This is some passage, isn’t it? The language is obviously quite strong. The descriptions, severe. From the dramatic imagery and the emphatic tone, it is clear that Jesus is making an important point.
On the surface, it seems straight-forward- that Jesus is warning everyone not to be a stumbling block to others’ faith, especially those who might be vulnerable. This is most certainly true.
But it’s also possible that pulling the camera lens back a bit, Jesus might also be making a larger point about how we are to live as Christians.
Jesus might be describing, in quite colorful terms, the importance of proper discipleship.
No, no, no proper discipleship isn’t about maiming yourself! That’s not what I mean.
What I mean is proper discipleship as an orientation toward the well-being of others, oftentimes at the expense of yourself. It isn’t always easy and one which asks a lot of us. But Jesus spent a lot of time imploring this behavior. He describes good disciples as those who would rather sacrifice their own wholeness than threaten the well-being of the community. In this passage he discusses those things which might be stumbling blocks for others. Being mindful of those stumbling blocks and being willing to remove them is a requirement of proper discipleship.
There are many things we do which could be stumbling blocks for others. In fact, we might not even know they are stumbling blocks. The Psalmist acknowledges this in verse 12, “who can detect one’s own offenses?” It’s not always easy.
But for the greater good we, as disciples of Christ should be mindful of them and seek them out.
A friend of mine is an Army chaplain. And in his work he encountered a lot of soldiers struggling with a variety of issues, but many of them struggle with alcoholism and addiction. So years ago when they were deployed, understanding the heightened stress of the situation, he personally abstained from alcohol during that time in an effort not to be a stumbling block for his unit.
And although he often needed a beer. Really needed a beer, he chose what was best for the group, rather than his own comfort.
Discipleship means focusing more on the whole than on your individual part. It’s a selfless worldview. And that’s not always easy. Especially these days, with self as the focus.
Self, self, self.
Not that these are all bad, mind you. Of course it’s important to take good care of yourself. But Jesus calls us to a life that requires us to reach beyond the self with a focus on the other.
It isn’t easy.
But Jesus never suggested it would be easy. And on top of this, he even suggests that his demands are to take priority over everything else. His commandments are not convenient, cozy, self-affirming add-ons to whatever else you might hold dear. They replace everything, no matter the cost to us.
My friends that isn’t just proper discipleship, its radical discipleship.
Legendary Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer had a lot to say about discipleship. In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer strikes a hopeful tone when he writes of the commandment to follow him.
“Those who follow Jesus’ commandment entirely, who let Jesus’ yoke rest on them without resistance, will find the burdens they must bear to be light. They will receive strength.
Jesus’ commandment is harsh, inhumanly harsh for someone who resists it. Jesus’ commandment is gentle and not difficult for someone who willingly accepts it.”
By grace Jesus Christ calls us to follow him.
But it’s not normal grace.
It is costly grace.
Again, Bonhoeffer writes,
“It is costly, because it calls to discipleship;
it is grace, because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ.
It is costly, because it costs people their lives;
it is grace, because it thereby makes them live.
It is costly, because it condemns sin;
it is grace, because it justifies the sinner.
Above all, grace is costly, because it was costly to God, because it costs God the life of God’s son.”
The Trinity teaches us of God in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Jesus on the cross; God on the cross
That is the ultimate in self-giving love.
And that’s what Jesus is calling us to.
If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off.
If your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off.
If your eye causes you to stumble, cut it off.
These are dramatic commandments and although they are not to be taken literally.
They are to be taken seriously.
Our focus as disciples should always be lasered in on what is in service to the other. To the community.
Jesus explains that it’s better to be without these stumbling blocks-
Than to be thrown into hell.
Now this concept is also one which merits consideration:
Hell is depicted throughout Scripture as a place of torment and judgment. The fiery imagery, the horror of gnashing of teeth, and the eternal pain leaves little to the imagination in terms of its desirability.
Theologians for centuries have argued about whether Hell is a literal place. And I’m certainly not going to wade into the debate.
But I will speak to the theological implications of hell. Theologian Daniel Migliore defines hell as “the terrible weariness and incredible boredom of a life focused entirely on itself.”
Because a preoccupation with self makes it extremely difficult to experience love. And God is love.
So for me, and maybe for others, an eternity without love; an eternity without God. Well, that’s certainly Hell.
Discipleship calls us away from selfishness and toward self-giving. Discipleship calls us to be willing to sacrifice our well-being for the benefit of the community.
Pat Tillman was a linebacker for Arizona State University who as a junior helped his team make it to the Rose Bowl. That year he was voted the Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year.
In the 1998 NFL draft, Tillman was selected with 226th pick to play Safety for the Arizona Cardinals. He started 10 of the 16 games of his Rookie year.
Two years later, in 2000, Sports Illustrated writer Paul Zimmerman picked Tillman to his 2000 All Pro Team after Tillman finished with 155 tackles and 2 sacks, among others.
But everything changed for the young football star the next year when on the morning of Tuesday, September 11th, terrorists launched 4 coordinated attacks on the United States, killing 2,996 people and injuring 6,000 others.
8 months later in May, 2002, Pat Tillman turned down a contract offer for $3.6 million dollars from the Cardinals to enlist in the United States Army.
Soon after, he joined the Army Rangers and was deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Because for Tillman, his personal comforts, his personal career, even his personal safety was secondary to the needs of his country.
For Tillman, what benefitted the community was more important than what benefited him.
And sadly he paid the ultimate price. In April of 2004, Pat Tillman was killed by friendly fire while patrolling the mountains of Afghanistan.
In some ways, the life Pat Tillman lived, the sacrifice he made, was the life Jesus calls us to- an ultimate, all-or-nothing commitment.
It’s daunting to consider, isn’t it? But it’s nevertheless what we are called to do.
If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off.
If your foot, causes you to stumble, cut it off.
If your eye causes you to stumble cut it off.
What is it in your life that is preventing you from living the selfless life Jesus calls us to?
What is distracting you from radical discipleship?
Revisiting the imagery of the passage, it’s easy to interpret this passage as an exaggerated illustration for keeping clear of sin. But maybe the dramatic imagery can be translated into more helpful, practical terms for our lives of faith.
Jesus uses the image of the hand to conjure up images of one’s handiwork, what one does or produces, or how one makes a living. And if that vocation or work is causing others to stumble or keeping you from the life God wants for you, well then maybe Jesus is inviting you to revisit whether it’s something you should be doing. “Cutting it off” in other words, for the sake of Christ’s call. Challenging words for sure.
Jesus uses the image of a foot, to conjure up images of our direction- what moves us toward a destination. Where are we going? What are our aims? Are our goals in life keeping with the goals of being citizens of God’s kingdom? If it’s not, well maybe Jesus is asking us to stop and change course.
Jesus uses the image of an eye, to represent what attracts our attention. Wandering eyes aren’t just in reference to sexual attraction. “Decisions about how one uses time, spends money, and establishes priorities are all based on where the eye is focused.” What are we focusing on, and is that in line with a life pleasing to God?
Jesus calls us to radical discipleship. A discipleship that requires us to focus less on ourselves and our personal needs and more on the needs of others.
These words are convicting and the challenges are great. Jesus has again raised the bar.
But his words are also infused with hope.
Because this self-giving, this self-sacrifice, this way of living will ultimately give us the peace that frees us.