38 John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” 39 But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. 40 Whoever is not against us is for us. 41 For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.
42 “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. 43 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. 45 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.47 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, 48 where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.
49 “For everyone will be salted with fire. 50 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.”
Last week we looked at Jesus’ quote, “The first shall be last and the last first.” I realized in discussion this week in FIRL that it would be easy to read this statement as making it a virtue to be last. But if being last is the new first, it still sets up a human hierarchy of goodness before God. That just changes the rules of the competition. The ‘winner’ has just been reversed to a race for last instead of a race to first. (I had a professor tell us that Christians are in trouble when there are two Christians and only one chair to give up.) It is still a race and it is still a human projection upon what Jesus is teaching.
I believe Jesus’ main point is that human ways of determining worth do not apply to God. First and last are secular measures. There is no more virtue before God in being first or last. The value in being willing to be last is the affirmation of God’s love to all people. It is a concrete way to notice and know the people the world would ignore. It is a concrete way to express the faith that our own worth resides with God rather than any secular ranking. The point is noticing and knowing outside of the world’s values rather than getting spiritual credit for our humility.
This is not a natural way of living. We find thousands of ways to try to determine where we stand with God— Who is in and who is out— Who is saved and who is going to hell. Jesus introduced something new, something supernatural, to human functioning and it takes considerable spiritual reminding and spiritual discipline to create space in our being for God’s way of loving. Jesus’ ministry was an ongoing process of God breaking into and breaking apart our human, self destructive ways of living. Today’s passage is yet another example.
The passage opens with the disciples trying to get noticed. They wanted their status as Jesus’ disciples to give them extra status in the world—and they thought Jesus would approve of their ‘protection’ of his power. “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” They wanted exclusive rights to the power of healing and were upset that healing could take place without them. Never mind that the disciples had just failed to cast out demons in verse 18 (“ I asked your disciples to cast it out, but they could not do so.”)
In real life, this kind competition has led to great harm. Instead of rejoicing in kindness and healing, church’s argue about who has true scriptural authority or who worships God the right way. Some people worry about, ‘Can Ghandi be saved?’ or What about the people’s that never heard of Jesus? It is the modern version of the rabbis becoming upset because Jesus healed on the sabbath. The restoration is what mattered not the compliance to any religious system. As Jesus says, “Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.” Jesus is about loving— and staying focused upon loving is what it means to follow him. That matters more than where you worship or how you say your creeds. This radical inclusiveness is disturbing and inevitably evokes resistance.
When Jesus starts dramatically warning about stumbling blocks, he is talking to the disciples in response to their territorial understanding of Jesus’ teaching. He has already confronted legal and traditional understanding of the Jewish law. He has demanded that the spirit of the law take precedence over the letter of the law. Now he is extending those principles of faith to those who would be known as Christians.
It turns out, that one of the most human things we do is categorize and rank people. And each time we do, we become a stumbling block to God’s love. This is an impossibly high standard but the consequences remain dire. Each time we limit our thinking to ‘us’ or ‘them’, ‘better than/less than’, ‘either/or thinking’, or ‘me first’ we are stumbling blocks to Jesus’ love. Each time we try to manage how we are noticed or fear to speak our whole history because we are ashamed denies God’s steadfast love. It is not up to us to decide who is worthy. That is God’s prerogative alone and as Jesus’ life amply demonstrates, God’s love far exceeds human capabilities and imaginings.
Jesus promises that he is the way to love and the way to life eternal. If we insist upon imposing our judgements about right behavior, or who belongs, we interfere with God’s love. We may not be able to love like Jesus loved but we must always be mindful of the direction he calls us. Otherwise, we will do damage to the ‘little one’s (alternately understood to be ‘the least of these’ and/or the young ones to the faith). God’s love cannot flourish when confined by our human need to be right or our human need to establish status by comparing ourselves to one another. We become self righteous. We become judgmental. We diminish instead of enhancing others. We become adversarial rather than curious. We fail to create a space to listen and love larger than our own assumptions.
In real life, it is extremely hard to follow Jesus. It takes intentionality, focus and prayer. Christian love and inclusiveness violates our sense of safety—and fearful people will be reactive. Under stress, we regress. We need constant reminders of what we stand for. And just as important, we need constant support to serve in a self serving world. It is hard to stay centered when another Christian suggests your faith is not up to snuff; it is hard to stay centered when a homeless man intrudes into your space; it is hard to seriously listen seriously when your spouse lists the ways she is disappointed in you; it is hard to have conversation with the politically opposite. Yet when we are safe with God, all these things and more are possible.
In real life we need spiritual disciplines to help us get outside of ourselves. Our deeply held default will be to assume the world is as we see it. Only when we get outside of our assumptions and certainties can we create room for others—and ultimately room for God. We do this by following Jesus— with bible study, with worship, with prayer, with daily practices or even post it notes. Alex Rodgers, one of our staff pastors, tells me she puts post it notes on her computer. This week they included: “It doesn’t have to be my way.” “Do I really know what is best?” “Is it mine?” Each of these is a way to mindful and to create space for something new.
Instead of being like the disciples, who themselves were stumbling blocks, who argued about who was most special who wanted to be noticed for their unique connection to Jesus, we are called to be like Jesus who noticed and reached out—over and over again—even to those who rejected him. That is the pathway to love and the pathway to the eternal.
Using Jesus’ salt imagery. Salt enhances what is around it. Too much is caustic and too little has no usefulness. Instead of defaulting to our human desire to be right or to be noticed because of our position—which ultimately is a waste of life, Jesus calls us to a love that listens, a love that includes and a love that enhances.
Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another. Let it be so.