Pentecost 18 (B)
Today we are confronted with some seriously difficult words:
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, pluck 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 the worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.
Hardly ‘Jesus meek and mild.’ What provokes him to such difficult words?
To put them into context, we need to go back to last week’s reading. If you remember, we read about how the disciples argued amongst themselves over which of them was greatest – who was closest to Jesus and thus positioned for a place of influence when the Kingdom finally came. Jesus, confronting them, declared “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he put a little child in their midst and said, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
Keep in mind that society in Jesus’ time did not regard children quite as we do today. Unless, I imagine, they were your own, children were not generally seen as precious or important, but as having no social standing in their own right, and so of little worth. By putting a child in their midst, Jesus is telling them that to welcome him into their lives and so to draw close to God, has nothing to do with being drawn into a circle of prestige as they imagine. It has rather everything to do with drawing close to those who have no standing in the world, the unrecognized, the ones of little worth.
Imagine Jesus saying these things in private room, surrounded by those closest to him. Perhaps a moment of quiet follows as the words sink in. Suddenly John suddenly breaks the silence. “Teacher,” he says, “we saw someone casting out demons in your name and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us” – that is, even though he was doing our work of healing, we put a stop to his work because we did not recognize him as one of the privileged inner circle. It is right here that Jesus steps up the urgency of his message a few notches: “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones,” he says, pointing again to the child “it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea” – and the rest we have already heard.
What sparks Jesus off? John’s words indicate that the twelve still misunderstand something essential. John is looking for Jesus’ approval when he tells him of the man they stopped because he was not an officially recognized member of the ‘in’ group. The disciples still equate blessing – which does indeed mean being ‘set aside’ – they still think of their ‘being set aside’ by Jesus as offering a seat of special privilege and privileged authority.
Let’s consider once more the child which Jesus put in their midst. What did he mean when he told his disciples that to welcome this child is to welcome him – and so to be close to the Father? We understand, now, because of Jesus’ teaching, something that was never obvious in the world before Jesus and is still far from obvious: that the outcast, the sinner, the impure, the poor, the helpless, are closer to God than the rich, the privileged, the powerful. At least, we understand this intellectually, even if not very often practically: that the ‘little ones,’ those who have no standing in this world, are closer to God than the ones on whom the world bestows authority. But this is not because God loves the weak more than the strong. There is nothing about poverty or weakness that makes a person intrinsically more loveable to God. So what is the point of Jesus’ teaching? To welcome the ones without standing is to welcome him because he himself – Jesus himself – is one such person. Jesus, who the disciples know and believe to be the Messiah, God’s anointed – he himself has no standing in the world. He himself, and so also the Father, is one on whom the world bestows no authority. To welcome the child is to draw close to God because God himself is, as it were, an invisible one: invisible because, like a slave or a child, no one seems to recognize him, even when he is right there.
My friends, we are given one purpose in life – that is to love God and love one another. It is, in other words, to make Christ visible in this world and in this life. It is to give authority to God only when we serve God by doing God’s work in the world. And we do this, not by serving those whom the world serves, but by serving those whom the world counts as nothing: the powerless, the voiceless, the invisible people. It is then we prove the power of love, when we serve those whom the world does not see, or counts for nothing.
On Sunday November 8th, we will host a Tea Talk in our hall featuring Fr. Bruce Bryant-Scott, who heads up the refugee sponsorship committee of our diocese. I have invited him to help us discern how we are going to respond to the ‘refugee crisis;’ how we as a parish will get involved. We know that we must respond in some way, we must serve those who, having had to flee their home, have lost their place in the world. There will undoubtedly be many complications. But the demand is simple: we are called to welcome all those who have no place in the world – the widow, the orphan, and thus also, plainly, the refugee.
Finally, what about those difficult words with which we began? Jesus is warning his disciples, warning us: If our hand grasps after the hand of the world, cut it off; if our eye seeks the eye of the world, pluck it out. Being weakened in finite things as we serve the weak; becoming invisible in mortal things as we serve the invisible, strengthens us in our calling to serve the suffering and invisible One, who is our God. Cutting off the hand of worldly power by loving the powerless, draws us into the Love of God. Plucking out the eye of worldly ambition by loving those the world overlooks, draws us into the Light of God. So let us love one another; and let us love all who are refugees in this world, in Jesus’ name.