THE LANGUAGE OF LESSONS
Mark 9: 38-50
This week has had some extraordinary highlights for me. On a local level the Celebration Community Synagogue in Celebration, Florida sent their warmest greetings to our congregation on their holiest of weeks, observing Yom Kippur- the Day of Atonement. Dr. Christeson went to that faith community this week to offer greetings and music. Before he came back here, people of the Synagogue thanked God for our congregation and sent their warmest greetings. How wonderful. We are glad to have offered our greetings and prayers in return. So remember the Celebration Synagogue this week. On a national level I was most moved by the extraordinary visit of the Catholic Holy Father, Pope Francis. Taking his cues from Christ himself from all I could tell, his modes of transportation and of accommodations were humble, his words were incisive but kind, and he welcomed people of every age and income, but he had a particular affinity for children and the poor, like Jesus. He warmly greeted people of other faiths and even of no faith. I was moved by his visit, his words, and his presence. He deeply affected the crowd at his speeches, with his sermons, and all who were in his presence.
As we move back in time to the days of Jesus, even Jesus would not have had such security or such notice. There were fake holy men and fake healers around, but religious leaders had become jaded about anyone, or anything new religiously. Still if we could go back in time, how do you think you would have felt if you were near Jesus? Would you have been in awe of his manner and his stories? How would you have reacted to his teachings? And would he have changed you? This question is hypothetical of course since we cannot go back in time. But in our study of Scripture, to not take into account the culture, the practices, and the historical setting is to not get the truest reading of God’s Word. Since we can’t be in the actual crowd where Jesus once was, let’s get as close to him and his message as we can.
The first thing we notice is that Jesus was a master of language. How did a poor Jewish family raise a boy who was a master of language? You say, “Well, he was the Son of God,” but for his early days he was simply Jesus of Nazareth, son of Mary and Joseph. It is likely he and his father went to work in a Roman city named Sephoris as carpenters or stone masons. They were skilled, but a little backwater village like Nazareth would not have had enough work to sustain many families. Sephoris was a large Roman city north of Nazareth. It would be there where they would meet people—both skilled and unskilled, both rich and poor, both Jew and Roman—who would enhance any education Jesus would have gotten from Torah or from home. He would hear expressions (like we hear expressions), and he would listen to them; when the time was right, he began to use them. Some of the expressions would be what are called “idioms,” that is, expressions known by people of a period of time, but sometimes not understood years later. For example in the time of Charles Dickens and earlier there were expressions like “Dead as a doornail.” In our day people wonder, “What’s a doornail?” After Charles Dickens, an expression came into use even into the 20th century: “I did something wrong, and mom gave me the Dickens!” It was an expression based on the huge number of words and books that Dickens wrote, because he was paid by the word! An idiom is someone saying “He kicked the bucket” to indicate death; or when a politician tries to reach people “from Wall Street to Main Street.” Those are idioms. There are also figures of speech, known as hyperboles, which are exaggerated comparisons. For example: one pop song from 1989 by a group called the “B-52s” has a verse that says:
“Hop in my Chrysler, it’s as big as a whale, and it’s about to set sail!
I got me a car, it seats about 20 so come on and bring your jukebox money!”
Virtually nothing about that description means what it says literally; it means what it means through figures of speech! If we say something’s as big as a whale, it means, “really big,” not to pull out a measuring tape! If we say the car is “about to set sail” it means it’s about to drive away, not that it was seaworthy!
