Gospel for September 27th: “Another Exorcist” and “Temptations to Sin”
Mark 9: 38-43, 45, 47-48
John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone driving out demons in your name, and we tried to prevent him because he does not follow us.” Jesus replied, “Do not prevent him. There is no one who performs a mighty deed in my name who can at the same time speak ill of me. For whoever is not against us is for us. Anyone who gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ, amen, I say to you, will surely not lose his reward.
Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe [in me] to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were put around his neck and he were thrown into the sea. If you hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed than with two hands to go into Gehenna, into the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life crippled than with two feet to be thrown into Gehenna. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. Better for you to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into Gehenna,’ where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.’
While I find the first paragraph in today’s gospel passage reassuring in the simple sense that Jesus can know us by the good that we do “in [his] name” (39), it is the second paragraph about Gehenna (42-48) that touches a deeper nerve on which I must comment. I don’t know if there is a consensus among scholars and theologians about this reference, but I would like to be clear I think Jesus is referring to Hell in His use of Gehenna, whether by analogy or synonym. So let’s talk about Hell for a moment. I find it hard to listen to anyone talk about Hell—about the possibility that I might be eternally damned. It is a most uncomfortable truth that makes me feel guilty just thinking about it. It is like the time I was pulled over by a cop for a burned out taillight; I was nervous at his questioning as if I had been stopped for every time I had ever been speeding and not caught, instead of for a defective brakelight.
I realize the usefulness of this kind of fear and the necessity of sharing the truth of Hell with all people. However, I have always found fear to be at best a short term motivator. Furthermore, while I believe Jesus delivers this message with perfect love for His people, I have often found those Christians quick to bring up Hell as the price of sin somehow untrustworthy, as if they relish the thought of me and the rest of the sinners meeting this fate, instead of showing us compassion. I know; don’t judge and don’t shoot the messenger. Still, I am just being honest. Perhaps I feel this way because I ignored God for so long living a secular lifestyle and worshipping a culture that said I didn’t have to accept this truth, even though I knew this was a lie deep inside.
So maybe my faith is not what it should be—filled with the joy of His presence and the hope of eternal life—in these moments when the possibility of Hell comes up. I can’t help but think my journey back to Jesus could all be for naught, for I lived without concern for Him for a long time. But here’s a thought that has occurred to me on this subject that in His grace restores my hope. In the many times I turned my back on Jesus, living what I thought was freedom, I was not happy. I didn’t have to go to Hell to feel the torment of separation from my God and my savior. In contrast, like the other “exorcist” the disciples about which the disciples were concerned (38), my past happiness inevitably came from those moments when I unwittingly performed a “mighty deed in [His] name” (39) by loving others instead of myself or things. So instead of fearing death in Hell, I have returned to loving and serving Jesus in this life to hold on to that happiness I have found in Him. Regardless of my fate after death, my happiness now depends on staying with Jesus while my heart still beats. And this shift to focusing on being with Him in the present has restored a sense of peace and hope for salvation after death that I previously doubted was possible. This to me is an incredible turnabout that can only be described as amazing grace.