Reflection for Sunday 26 September (Trinity 17)
The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Jesus didn’t say this, but judged by the teachings in today’s Gospel passage from St Mark, he might well have done. He makes is very clear that following him means more than just saying ‘yes’. We have work to do.
I was reminded of the ‘road to hell’ aphorism by a chapter in a motivational book based on how to coach rowers to Olympic gold-medal success. ‘Will it make the Boat go faster’ was required reading in our diocese too a few years ago as we set out our ‘transformational agenda’ now known as ‘growing church bringing hope.’
Time will yet tell how well the lessons of the sports coaches have been taken truly to heart, and maybe the future of the church isn’t just based on the equivalent of getting up every morning at 5am, weight-training in cold, damp boat sheds, early nights and a high calorie diet, but there’s no escaping Jesus’s own imperative to each and every one of us to be whole-hearted and single-minded in our discipleship.
Such teaching can seem like a bit of a cold shower to many of us who come to Jesus because we’re all too aware of our faults and failings and are, first of all, in need of help and comfort. After all, didn’t Jesus himself say, ‘come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you … for my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’? All that is true, but discipleship is not just about a way of meeting our needs, and our well-being, it’s also about reaching out to others and doing good – and not being deflected in that intention.
Although it may indeed begin when we acknowledge our weakness, it then also makes demands of us. It’s about transforming the world, a far more far-reaching agenda than the renewal of the church, no matter how much that may be needed. And it demands that we have a focus and single-mindedness paralleled by the dedication needed to excel in sport, business, academia and the arts.
It means that we need to be clear about our goals and priorities and unsentimental, even ruthless, about dismissing those things that get in the way of achieving them. It’s about making sacrifices.
Jesus’s teaching makes all this clear. Of course, he deliberately goes over the top in just the same way that motivational speakers still delight in doing. It’s a style of teaching that he seems to have loved and often used.
The millstones placed around our necks if we cause those most in need to stumble are whopping great affairs, capable only of being turned by a donkey. We do not need to cut off limbs or pluck out eyes any more that a camel is actually able to inch its way through a needle, but the point is well-made. Our hands, feet and eyes are given to us to do good. Full stop. End of story.
And the same dynamic extends to the consequences before us if we fail to act rightly. ‘Hell’ in this passage with its unquenchable fire is actually Gehenna, the Jerusalem city rubbish tip, where fires indeed burned day and night, but not for eternity.
But the point again, is abundantly clear: if we don’t do good, if we miss the opportunity to do good, we’re rubbish. And that applies to any of us, indeed all of us, whatever our own needs or shortcomings may be.
There have been too many commentators who have looked on this passage as if Jesus is trying to scare us into good works, a mindset that the medieval church delighted in far too often; but please don’t get bogged down in the analogies or the detail, any more than you need worry about how you might construct a diet of 7000 calories a day or who’s going to supervise your weight training. Simply recognise the broader, deeper point that’s being made and get your priorities right.
And also remember just what Jesus is calling you to do. Christian discipleship may indeed, at times, involve some of us having to make awful sacrifices, when the forces of evil crowd in on us, as so many examples in Christian history have shown, but few of us are going to be thrown to the lions.
Most of us, most of the time are simply called to show love and kindness in the mundane circumstances of the lives given to us. Discipleship is about an absolute commitment to that – and to truthfulness and honesty. It’s about being as generous as we’re able, whenever we’re able, and not just when we can afford to be.
It’s also about believing that such actions can make a world of a difference. One of the worst sins we can commit is of thinking that what we do isn’t up to much and therefore it doesn’t matter if we just choose lose ourselves in our own narrow concerns.
This is like salt that’s lost its taste – an image that might seem curious, but only if you realise that the salt Jesus would have known was high in bitter impurities that might be all that was left when the good stuff had been dissolved.
I repeat: one of our greatest sins, one that so easy to fall into, is the one of thinking that our actions aren’t worth much and what’s the point of trying?
Belief makes a world of difference, as the Olympic coaches are the first to insist. Don’t get bogged down in the detail. Don’t worry about the fires of hell, just get out there, and as I said just the other week, keep up the good work. It’s already making a world of a difference.