Unclean Hands, Bodies Intact
At the beginning of each new semester of teaching Bible at Abilene Christian University, I make a series of commitments to my students. One of the commitments I make is this: I will never teach a difficult text to the class without first letting it cut me up. What I mean by that is: I will allow the text to move me and convict me, bringing all of its unsettling, life-altering truths to bear on myself, before I ever bring these teachings to my class. This reassures my students that I am a sojourner in the faith, and it also lets them know that I am not exempt from the challenges of Scripture. One of the courses I teach is a survey of the Gospels. We typically kick off the semester with Mark, as it is the shortest, and presumably the oldest of the four. The Gospel of Mark is not lacking in difficult texts—a fact that I remember each time I teach it. One of the texts that I find most difficult is Mark 9:42-50. In these verses, Jesus employs hyperbole to emphasize the severity of sin, and the importance of cutting it out of our lives. And while maybe upon first glance, the text merely functions as a reminder or a warning, a longer meditation on the text may leave you mutilated.
The first time I meditated on these verses, I was in college. I had heard the verses my whole life, but had never truly listened. The verses disturbed me, and left me wondering if I had the strength of spirit to cut things out of my life. I laid awake for hours that night pondering the verses, and then I fell asleep. When I fell asleep I dreamt about the verses. I saw a fish, slimy, still gasping for air, lying on my kitchen cutting board. Then a knife, not maneuvered by any hands, levitated toward the fish and began to gut it. I watched with disgust as a foul stench arose from the fish’s guts. Then the knife began to scrape against bone, creating a hair-raising, nails-on-chalkboard noise. Then the knife in one swoop scraped out all the remaining waste. I woke up startled, and knew that I was the fish. I would have to be gutted; I would have to be cleansed, and it would not be a pleasant process. In the weeks that followed, I found ways to evade this nightmare. I was afraid of being cleaned, so I continued on my way.
But now I am older. I am wiser. And as I slowed down again with this text, I tried to imagine how I might teach it to my freshmen. My original commitment to my students would not loosen its grip, and Mark 9 would not loosen its gaze—thus, I found myself locked in a most uncomfortable situation. You see, I am still a sinner. And I am not the kind of sinner whose sins go public. I am not the kind of sinner who you can easily spot. I am a worse kind, a more nefarious kind of sinner. My sins run undetected, carefully hidden in plain sight, and functioning with the same kind of normalcy as one of my own body parts. I use my hands for work, I use my eyes to see, and I use my sin for coping. I have bad habits that are embarrassing and inappropriate. But the bad habits are really nice to have on hand when I am having a bad day. I take great comfort in my old sins, and I go to great lengths to justify their presence. I continuously face myself in the mirror and imagine that my sins are smaller than the sins of others, or that I am somehow granted exemption because of the suffering I have endured in this life. Meanwhile, I barely notice how my sins are gradually pulling me into a deeper hell.
I convince myself that I have received immunity by the mercy and goodness of God, when truly I have embraced self-deception while actively rejecting God’s mercy; God’s mercy brings with it a divine justice that simply has no place here. My sins are actively undoing the mission of God all around me. God seeks to reconcile me to others; my sins push others away. God seeks to reconcile me to creation; my sins keep me from participating in creation. God seeks to reconcile me to God’s self; I allow my sin to remain perfectly wedged between us. My sins are inconspicuous, like any other limb of my body, but they will destroy me if I continue to refuse to go under the knife.
I do not share these thoughts to induce a paralyzing guilt in my readers. Sometimes guilt can lead us to take up more sins if we do not manage the guilt well. I do, however, want to bring my readers to the difficult conviction that I have experienced in this text. The command is clear: we MUST cut out our sin. No more justification, no more deception, no more cowering away from the words of Jesus.
So here I make this earnest plea for my fellow sojourners in the faith, not as one who is perfect, but as one who is learning. Let the word of God cut you up. What good is your life if you sustain all of your functional sins, but lose heaven? What good is present comfort, when we know that our sins will destroy us? Let God cleanse you now. Yes, it will be painful. Yes, it will get messy. But your life will be better for it. Remember that all faithful believers must beat their bodies into submission, like an athlete training for a race. Paul says in 1 Cor 9:26-27, “So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified.” Let us not remain intact at the expense of our redemption. Let us be broken and maimed, that we might declare the victory of Christ, and embrace the fullness of the Kingdom of Heaven.