What starts out with the disciples trying to score points with Jesus for stopping someone who is doing the work of the kingdom – healing and casting out demons – ends with Jesus telling us all to be salted with fire! In between there is all this talk of stumbling around and lopping off limbs, tearing out eyeballs and being thrown into “hell”: all in all, a fun day with Jesus on the road to Jerusalem.
This is all a part of a longer section of Mark’s gospel concerned with discipleship – faithful discipleship. That is, What is expected of those of us who would call ourselves Christians? This really is a question about what it means to be human. We are to be spiced up, healed and purified by fire and salt. Oh yeah, and stop stumbling around.
Fire in the ancient world was used to purify things. Still is. Get rid of that deadly E. coli bacteria with fire, lots of fire. Just as we were all eating our spinach fresh and loving rare hamburgers, now we are told to boil the spinach to death and go back to well-done burgers.
Which bring us to salt. Salt was used to preserve foods, extend shelf life if you will. It was also used to spice things up. And finally, salt was used medicinally.
Altogether these sayings on fire and salt suggest several things. Healing within the community of Christ is necessary to be a disciple of Jesus – especially healing that is reconciliation rather than division and challenging one another’s credentials. (We might note the vast difference in meaning between Jesus’ “Whoever is not against us is for us,” and the more popular, “You are either with us or against us.”) Further, the salt that flavors us distinctively as Christ’s own people is meant to keep us from blending in with the surrounding culture. This distinctiveness implies eliminating – lopping off – those things that cause us to stumble (skandalon in Greek) – things that get in the way of being good and faithful disciples so that we can all do the work of the gospel. The contribution of Christians to the health of the world depends on our own wholesomeness. The life of the world depends on us.
Another metaphor for all of this might be pruning. We need to prune away those things that block us from following Jesus and fulfilling our Baptismal Covenant so that we can grow in those ways that make us more human. The Christian life is a life of following and pruning – pruning and following. This pruning is not so much for our sake as for the sake of the gospel.
Most of what needs to be pruned away is a modern world that teaches self-centeredness and self-reliance, independence, as the key to the fullness of life. Whereas Jesus calls us to be those people who dare to say that the secret of life – and death – is giving oneself away: reaching out to others, to the world and to God. It is a call to a radical dependence on God. God has gifted us with himself – the Word became flesh and dwelt among us – and if we wish to achieve fulfillment, we, too, must give ourselves away. Moral progress comes only as we learn to acknowledge life as a gift – not earned or achieved – but given.
To be wrapped up in ourselves, self-centered and autonomous, says Jesus, quite simply is hell. In the text, the word is actually “Gehenna” – which is a place. Gehenna is a valley outside Jerusalem, which to this very day is a burning, worm-infested garbage dump. It also used to be the site for human sacrifices to the god Molech. There is always fire smoldering in this valley, and over time it became a geographic metaphor for what happens to those people who have little regard for others, the environment, and the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jesus.
It is interesting to note that Gehenna is a product of our own creation. People go to the edge of a cliff and toss all their personal refuse over the cliff. We are guilty of this – dumping our personal stuff on others, on the earth and on God. This dumping is sin. Sin, says our Baptismal service, is those things that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God, including God’s creation.
Sin is related to temptation. So, when gas is cheaper we think we can go back to pouring even more pollution into the earth’s atmosphere and pay less for the privilege. Hell, it turns out, is of our own creation and is determined in the here and now. Hell is not some future destination. We manufacture hell every day for those who are hungry, those who have no health insurance, those who suffer from disease fostered by toxic pollution, and with our the capability of nuclear arms to destroy this planet.
And hell is not a condition that affects just the individual; hell exists collectively in human society as well. Hell is the drive toward self-reliance, self-autonomy, whether of individuals, communities, churches, governments or nations. The Anglican priest and poet John Donne said it best some 360 years ago: “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”
So, the answer to the question, Why is Jesus talking about hell and cutting off limbs and plucking out eyes? To impress upon us the importance that what we are doing right here and now matters. That all that we do and all that we say has eternal consequences.
We can choose to create hell, or to become purified by fire and seasoned with the salt of Jesus. We can squabble over who is the greatest and who can or cannot heal and cast out demons, or we can welcome everyone who does the work of Christ who has already redeemed the whole world on the cross. We can be those people who hold on to all we have, or become those people who give ourselves away. We do this not for our sake but for the sake of the gospel, for others and the world.
We do this to become people of fire and salt. As we read in today’s gospel, “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”