And to say his Chrysler seats about twenty, he’s not seriously thinking that 20 can fit in a four-door sedan! He’s just saying his car was roomy! No one needs to explain lyrics like those; we get them. But how many times do people go to the Bible and say: “God said it, I believe it, that settles it!” How unfortunate. Sometimes things the Bible says don’t mean what they say, they mean what they meant to its first century listeners. If you read Revelation 7, for example, it says there’s a gathering of persons “sealed for God” in Heaven that number 144,000.” There are some religious groups who believe that is the literal number of those who can get into heaven, so there is a battle to see who will stay in heaven and who can win a place in heaven and knock someone out since the number who can go there is just 144,000. But if you read Revelation 7 and think it doesn’t mean what it says, it means what it meant; it lets our measured minds think that 1000 times 12 is 12,000, and it included masses of people from the 12 tribes of Israel, multiplied with the countless witnesses led to Christ by the 12 apostles 12 times 1000—making 144,000 not a limiting number, but a number of completeness. When Revelation was written by John around 90 A.D. it meant: “not anyone who calls Jesus ‘Lord’ will be missing in Heaven.” So it’s a comforting statement instead of a threatening one! So being aware of idioms and figures of speech are important. Jesus once told a man in the next chapter of Mark, chapter 10, that “it is harder of a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” Can you imagine a camel ever, in your wildest dreams, going through the eye of a needle? Yet I believe there are some rich Christians, who’ve been generous with others, who are part of God’s Kingdom now. But Jesus is using a figure of speech, addressing one man, likely with rich, self-absorbed men listening! So we would be wise when we turn to the Holy Word to consider whether Jesus is speaking in parables, or in similes, or in metaphors before we decide what he means.
In the passage read today, Jesus uses exaggerated language again to make a point: “If anyone causes one of my followers to sin, it would be better if a millstone were wrapped around his neck and he is thrown into the sea.” Of course that would be a horrible death; but Jesus does not believe in murder. Jesus is giving examples to make a point, not saying what he would do! Do people in our day know what a millstone is? A stationary heavy stone was on the bottom with a millstone on the top that moved in a circle, grinding grain! Millstones were very heavy. With that knowledge, we come to the tough sentence in Mark 9: 43- “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off! It is better to enter the next life maimed than to go to hell with both hands.” I don’t know any priest, or the Pope, or any minister, pastor, or chaplain seeking to follow Jesus who would command or recommend for someone to do that. The words are to make a strong point, not to take what the Bible says literally. Let me illustrate that danger of taking the Bible literally. The story is told of a man who decided that he would believe and follow every word of the Bible as if it were the actual words of God for him that day. So he started a new day with that mindset. Reaching for his Bible, he decided he would open it randomly, put his finger on a passage, and follow God’s guidance for him. So he closed his eyes, opened his Bible and let his finger drop onto the page. It said: “Judas went out and hanged himself.” Well, he decided, that time his plan didn’t work too well. So he decided to try it again. He closed his eyes, opened his Bible, and put if finger on this passage: “Go and do likewise.” It doesn’t work to take words, even holy words, literally. It works to take them in the context they were given, and to consider them carefully.
Next, Jesus goes on in Mark 9 with these words, and now we’re prepared to hear them with the right meaning: “It is better for you to enter the afterlife lame than with two feet and be thrown into hell.” He goes on and makes me wince if I were to take him literally: “If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out.” Literalists would conclude that a lot of people who lusted after someone, or coveted the car, home, or clothes of another, should pluck out one of their eyes as self-punishment. Is that what Jesus means?
What is the point of Jesus’ strong message? When we, for example, ask God to “Lead us not into temptation” in the Lord’s Prayer, it asks the Almighty not to keep testing our resistance to sin. As much as we love the ideas of grace, forgiveness, and of Jesus paying the price for our sins, the best defense against sin is to say “no” to people and situations that urge us to do something wrong. Just saying “no” is best. Jesus’ extreme descriptions of what should happen to those who tempt others to sin make me shudder. As our Jewish friends took account of their sins this week, we too do well to not tempt others, but also not to take the bait of temptations concerning sex, or money, or power. Jesus came that we may have life, and have it abundantly. As Cara demonstrated in her children’s sermon two weeks ago, when we do something wrong, it’s like a sharp pencil that pokes a whole in a paper plate. The pencil may get removed when someone forgives us, but the plate is still pierced.. Consider well Jesus’ language, and Jesus’ presence with you now. Love is powerful, and forgiveness is welcome, but staying clear of trouble is golden.
Jeffrey A. Sumner September 27, 2015
Let us pray:
Dear Holy God: although we are not holy, you ask us to keep living to a high standard: one where we stay connected with you, reach out to others, and seek to be not just ordinary examples of persons, but extraordinary examples of Christians. Those who accept the invitation will seek to shine the light of Christ in the world; yet if or when they fail, may what they learn, and who they reach, bring messages of hope and forgiveness, for we need those too. Thank you, Almighty Lord, now and forever. Amen.