Jesus is a little strange in today’s Gospel reading. Here, he doesn’t look like a loving and kind person we know. He doesn’t gently encourage or persuade us to follow his way. But he only speaks in a very adamant way to enforce his dos and don’ts to us. And he talks straight out about the extreme things like self-mutilation and being thrown into hell in many times. What’s happening here? The first thing we can immediately notice is that Jesus is really serious today. Like in a school, a teacher, who is usually very kind and generous, one day find something wrong in students and come to a classroom with a serious face…yes, today is that kind of day to Jesus’ disciples. And no kidding, Jesus is telling us something very heavy and grave. So what shall we do? Well…we better listen to him carefully.
Today, the words of Jesus are not just solemn but also very difficult to understand. I personally had a hard time to figure out the meanings; I had to read them over and over again to get to the core. In today’s Gospel reading, I think, Jesus majorly talks about two things that I may title, “the two rules of discipleship.” Having this in mind, I remembered a funny meme I saw on my friend’s Facebook post, which is about the two rules of business. And I found it quite useful for us today too. Two rules of business: first, “Mind your own,” and second, “Stay the hell outta mine.” Funny and very sarcastic, isn’t it? I guess, my friend was having a bad day when he posted this. I get that. Anyway, let me use this meme to summarize the two rules of discipleship that Jesus is teaching us today. So here we go, “two rules of discipleship.” First one is the same, “Mind your own,” but second one is a little different, “Stay out of hell.”
Now, let’s look into rule number one. “Mind your own.” Mind your own business and stop meddling in other’s businesses. Jesus is clear on this in today’s Gospel story. Here, the disciples encounter a person casting out demons in Jesus’ name. Where does this person come from? The disciples were so surprised because right before they meet this person, they failed to cast out unclean spirits from a troubled child (Mark 9:14-18). The healing miracle that this nameless person does in Jesus’ name is exactly what they couldn’t accomplish.
Getting so frustrated and jealous, they go to Jesus and tell on this person to him right away, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us” (Mark 9:38). Can you feel them? They are talking to Jesus like, “We are the disciples. That person is not. That person is not authorized to do such healing business in your name. That should remain exclusive, disciples only.” To them, Jesus replies back, “Don’t stop others who perform God’s work in my name. Whoever is not against us is for us and whoever do a little thing in my name will never lose the reward. So don’t put any stumbling block before the little ones who just start to believe in me.” In short, “Mind your own business guys.” Yes, Jesus is asking the disciples and us to be more mindful of our own discipleship. It’s because, in the end, it’s all about us as individuals standing all alone before God—nobody else. So we better not waste our time looking at the others and saying this and that, but we better mind our own ways to follow Jesus. How true it is!
Then, if we try to be more mindful of our own discipleship, what should we do? Where should we begin? Now we may go over to discipleship rule number two. “Stay out of hell.” It’s sounds simple and easy. But for Jesus, staying out of hell means a serious and ceaseless practice to identify and remove any stumbling blocks from us. And these stumbling blocks may be so deeply entrenched in our lives like our body parts that they are very hard to be taken away. But here Jesus definitively says, “It’s better to enter life without one hand, without one foot, without one eye, than to have whole body and be thrown into the fires of hell.”
In the original Gospel text, Jesus doesn’t really use the word, “hell,” but rather he uses the Aramaic name of a place called Gehenna. This was an actual place called the Valley of Hinnom, just outside the walls of Jerusalem. Centuries before the time of Jesus, Gehennahad been the place of idol worship where some of the kings of Judah even sacrificed their children by fire to the Canaanite god (Jeremiah 7:31; 19:2-6). And thereafter, Gehennabecame a place where corpses of criminals, dead animals, and all manners of refuse were thrown to be decayed and destroyed. So by the time of Jesus, it was a kind of the town dump filled with burning garbage and flesh. It was a desolate place utterly filthy and repulsive to nose and eyes of people. Thus, when Jesus mentions hell, he actually talks about the place like rubbish heap of Gehenna.
With his hell-talk, Jesus radically confronts his disciples. “If your life would end up being dumped out in the place like Gehenna, what would you do to avoid it? You would do whatever you can do. You may even choose to let go of some part of your body, than to be thrown into the cursed dump. Your life is precious. You are created in God’s image and not destined for the ash heap of the world. So what can you discard in order not to risk of discarding your entire life? Dump whatever that makes you stumble before your whole life gets dumped. That’s how you can stay out of hell.
Sisters and brothers in Christ, to be true disciples of Jesus is not easy. There are many distractions on our way. We sometimes get tired of getting no reward; we sometimes don’t like our fellow disciples; we sometimes compare ourselves to others and become frustrated. At these moments, let us remember discipleship rule number one, “Mind your own.” Yes, we better be mindful of our own discipleship always, because discipleship truly is about the personal relationship between us and Jesus, and because in the end, you and I will stand all alone before God—nobody else.
On our way to be faithful followers of Jesus, we also get to find many stumbling blocks embedded in our lives. Our big or small addictions and negative habits, our unresolved anger and emotional wounds, our troubled intentions misled by the spirit of our days, and our desire controlled by culture of this world…physical, mental, spiritual, social, and cultural stumbling blocks keep us from moving forward. At these moments, let us remember discipleship rule number two, “Stay out of hell.” We better choose life in Jesus and try our best to discard the stumbling blocks rather than to have our whole life discarded. We better keep battling against them.
Mind your own discipleship and stay out of hell…as we strive to keep these two rules in our lives, I hope and pray that we may get closer to Jesus day by day; we may be liberated more and more from the things that block us; and we may become more alive and more able in Jesus Christ. May God bless us all and lead our ways to be true disciples always. Amen.
Pastor Earl Kim