The first half of Mark’s gospel tells of Jesus coming with power. He heals, feeds, and astonishes. The crowds, disciples, and even the Pharisees recognize Jesus’ authority. The second half of the Gospel describes the very same Jesus. He who has tirelessly and gently tended to people now offers words of warning. Jesus speaks some of His most severe words to the disciples: “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.” Jesus adds that if your hand, foot, or eye causes you to sin, you should cut them off. It’s better to be physically lame than to be “thrown into hell.” Jesus concludes by urging the disciples to have salt in themselves and warns them of losing their saltiness.
Donald English provides some helpful context hints: 1) “little ones” may actually refer to children or new believers (such as those whom the disciples had just stopped from healing in Jesus’ name); 2) millstones were pulled by donkeys and were much heavier than what a person could handle; 3) being “thrown into the sea” was a Roman punishment; 4) “life” refers to eternal life; 5) fire purifies; 6) salt prevents decay.
There is no reason to conclude that Jesus’ intent was for people to amputate parts of their body in order to stop sinning. His extreme language demonstrates how grave sin is.
Ultimately, He’s making a point: He is asking His disciples (and us) where we want to be: “life” or “hell”? Jesus calls attention to the weightiness of our individual sins because they affect both the individual and the community.
Think for a moment about the people in your life whose lives have nudged you closer to Jesus. Think about the gentle saints who have encouraged and strengthened you through their words and actions. Now, allow yourself to recall a time when one of those saints' sins became apparent to you. How did you feel the first time you saw one of those saints lash out in anger or malice?
Jesus speaks harshly to His disciples because He fiercely loves all His people and He wants everyone to join Him in “life.” He likely feels deep anguish and anger when He sees His own children undoing the work He has begun in His beloved children’s lives. As Christians, we represent Christ to each other and to the world. Our sins obscure the light of Jesus. We misdirect the “little ones” Jesus loves as much as He loves us. God grants us power to work alongside Him and bring light and life to the world, but we have the capacity to bring darkness and decay as well. Jesus wants to awaken His disciples so that they can see how their sins work counter to the kingdom of God.
May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. (Romans 15: 5-7)
Ali Phillips lives with the Manuels in Takoma DC and proudly holds the title “lady in the attic.” She deeply loves bike touring and most recently discovered (by bike) why people adore San Francisco. Ali hopes to visit Puerto Rico in the near future.