There is always the temptation to domesticate the Gospel — to smooth out the rough edges, sanitize the language, and naturalize the supernatural. In a word, to make it comfortable. In this way, the Beatitudes become simply gentle sayings about the poor, meek, and sorrowful. The twofold command of love becomes a mere exhortation to kindness. Even the death of Christ becomes just a good example.
Saint Mark tells us that those who followed Christ were amazed and afraid. (Mk 10:32). Well, we want to be comfortable, not afraid. Not comfortable as God desires to make us (with the peace beyond all understanding), but comfortable on our own terms, according to our earthbound understanding. We want the Gospel to make our lives better, not to upend them. So, we try to tame His words and make them fit for polite company.
Then comes along a Scripture passage such as today’s Gospel. (Mk 9:38-47) Our Lord’s discussion of fastening millstones around necks, cutting off limbs, and plucking out eyes shocks us back to the reality of the supernatural and the demands of the Gospel. There is no smoothing out these words or giving them a worldly interpretation. Either our Lord means that sin is punished, sometimes eternally, or He is speaking complete nonsense. Either our choices here have eternal significance, or they mean nothing. There is no in-between.
Our Lord draws us into this truth by using the example of a universally agreed upon villain — the man who ensnares children, the one who “causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin.” In recent years the Church has had many painful reasons to reflect (perhaps not enough) on these words. The abuse of children draws universal condemnation, even from those (ironically) who have failed to protect them.
People object to many of our Lord’s words. But I’ve never heard anyone complain about the condemnation of the abuser: “It would be better for him if a great millstone were put around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.” Of course, the only reason that fate would be better for such a man is because a worse punishment awaits him in eternity. Temporal decisions have eternal consequences.
Given the current state of affairs, it’s worth lingering on this example for a moment. Some have pointed out the hypocrisy of an institution that strongly defends the rights of unborn children and yet tolerates predatory pederasty in the priesthood. Their criticism is just. Of course, by the same reasoning, the Church that rightly has zero-tolerance for child sexual abuse should also not tolerate Catholic politicians who defend, promote, and fund the daily murder of unborn children. There should be an equitable distribution of millstones.
Returning to the Gospel, notice how our Lord, after his strong words about the abuser, changes the conversation. It’s easy for us to see and condemn the wickedness of such a man, to keep our focus on someone else. So, our Lord turns His attention from the scandalizer to us: “If your hand. . .and if your eye. . .and if your foot causes you to sin. . .” Now we have to consider not someone else’s eternal fate but our own. Our choices, no less than those of the man with a millstone around his neck, have eternal consequences. They lead us either to life in the Kingdom of God or to the unquenchable fire of Gehenna.
In these few verses, we get to the heart of Catholic morality. Everything in this world is relativized. Every choice has meaning only in relation to eternity, and value only in relation to heaven. Thus eternal life — not money, fame, pleasure, or political office — is to be the determining factor in our decisions. Whatever leads to the Kingdom must be chosen. Whatever opposes it must be rejected — cut off.
Jesus’ words also clarify the price we must pay in choosing eternal life: “cut it off. . .cut it off. . .pluck it out.” Here again, we typically hasten to tame our Lord’s harsh words. We (unnecessarily) point out that He doesn’t mean that we should literally cut off and pluck out body parts. It’s hyperbole, you see.
Unfortunately, we get so caught up in explaining the hyperbole that we pass over the very truth that it means to communicate. That it is better to cut and gouge certain things out of your life than to go to hell. Yes, it’s tough. It might feel like you’re severing a part of your own body. But your eternal life might also depend on it. Our Lord uses hyperbole for a reason: going to heaven incomplete is better than going to hell whole.
Of course, nobody enters heaven maimed or incomplete, and nobody goes to hell whole. That’s part of the hyperbole. If we enter hell, it’s as broken, distorted persons. If we enter heaven, we do so whole and entire. So, the painful paradox is that the lopping off of limbs and plucking out of eyes may very well be necessary to preserve our wholeness in eternity. This is the role of mortification in the Christian life. In order to remain whole for heaven, we need occasionally to cut off some of the things on earth — some food or drink, some legitimate pleasure, some comfort and ease.
For starters, let’s cut out the domestication of our Lord’s words and allow them to pierce us to the heart.
*Image: The Garden of Earthly Delights Triptych by Hieronymous Bosch, 1490-1500 [Museo Del Prado, Madrid]