“And if your hand causes you to fall away, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and go to hell, the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to fall away, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to fall away, gouge 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.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
In 1986 a new term was coined to describe a certain class of radio disc-jockeys: Shock jock. Shock jocks were radio personalities who pushed the envelop of what was socially and morally acceptable (not to mentioned allowed by the FCC) as far as they possibly could in order to keep their audiences coming back for more. The idea of saying unexpected or potentially offensive things to get people to listen, though, has been around for a long time. While this kind of thing has often been a tool of comedians, its use goes further back than that. Using a bit of shock to get His audience to pay attention was actually something Jesus liked to do on occasion. Here is perhaps the most famous example of his doing this. Let’s talk about it.
There are actually two issues that get raised by these verses. One is technical; one emotional. Let’s start with the technical just to get that out of the way. If you look at the verse reference at the top of this post, it looks like I included five verses here. That’s an unusually long passage for me. Usually I take us through smaller chunks than that. Well, as it turns out, there are actually only three verses here which you’ll see if you click through to see the passage in context. In some translations there are five, but in most of the major ones there are just three. What happened to the other two verses?
The missing verses are v. 44 and v. 46. They both say the same thing: “Where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.” The same things appears in the text in v. 48. The phrase is simply a further description of hell. Okay, but why do those two verses get left out? Well, this is one of those rare places where the differences among various ancient manuscripts amounts to more than a punctuation mark or a transposed letter. In this case, some of the ancient copies we have of Mark include vv. 44 and 46, and some don’t. This leaves modern scholars with the task of sorting out which copy is the most correct.
When this kind of thing happens, there is actually a process scholars use to determine what’s original and what’s not. First, preference is given to the older text. The reason for this is that copyists weren’t like to accidentally leave something out of the text when they did their work. They were way too careful for that sort of thing. It was not unheard of, however, for a later editor to add in a word or phrase he thought might help the reader better understand what was being said. Because of this, the older manuscripts are generally considered more authoritative. Second, preference is given in these conflicts to the harder reading. If there are two versions of a particular verse and one makes it harder to interpret than the other, scholars generally go with that one as the more original version. The reason here is that a later copyist wouldn’t be likely to add in something that would make the text harder to understand. A subtle change to smooth things out, however, is pretty understandable.
In this case, the most ancient copies of Mark we have don’t include vv. 44 and 46. Given that alone, they are probably not original to the text. Additionally, it is easy to imagine a later editor adding them in for reasons of symmetry. Jesus’ words here have a cadence to them that is repetitive. With the tag of v. 48 being like it is, you can imagine a copyist adding the same phrase where older translations have the two missing verses for the sake of literary balance. All told, though, these verses don’t impact our ability to interpret what Jesus is saying here in the slightest and thus don’t have any impact at all on our rightful confidence in the text.
Speaking of interpreting what Jesus is saying here…shall we do that?
This wasn’t the first time Jesus had said something like this. Matthew recorded His saying the same basic thing in the Sermon on the Mount. This was probably one of the things Jesus included in His teaching about the kingdom of God on a fairly regular basis. The guys had all heard this before and started nodding along with them when He said it. They may have even started saying it right along with Him.
This is one of those places where Jesus used shock to get His audience’s attention. And indeed, it probably got your attention. After all, being told to amputate and gouge out parts of your body isn’t something you hear every day. So then, does Jesus really want us to consider doing this? The short answer is, no. This was hyperbole for the purposes of making a point. It was a particularly graphic point, though, so the hyperbole is particularly graphic.
But in our efforts to explain away a literal understanding of what Jesus is saying here, we too often excuse ourselves from the real point of His words. Jesus had just told them that it would be better for someone to tie a giant rock around their neck and throw it into the ocean than it would be for them to lead someone away from a relationship with Him. He was building up to the point of just how important gaining access to the eternal life of the kingdom of God is and this is His big finish.
And the big finish is this point: There is nothing in the world so important as gaining access to the kingdom of God. Nothing. Not a single thing. Not even one. Nada. Zilch. Zippo. Nyet. Are you with me? If there is something in your life that is standing in the way of your relationship with Jesus, you need to get rid of it. Now, that doesn’t mean you can blame hard to love people for challenges in your relationship with Jesus and get rid of them. That’s not what Jesus means and that’s a cop out anyway. This is a personal challenge. The biggest obstacles to your relationship with Jesus are not external things. They are internal ones. As a general rule, the people around you cannot impede your progress to the kingdom unless you allow them to do so. That’s between you and Jesus. If there are things in your own heart – habits, thoughts, actions, etc. – that are standing in the way of your embrace of the kingdom, you need to get rid of them. No matter what the short term cost, they’ve got to go. The long term cost of failing to do this will be infinitely higher. The long term benefits of succeeding will more than make up for what the present costs may be. We are talking here about not just life and death, but eternal life and death.
Here’s your challenge, then: What is standing in your way of a fuller embrace of God’s kingdom and what are you going to do about it? Moving forward in the direction of Jesus may very well not be easy. It may be the most difficult thing you’ve ever done in your entire life. But if you do it, it will be the most important thing you’ve ever done in your entire life. The choice is yours.