“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.” (Mark 9:43)
In the gospel reading last week we learned from Jesus about what it takes to be great in God’s kingdom—become a servant of all. And we learned that so many of the disputes and conflicts that rise up among us come from our own selfishness and envy that resists taking the lowly road of self-giving love.
This morning Mark has us in the very same discourse and Jesus gives us insight into the value of life in God’s kingdom. What is it worth? It is worth everything and anything at all that you might have to give up. Whatever the cost might be to you personally—a hand or a foot!—it is overshadowed to an infinite degree by what you stand to inherit. It’s a no brainer. You want to talk about a smart investment? Cut out of your life whatever stands in the way of your obedience to Jesus Christ, cut it off entirely and kill it, for that loss is nothing compared to the joy and freedom of life with God.
Maybe you’ve heard the story of Aron Ralston. Aron was hiking in a canyon in southeastern Utah in 2003 when a boulder became dislodged pinning his right hand between it and the canyon wall. He had been out hiking by himself and didn’t tell anyone where he was going. With no way to contact anyone he finally ended up freeing himself after six days by using his pocket knife to amputate his right forearm. I’ll spare you the details. When he spoke publicly about the ordeal after the fact he recalled how he did not lose his hand, but gained his life.
It. Is. Better. Somebody say, “It is better.” “It is better,” says Jesus, for who? For you. “It is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell.” The risen and living Jesus Christ is in our midst this morning and he stands among us as a good friend who tells the truth. His word to us this morning is a word that warns us of danger and guides us into life. Jesus is saying to us this morning that whatever you have to give up in order to resist sin and obey him is not to your loss but to your gain, and eternally so. It. Is. Better.
What hinders your own obedience to Jesus Christ? What causes your faith to shrink rather than to flourish and grow? What gets in the way of you knowing the joy of the gospel? Hear the compassionate and merciful caution of Jesus Christ: “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.” Whatever it is, cut it off.
Maybe you’re not sure what it is that’s getting in the way. Moments ago we heard the words of the Psalmist: “But who can detect their errors? Clear me from hidden faults,” (Psalm 19:11-12). Often we do not even know the ways that we err and so we need the Holy Spirit to search our hearts and clear out all of those faults that are hidden even to us.
I want you to know that this is no less true for me as your priest. Indeed, the last year or so since I have been here the Lord has been renewing my own heart and my own love for him, bringing to light the sin that I would rather minimize or ignore and gently rooting it out. “It is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell.”
To “enter life” is to submit oneself to God, to receive the kingdom that Jesus has come to bring, and to enjoy life with God both now and forever. That it is possible for you and I to enjoy God and live in his love is entirely God’s agenda and entirely God’s doing. As it is written elsewhere: “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him,” (John 3:17). God’s agenda is life for the world. You were made for life with God.
Sin is anything that hinders this life by drawing our love away from Jesus Christ and fixing it on lesser goods. Sin mustn’t be something obviously evil or wicked. In fact, often it is as subtle as an inordinate love of good things. And so as you know elsewhere in the gospels Jesus himself does not hesitate to call for the renunciation of possessions, family, and of life itself if these good things ever stand in the way of following him. Cut it off, says Jesus. It is better.
Our tendency might be to focus on what we would lose. What it would cost us to cut off whatever it is Jesus is asking us to cut off. Instead, let us consider what we stand to gain by being with Jesus. As the Psalmist proclaims, the law, or the word, of the Lord is perfect. God’s word to us revives the soul and brings wisdom. It enlightens the eyes and rejoices the heart. It is our very life and our sustenance. “In keeping [it] there is great reward,” (Psalm 19:11). To hear it and to obey it is to “enter life” as Jesus says. It’s really important to let that sink in: obedience to Jesus, challenging as it may be, is not intended to burden but to liberate.
I love how the Prayer Book puts it in the Collect for Peace towards the end of Morning Prayer: “O God, who art the author of peace and lover of concord, in knowledge of whom standeth our eternal life, whose service is perfect freedom.” To know God in Jesus Christ is eternal life. To serve him is perfect freedom.
No temporal pleasure that sin promises is worth forfeiting the eternal pleasure of knowing God. And the stakes are high because the opposite of life with God is life apart from God. To refuse to enter into the joy of his love is to chose instead the insanity and the isolation of sin—to go to hell. Hell is not what you were made for. You were made for God, to know him and to enjoy him forever. Therefore, whatever is causing you to sin, cut it off. “It is better for you to enter life.” It is better.
The opposite of sin is not moral perfection but love. Love covers a multitude of sins writes Saint Peter and Christ’s love has covered our sin. So if you want motivation to cut off whatever it is that is causing you to sin learn to love Jesus. Allow the Holy Spirit to work in you and bring about in you the perfection of Christ’s love.
There is no magical way to learn to love Jesus. But there is a practical way and it comes to us in the form of a Rule of Life handed on to us from the Apostles and the earliest Christians (Acts 2:42). What does it consist of? Basically this: go to church, regularly; read and meditate upon the words of Holy Scripture, the Bible; pray, what a resource we have for this in the Daily Office and in the psalter; and generously serve one another in the church. In all these ways we learn to love Jesus by learning of his love for us and the more we come to know of his love for us the less appealing sin becomes.
“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.” Let us therefore cast off the sin that ensnares for the sake of life with God. Whatever the cost, it is worth it for the joy and freedom of knowing Jesus Christ.