A Sermon Preached at the First Reformed Church of Schenectady
September 27, 2009 by Dr. Bill Levering
42“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. 43If 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, to the unquenchable fire. 45And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. 47And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, 48where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.
God made you with only one mouth and two big ears, so if you don't listen to me for the next few minutes, your, your, your eyebrows will fall off. This is important because I am going to talk about the colorful, even offensive sayings of Jesus.
When we hear the parables of Jesus we are at a disadvantage because the context is so alien. We are not in a primitive agrarian society that speaks an unusual collection of Greek, Aramaic and a little Hebrew.
Ancient Language was Colorful
More importantly, in a litigious and rational world we have lost touch with prophetic bombast or consider it insane. Strong imagery is left for the political fringe and the religious crazies. Before numbers were the measure of all things, however, people regularly said things like "Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears" without a disclaimer that they were being symbolic.
The primordial storyteller, Homer, declared that heroes were “speakers of words and doers of deeds” (Il. 9.443). John Marincola writes that "Classical societies were dominated by the spoken word: facility and accomplishment in speaking were, after military achievement, the greatest glories one could win."
Today we measure smarts with numbers: how much people make or what they produce. Then the measure was with words, their quality and effectiveness. And effectiveness often meant a memorable turn of phrase that was as difficult to forget as a iron rod sticking out of your neck.
Jesus and the Family Guy
In the ancient world, speakers couldn't rely on reinforcement from a dozen commercials a day or even the written word. If you wanted to make a pithy point that would be remembered without a transcript or a YouTube video, you would craft a saying that would be remembered clearly. This is why some Old Testement proverbs are so icky. "Like a dog that returns to its vomit Is a fool who repeats his folly." Do we have to say things like that in church?
This way of talking is preserved to some extent by comedians. Al Franken's book "Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot" uses a kind of bombast that is so surprising it is either hilarious or offending. For the older crowd, remember how Don Rickles insulted people? Sometimes it wasn't so funny, but it was usually memorable. Right, you hockey pucks?
Today's version of pushing the extremes is often found on the cartoon show The Family Guy. Peter Griffen, the family guy, is a completely obnoxious husband and father. The show is known for hitting us over the head with a joke over and over and over and over and over . . . . and over . . . . and over . . .. . . .. and . . . . over . . . again until it's sort of funny somehow.
Outside of comedy, we just aren't used to harsh imagery. Strong language is not used much by preachers today, with the possible exception of Jeremiah Wright. We are mostly in the business of making you all feel better about yourselves so you won't slaughter each other in frustration.
But let's pretend that we took normally inoffensive sayings and made them more striking like an ancient might have. Here is how we might jazz up innocuous modern aphorisms:
- If the shoe fits wear it, but if it doesn't cut off your foot.
- A fool and his money are soon parted like a thanksgiving turkey from its head.
- An apple a day keeps the doctor locked in a Iranian prison.
- When in doubt throw it out into the place of utter darkness and gnashing of teeth.
- Drink eight glasses of water a day or you will develop pancreatic cancer.
- A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down into your seething acidic gut.
- Many hands make light work. Doing it by yourself will kill you like a giant tapeworm.
- Fool me once, shame on you fool me twice, kick me in the head.
This is kind of fun. Maybe Jesus was right. Perhaps we need strong language to break through our complacency.
The problem is, we have such refined sensitivities now, we throw the baby out with the scalding bathwater and don't even try to figure out what Jesus is going for. We need to dial down our reactions to find the meaning. What does this passage say after we are finished being ruffled?
Abandon hurtful things.
This passage is translated in many ways. The old King James translates, 'causes to stumble' as offends. You may remember this passage as "If your eye offends you . . . " The NIV, another popular version translates this "If you eye causes you to sin . . ."
The fact is that there are problematic things in our lives that are all about us that we don't do anything about. Jesus is all about taking care of the log in your own eye and controlling what you can control. Let's put this in more concrete terms.
- If you eat popcorn everyday and your love of popcorn has lost you loved ones and life in general, never touch popcorn again!
- If your car is a hazard to life, your own included, take the car to a cliff and push it off. It's better to walk that do die in a fiery crash.
- If your life has been destroyed by alcohol, don't go near it. Pour it all out. Don't even try a little bit.
- If being around Democrats causes you to sin, do not talk to Democrats. Move to Alaska.
All this may sound quite simple, but in practice people often do things that are consistently harmful to them. Like smoking. Or eating crispy duck. I love the Chinese dish called crispy duck. Every time I have eaten crispy duck, the high fat content has given me an upset stomach. Every time. Every time. Every time. Every . . . . time. And every time I imagine that this time will be different. This time I won't eat so much of it, or I'll get a different sauce, or I'll have club soda and bitters with it. (sings a la Peter Paul and Mary) When will I ever learn? When will I ever learn?
God is interested in our complete joy.
Discerning the crispy ducks in our lives is not always easy. We rationalize so well. And after all, there is some limited joy in crispy duck. Smoking cigarettes is sometimes a pleasurable experience. Alcohol and drugs do give short term pleasure. But God is not interested in the short term. God is interested in us having the best life possible. Not a halfway thing. Not pretty good. Not purgatory or a McDonald's happy meal, but a banquet, a bounty, an overflowing fountain, something like, well, . . . heaven. If something, ANYTHING, is getting in the way of that, get rid of it.
Some of our halfway joys have become too easy for us. We have harmful habits that seem almost to be a part of us. "You want me to stop smoking? That would be like cutting off an arm." Exactly.
"You want me to forgive him? That is not who I am. You are taking away a part of me." Yes.
You can fly little butterfly, but the cocoon has got to go.