The great Christian leader and writer John Stott once wrote a book called ‘Christ the Controversialist’. The basic point of the book is that Jesus said many hard things. Much as we like to picture him as ‘gentle Jesus meek and mild’, we also have to acknowledge that Jesus upset a lot of people, and challenged ungodly attitudes – even among his own disciples – very directly at times.
Today’s passage is a prime example. You won’t find this text appear in anyone’s ‘favourite passages’ list! Its message appears uncompromising and overly harsh. But, before we consign it to the ‘not one to read again’ pile, let’s look more closely. People make two big mistakes when reading this passage – the first, historic one is to take the bit about self-mutilation literally. Jesus used figures of speech all the time: what he’s talking about is a mindset – thankfully! But what is the origin of that mindset?
Here’s where the second mistake comes in – and this is one of those places where all the little headings and breaks we put into the biblical text are sometimes unhelpful. Verse 42 does not begin a new conversation, or new section of Jesus’ teaching; we are still in the same conversation Jesus began with his disciples back in v33. This is clear from the fact that Jesus refers to ‘one of these little ones’ in v42 – he still has the child in his arms (which he refers to in very similar terms) from v37!
What Jesus is primarily addressing from v33 onwards are the twin evils of pride and the spiritual ‘club mentality’ – the sort of us-and-them, in-or-out, with-us-or-against-us thinking that cripples so much of the witness of the kingdom of God. And Jesus warns that if people are blocked from entering the kingdom because of either of these mentalities, exhibited precisely by those claiming to be part of God’s kingdom, then God will take that very seriously indeed. If you consign people to the spiritual rubbish dump, Jesus warns, (and the word for hell is ‘gehenna’, which was the dump outside Jerusalem where rubbish was continually burned), then a perfectly righteous God might just do the same to you. It would only be fair, wouldn’t it?
Tragically, we only have to look at church history to see that there have been many occasions when this warning of Jesus has been ignored – and the damage it has done to the credibility and impact of the gospel has been incalculable.
As Jesus talks about how important it is to rid ourselves of these kinds of attitudes, he then goes on to make the more general point about how determined we should be to address anything in our inner lives that stops us from following him. ‘Whatever it is, cut it off,’ he says – but the primary thrust of this teaching is about all forms of ‘spiritual superiority’ thinking which shut people out from the good news of God’s love.
He finishes by taking them back to their argument about who was the greatest: ‘have salt among yourselves and be at peace with each other’ – in other words, don’t start dumb conversations! Our relationships with each other should be about mutual encouragement (‘salting’) and promoting unity and togetherness. As we reflect on this tough passage today, may the Lord grant us all grace to examine ourselves honestly – and may he heal all that holds us back from running our race with freedom, humility and joy.