarily difficult. Man-made contributions become stones over which people stumble. We do well to take seriously the removal of such obstacles. Jesus’ plea is for the faithful to keep the path to God smooth.
I guess that is why Jesus concludes by considering ‘saltiness’. We are before anything else a people who preserve the gracious, generous, and patient way of Jesus. This foundational call underlies, nurtures and maintains a peace-filled faith community. Without it we proclaim mere human tradition.
And at that point we are no longer characterised by the extravagant love of Jesus.