“If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off”

Monday, August 8, 2011 — Week of Proper 14, Year One

Dominic, Priest and Friar, 1221

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office (Book of Common Prayer, 978)

Psalms 89:1-18 (morning) 89:19-52 (evening)

2 Samuel 13:23-39

Acts 20:17-38

Mark 9:42-50

When I was a child, I was haunted by today’s gospel. Childhood is so brutal, competitive and violent. Passions are untamed. Kids do mean things to one another. Life seems so much more absolute during childhood — things are either right or wrong, good or bad; people are either friends or enemies. Our adults sought to civilize us with rules and punishments. They made it seem that it is a law of the universe that if you do certain things, particular punishments will result. Thus saith the Lord.

Later in life I heard a child psychologist say, “Children are wonderful observers and terrible interpreters.” Children think so literally.

So I heard in the gospel: “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell…” The warnings go on to include feet and eyes, and by extension, it doesn’t take much creativity to think of other body parts as well. It was a frightening scenario for a literal-minded reader, living as I did, in the naughtiness of childhood.

The sheer bloodiness of the whole thing was its undoing for me. It didn’t take long to think of my own offenses that might justify my full dismemberment. Yet self-preservation kicked in. It didn’t seem just. (“Fair” was a big word then.) And I looked around and saw a town full of adults who went to church and read their Bibles. They must have known this passage, but I saw no evidence of this particular penitence.

Living in the Bible Belt, this scripture was something that challenged our Baptist friends’ claim to a higher respect for the Bible. There weren’t any more amputations across the street at First Baptist than there were at my Episcopal church. They must not believe much more than we did.

So I adapted toward a more moderate view of punishment for sin. Actually, that’s what seemed to work better for me. A bit less guilt; a little less punishment; a lot more grace. In my case, honey attracted more flies than a swatter could ever kill. I was more responsive to encouragement and rewards, inspiration and goals than I ever was to punishment. Punishment simply made me mad. It planted seeds of anger and rebellion that occasionally bore the later fruit of more extreme behavior.

But there are behaviors that seem to resist the power of positive thinking. Some things have to be handled with a sharp-edged cutting off.

People in 12-step recovery programs will testify to the necessity of amputating some behaviors at the risk of one’s life. It is better to enter life maimed than with two-fisted drinking to go to hell.

There are certain patterns of thought and particular activities that bode ill for us and need to be dealt with forcefully. “Get thee behind me, Satan.” Don’t go there; don’t even think about it. Quit. Right now. Never again. One day at a time.

Most of the time, a bit of positive, rational reinforcement is enough to turn me from less wholesome to more wholesome behaviors. But there are those things that need to be dealt with more severely. Some things simply need to be cut out, chopped off, and stopped.

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