Mark 9: 38-50
I don’t know if you have heard, but there is an election coming. Surprised? I’m driving up Highway 29 taking Josiah to his camping trip with the Boy Scouts, and there were signs that just seemed to have come out of nowhere, with names like Romney and Obama on them! Anyone ever hear of these guys?
The word of the day today, is hyperbole. The non-dictionary, Fryer Drew definition of the word is: emphatic speaking to make a point. The scripture that we have here today is full of hyperbole. Scriptures like this are why we do NOT take the Bible literally. If your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. If your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. And the first one, the one about the millstone: if any of you put a stumbling block before any of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.
Anyone ever been to a mill, where they have a millstone? Millstones are large, sometimes very large carved rocks, granite, I guess, that have been mounted horizontally, like a turning table, and grain is crushed on them by another rock laying above it. These millstones can sometimes be 10 feet across, or bigger, and Lord knows how many tons one like that weighs. That is what Jesus is describing being hung around your neck and you being thrown in the sea with.
Hyperbole. Of course that’s not going to happen! It’s harder for us to understand hyperbole in our own modern day; it’s also harder to use it in conversation, because people want you to be accurate, and reasonable, commonsensical conversation. It really just takes the fun out of talking!
When’s the last time anyone said “I love ice cream?” Hyperbole, right?
I love my car. It’s a 2008 Ford Escape Hybrid, tough car with good mileage, I’ve put 70,000 miles on it in two years. But I loved it a little less last week, when I took it in last week for a 100,000 mile checkup.
Did you know, no hyperbole, that those suckers take platinum sparkplugs? Ka-ching! $877. A price that was also no hyperbole.
Speaking with hyperbole is a way to be able to make an extreme point about something much smaller. From the commentaries I read this week, this is an ancient way of speaking. When you go into the book of Proverbs, for example, there’s hyperbolic statement after hyperbolic statement, and all they really are all saying is “don’t be dumb!” “Have some common sense!” “Think it through! Think about the other person.”
When Jesus talks to us in hyperbolic terms, here, he’s using hyperbole. Even in the first part, where he says that “whomever is not against us, is for us.” Whomever heard that you are a Christian and brings you water, or brings you water and could care less what you are, Jesus in Mark here is telling his disciples that they will receive a reward. For nothing but hospitality.
Wouldn’t it be easier to live that way? Wouldn’t it be easier to say to someone “Oh, you’re not a Methodist, you’re a Presbyterian? You go to a synagogue? You go to a mosque, but you are not against me? Well, that must mean you are for me, then.” Words of Jesus, folks.
And then he talks, in the second half, about believers who are not quite as ‘developed” as others. And if you say or do something that is distressing to them, causes their faith to be troubled or inhibits its’ growth, it’s your fault. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to censor yourself. But it does mean that you have to be aware that, sometimes, the people around you might not believe the same way you do, or even if they are Christian, may not have the same level of understanding that you do; not everyone is a friend of books. Not everyone is a friend of reading or studying. But they still have a faith that lives, that needs t obe lived out, and nurtured. So Jesus is giving us a hyperbolic statement here: if you do something that causes one of these to stumble, cut it off.
Well, of course he doesn’t mean it literally. Of course we’re not supposed to be plucking out eyeballs, or cutting off feet or hands.
There’s a Jewish way of speaking about this same concept that is rather more gentle. At the root of the Jewish religion is the Torah, which for Christians is the first five books of the Bible. And all of the stuff, traditions, interpretations, etc. that has been gathered around it is the oral torah. And in the written and the oral torah, thee are rules to be followed that help Jews understand how to live and understand life with God. And what they speak about isn’t hyperbolic: “don’t break that rule, or we’ll have to do something drastic!” That’s what Jesus is doing, but what they say is “here are the Rules, don’t break them. To help you not break them, we put up a fence around the rules, so you will be even less likely to break them, because you are further away. “Putting a fence around the Torah” is the description they use.
There are people who believe differently than you. There are people who may have less developed beliefs than you. And you may like them, you may even love them; but when you get into the theological thickets with them, or the moral heavy questions, the absolutes, or even, heaven forbid, the politics, your feelings toward them may lessen. You may find yourself being angry with them, and it’s only because they disagree with you. They are not less of a human being, not because they want to hurt you; they just believe differently than you. So in this time of politics, (there’s only a month left! We can stick it out!) you know that there are people you just can’t talk to.
Put a fence around them. Still love them, still eat their cooking, still enjoy them. But don’t go anywhere near health care with them, or national defense, or the coal based energy policy. We all have them in our lives: generate peace in the world by not discussing tension filled topics with them. Put a fence around the Torah. Be hospitable. There’s a time and place for theological, or political discussion. But never at the cost of relationship.
Put a fence around the Torah.
Sermon preached 9/30/12, Throop UMC