The Gospel at Mass yesterday ends with a passage that is maybe especially offensive, shocking, in a society fixated by the body beautiful.
Physical self-mutilation is proposed by Jesus as preferable to ‘bringing down one of these little ones who have faith.’
John said to Jesus, ‘Master, we saw a man who is not one of us casting out devils in your name; and because he was not one of us we tried to stop him.’ But Jesus said, ‘You must not stop him: no one who works a miracle in my name is likely to speak evil of me. Anyone who is not against us is for us.
‘If anyone gives you a cup of water to drink just because you belong to Christ, then I tell you solemnly, he will most certainly not lose his reward.
‘But anyone who is an obstacle to bring down one of these little ones who have faith, would be better thrown into the sea with a great millstone round his neck. And if your hand should cause you to sin, cut it off; it is better for you to enter into life crippled, than to have two hands and go to hell, into the fire that cannot be put out. And if your foot should cause you to sin, cut it off; it is better for you to enter into life lame, than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. And if your eye should cause you to sin, tear it out; it is better for you to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell where their worm does not die nor their fire go out.’
The narrative context of the ‘difficult’ passage is notable.
Jesus is setting up an opposition between the disciples’ seeking to control those deemed ‘not of us’, and those self same who Jesus himself describes as ‘little ones who have faith’.
The disciples should nurture the little ones – elsewhwere Jesus says thay should imitate the little ones! If they cannot, they’d be better off drowned than do violence to them, than get in the way of the (potential?) burgeoning of faith in them. Then Jesus speaks of the self-mutilation.
Maybe what he says is (or is best read as) semitic hyperbole, rather than being taken literally, but there should be no avoiding of the important point Jesus makes. By their intolerance and pride the 12 do violence to the unity of the developing community of faith, but the violence done to the community is largely invisible – if only because the excluded are made non-persons. Jesus says, better you do violence to yourself than them; better bear on your body the import and consequence of what you would do to the community of the faithful; and experience the hurt, the consequent incapacity. It is better that than that you do that hurt to others and to the kingdom, and – at the same time – alienate yourself from that kingdom and the Lord.
We do well to remember the Jesus who speak is the Jesus who awaits his Passion. He knows and embraces the cost of discipleship, and the pain of seeing its gains squandered by those closest to him.
- Whose faith might you oppress?
- How might you offend against unity?
- How might you instead act for the good?
VV Verashagin, The Vanquished, Office for the Dead. Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. Photograph (c) 2015, Allen Morris.