Trinity 17: An analogy and an adventure
Our Lord uses harsh and shocking language in the Gospel today. He speaks of exorcisms, demons, amputations, and hell. Why does He talk like this? It’s not really what you’d expect in the Church of England is it?
Perhaps the parable of the ducks can help us to understand why.
Once upon a time there was a little town of ducks. Every Sunday the ducks waddle out of their homes and waddle down the streets to their church. They waddle into the nave and sit in their accustomed places in the pews. Then the duck choir processes in singing the opening hymn. The duck priest comes down to read from the duck Gospel. This is what he says: “Ducks! God has given you wings! With wings you can fly! With wings you can mount up and soar like eagles. No walls can confine you! No fences can hold you! You have wings. God has given you wings and you can fly like birds!” The ducks all say “Amen!” And after the final hymn and coffee the duck priest and the duck congregation all waddle home.
The disciples are as clueless as those ducks. They are blind and deaf to the truth.
The context of Our Lord’s words to them is His journey to the cross. He has been speaking openly about His impending death. And it’s not just talk – He’s making his way south towards Jerusalem, away from safety and home, and towards the cross. And He knows He’s running out of time. He doesn’t have long to prepare the disciples for what’s coming. So Jesus ramps things up. We can sense His growing sense of urgency in this exaggerated and violent language.
The American, Sothern Gothic writer, Flannery O’Connor used grotesque – shocking, larger-than-life situations – in her stories.
They’re stories about the grace of God, but they’re also shockingly violent.
In a story called, “A Good Man is Hard to Find” a grandmother meets an escaped serial killer called “the Misfit” on a trip to the country with her grandchildren. It doesn’t end well for her.
Flannery O’Connor explained why she used such shocking situations in her stories:
She wrote, “When you can assume your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock – to the hard of hearing you shout and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.”
Maybe this is what Jesus is doing in the Gospel this morning: shocking His disciples into understanding by drawing large and startling figures.
If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where
“‘the worms that eat them do not die,
and the fire is not quenched.”
Last week they the disciples were arguing about who was going to be the greatest. And this week they’re upset about a stranger who is “casting out demons” in the name of Jesus. “What are we going to do about it?” they ask. “We tried to stop him because he was not following us.”
Haven’t they been listening at all? Don’t they see that this question shows their selfish desire to control the mission and to mark the boundaries of who’s in and who’s out? Don’t they see that once again they have each shown their desire to be the greatest rather than the least, to be the ones with the power rather than the ones who serve? “No”, says Jesus, “let him be.” “Whoever is not against us is for us.”
And then He drops a bombshell into their playground. He tells them, “Being a Christian, following me, is much more exciting, much more joyful, than all this pettiness. Eternity, heaven and hell, it’s all real, and it all hangs in the balance.”
It makes me think of the first few pages of Tolkien's classic, The Hobbit. The great wizard Gandalf knocks on the door of Bilbo Baggins. Bilbo, you’ll remember, is a hobbit, and hobbits are quiet folk, a people who love their hearth and home. They love to smoke pipes and eat second breakfasts, and they are decidedly averse to adventures, risk and danger. Gandalf loves what they love too, but he also knows about strange events that are unfolding outside Bilbo’s little world of The Shire. There is a world that is far more mysterious, and far more dangerous and far more glorious than Bilbo is aware of. And Gandalf wants to enlist Bilbo for an epic journey out into that world.
I see us, along the first disciples, as like Bilbo Baggins. Jesus has full knowledge of the adventure. We need the shock of His knock at our door. We need Him to tell us that we belong to a greater world than we can imagine, a world where we will have to use our wings.
So the challenge for us is to really believe in a larger, deeper reality than much of our secularised culture wants us to. Without belief in God and life after death, we live in a shrunken world and with a diminished sense of what it means to be human. For the saint as for the sinner everything will end for them at their death. So why bother trying to be good? Moral failure doesn’t require drastic action. Life’s too short.
But what if beyond this life is God? What if all of the four last things are real – judgment, heaven and hell, as well as death? Now there’s a new seriousness to sin. Perhaps it can even be described as mortal because it can kill. Now the analogy is clearer between an amputation that saves someone’s life, and the demanding repentance that leads to eternal life. At a biological level an amputation may be necessary to prolong someone’s life – Jesus compares that to the need for repentance in the life of the spirit.
The good we do, the merits we acquire, will make us flourish permanently in the Kingdom – unrepented mortal sin will block that. It will be an obstacle.
The challenge then is to really believe that who we are will not end with our biological death. If we start believing that then we may need to take drastic action to change our lives.
But in today’s Gospel, the teaching of Jesus is urgent: it is better to enter into life.
The Rev'd Dr James Lawson, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 26/09/2021