Monday, August 13, 2007

The Seriousness of Sin

Monday, August 13, 2007 -- Week of Proper 14
(Jeremy Taylor, Bishop of Down, Conner, and Dromore, 1667)

"Morning Reflections" is a brief thought about the scripture readings from the Daily Office of Morning and Evening Prayer according to the practice found in the Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church.

Morning Prayer begins on p. 80 of the Book of Common Prayer.
Evening Prayer begins on p. 117
An online resource for praying the Daily Office is found at
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Today's Readings for the Daily Office (p. 978)
Psalms 89:1-18 (morning) 89:19-52 (evening)
2 Samuel 13:23-39
Acts 20:17-38
Mark 9:42-50

I remember from my childhood being haunted by these verses from Mark's gospel: "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. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; ...And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; ...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, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched."

I knew ways I had been mean or even cruel to friends. I was pretty sure these were some of the "little ones" who believe in Jesus. Did that count as putting a "stumbling block" before them? I learned what a millstone was, and imagined the horror of being tied to one and thrown into the sea. It frightened me terribly, yet Jesus says that is the better option.

I wondered, what does it mean to say that your hand or foot or eye causes one to stumble? What kind of stumble would merit the loss of a limb or organ? Would that really make me better? If I cut off one hand, wouldn't the other one eventually cause me to stumble too? I don't think I have enough parts.

I thought about hell. A burning fire that is never quenched. How could you burn forever and never be consumed? It was horrible to contemplate, yet contemplate it I did. It made me very afraid. It made me want to curl up somewhere where I couldn't do something with my hand or foot or eye that would bring such terrible consequences.

I've read the commentaries. The word "hell" is literally "Gehenna" -- the Jerusalem garbage dump where the fires literally did burn continually and the worm never dies. I've read about the tradition of Semitic exaggeration. Heck, I've heard Southern exaggeration: "I love you so much I could squeeze you to death."

It remains that this passage is a vivid statement of how seriously Jesus takes our sin. How seriously we should regard our sin. Maybe this outburst from Jesus will expose our selfishness, self-justification and tepidness enough to provoke change -- repentance. Jesus' cross is a reminder of how serious our sins are. What we choose to do with our hands; where we choose to go with our feet; what we choose to gaze at with our eyes are of ultimate seriousness and significance. The option of choosing between quitting our damaging behavior on the one hand, and self-mutilation on the other hand, is a motivation toward the seriousness of change. It is also a reminder that we all stand weak and disordered in serious need of grace.



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The Rev. Lowell Grisham
Paul's Episcopal Church
Fayetteville, AR

The Mission of St. Paul's Episcopal Church is to explore and celebrate
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At 9:16 AM, Blogger The Underground Pewster said...

I am glad someone else was troubled by these passages as a youth. I always had trouble with literally cutting off a part of my body. And when we take the passage metaphorically we run the risk of seeing "the body" as "the Church" and having to cut off those persons, programs, agendas, ministries, etc that cause us to stumble.

At 7:54 AM, Blogger Lowell said...

Wonderful insight. "The hand cannot say to the foot, I have no need of you." We need each other.


At 12:05 PM, Anonymous boo radley said...

Is Jesus saying that when I sin I mutilate myself worse than plucking out my own eye, or that I cripple myself worse than had I cut off my hand?

At 2:10 PM, Blogger Lowell said...

I don't know, Boo. I do know that sin has a mutilating, crippling effect on us. That may be one way of reading a perplexing passage.



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