If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they 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 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." (Mark 9:42-48)
Whenever I read these verses I imagine all the people that have maimed themselves over the centuries because of what Jesus said. Were they right? Was Jesus to be taken literally here? Most of us would agree that's probably not what he meant. But then what does he really mean? Why use such extreme language?
I think what Jesus is saying here is to take sin seriously. I mean, really seriously. Serious as in it may be better to lose a limb than keep on sinning. Apparently, the Kingdom of God and eternity must mean far more than a comfortable life on earth. However, even that can be misconstrued into severe legalism or an incredibly stressful life. It would be very easy to put all our focus on avoiding sin, but we all know that's impossible. So then what? Should we just be stressed out and afraid all the time? I would argue that a good way to take sin seriously is to let it affect you, and as we read on, I think this matches up with what Jesus says next.
Everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can you make it salty again? Have salt among yourselves, and be at peace with each other. (Mark 9:49-50)
This salt analogy has always perplexed me. It's not hard to derive some kind of meaning from it, but how do we narrow down exactly what Jesus meant in this context? It's no secret that salt was used heavily in Jesus' day -- for taste, preservation, trade and more -- and so I will make a general statement and say that salt is useful. And so, if this salt loses whatever quality makes it "salty," it's not much more than sand, right? But what does this have to do with sin?
Jesus says, "Everyone will be salted with fire," right after he makes these extreme statements about sin. Here is the connection between the two: we all sin ("everyone"), but it can make us useful ("salted"); and I would argue it makes us useful when we let it affect us. How? We learn from our mistakes and try not to do them again. However, if we stop learning, or stop letting sin affect us, we become much less useful ("salty"), and it becomes more and more difficult go backwards to a place where we are malleable people again.
The last verse confirms it: "Have salt among yourselves, and be at peace with each other." This seems a bit random -- what does unity and peace have to do with our own individual sin? When Jesus says that "everyone" sins, we are immediately united and have common ground in our struggles, as well as our collective need for a savior. If we then start to think sin isn't important, or don't let it affect us, we are breaking ties with mankind in a haughty statement of self-righteousness. Furthermore, the sin that once taught us lessons in life (made us "salty"), which we could then go on to use in helping our brothers with their own struggles, has lost its significance and made us stagnant, useless, bland.
If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us. (1 John 1:8-10)
Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. (Galatians 6:1-2)
But let's take this one step further: Examining our sin and letting it affect us is indeed important and makes us useful, but there's one thing that can affect us more -- the Cross. Think about the times in life when you were the closest to God? How focused on sin were you? Probably not that much. How focused on God were you? Probably a lot. If we keep our focus on Jesus and what he has done for us -- the magnitude of God becoming human to atone for mistakes he did not make to redeem a people who did not deserve it, all in the name of love -- does that not strike a chord in your soul that changes who you are from the inside out? Let it steep. Let it sink in. Get quiet. Meditate on it. Jesus sets up a pretty high standard here, one that none of us can meet, and then obliterates it through his own sacrifice. How incredible is that? Has anyone ever done anything like that for you?
To lose sight of that and stop letting it affect us is a far greater loss of saltiness than sensitivity to sin; but how easy is it for that to happen? How rarely are we taken by the awe of God and his acts, when busyness and productivity controls our life? But when we are, and our spirit is lifted up to his, we are changed, and love for God and love for others pours out through the cracks of our heart like salt water rivers, bringing with them healing and vibrancy and life.