I’ve talked a bit about my mom in my sermons and about how she was diagnosed with cancer around the time I was five or six. My whole childhood was significantly shaped by her illness and death; but yet, as an adult, I have been amazed to keep discovering just how little I understood about how hard and painful my mom’s battle with cancer really was. I knew that she had chemotherapy that made her hair fall out – I remember getting to play with some of the fun wigs that she had – but I had no idea how rough the chemo and the radiation treatments really were on her body. It was basically a race to try to kill the cancer before the cancer – or the treatment itself – killed her.
And I knew that Mom had had a mastectomy. As a kid, that part of it seemed pretty straightforward to me: that’s where the cancer is right there, so just – boom – chop it off and you should be good to go! But now, as I’m getting close to the age my mom was when she was battling cancer, even that choice hits me kind of differently. I’m still a relatively young person – and so was my mom – and I can’t imagine having to make that choice whether to literally cut off part of my own body. That could not have been easy.
But in my mom’s case, that amputation was the most hopeful thing that they could do. She was barely 40 and there was every reason to expect that she still had decades of life ahead of her. She was a beloved elementary school teacher and had a huge community of support behind her, praying for her to get better. And, of course, more than anything, she was a wife and a mother with three young kids at home all under the age of ten. We needed her. We loved her. And so the doctors fought like hell to save her life. They tried everything that they could to help her, exhausted all possible options, even experimental treatments. And some of those treatments were extremely invasive and aggressive and painful, but the doctors decided it was worth it – because her life was worth saving, and it was their best chance of doing so.
“If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off… If your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off… If your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out” – for it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one hand or one foot or one eye than for you to have all your parts and be “thrown into hell.” I hear echoes of those painful and aggressive treatments my mom went through when I read our gospel reading for today. These verses are probably pretty familiar to most of us (though I can’t imagine these are anybody’s favorite verses!) but even so, it’s still startling and upsetting to hear Jesus speaking like this.
Jesus sounds harsher and less forgiving in this text than the Jesus we are used to encountering. But I tend to hear this passage in the vein of healing. Sometimes healing and wholeness are painful to achieve; and when our sickness is serious, harsher treatments become necessary. It’s not like we need to start chopping off our noses or our arms or our legs everytime we get a cold or even break a bone. But when someone has a serious illness, like widespread infection or advanced diabetes – or cancer – the only treatment that will help is treatment that is just as serious as the disease – even when that means cutting off parts of the body.
Jesus is trying to underscore that the path of discipleship is serious business. And anything that draws us away from that path needs to be dealt with seriously. Usually this isn’t our actual, physical body parts that are causing us to stumble – it’s what’s underneath, the things that come from within our hearts, the things that we allow to come between us and God. Last week, for example, you might remember that we read James’ writing about “wisdom from above” vs earthly wisdom, and we talked about how, at the end of the day, what God really wants more than anything else is right relationship with us and for us to have right relationships with our neighbors. Walking by divine wisdom – by God’s wisdom – we show care and compassion for our neighbor and for creation; we walk with God. But walking by worldly wisdom leads us away from God; it leads us instead toward prioritizing our own individual needs and wants and fears, or prioritizing the interests of our little in group over the interests or needs of everybody else. And when these things start to draw us away from God and from our neighbor, it’s time to start considering serious treatment. It might be time to start cutting off the things that cause us to stumble so that we can find our way back to the path of life.
As hard as that can be, Jesus says that it’s better this way. In fact, he tells the disciples that it’s better to be maimed than to have all of our parts and to be “thrown into hell.” Yikes. Here again, though, Jesus is using more shocking language to get our attention and to emphasize how serious he is. But this is language we really have to be careful with. The idea of hell and eternal fire has all too often been misused within the Christian tradition. Some of you have probably been on the receiving end of this. The threat of hell has been used as a club to silence people who have different opinions or who just come to the church with doubts and questions. And it gets used as a means of trying to scare people into good behavior, through creating fear of eternal torment.
Thankfully, one of the gifts of our Lutheran theological heritage is that we have been freed from this kind of fear. We already know that we have screwed things up. We already know that we can’t make ourselves right before God or earn our salvation. Instead, we have been saved by God’s free gift of grace, and not through our own actions. We know that we have been redeemed through Christ’s act of love on the cross, and that nothing else in all creation could ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. God has accomplished it all already through grace. There is no need for hell. And so, as Bishop Eaton has commented before, I think that even if there really is a physical or literal hell somewhere, it is empty.
Now, that being said, I do think that, in some sense, hell is real. I think hell is something we experience on earth. I think many of us have gotten a taste of hell over this past year and a half: those of us who had to watch loved ones slowly die from a distance; those of us whom the pandemic isolated and cut off from the rest of our community; those of us who carried the stress of trying to make the right decision when there were no good options; and all those of us living with the deep divisions in our country that tribalism and misinformation have only made worse.
Hell is a place of suffering, a place of isolation and hatred and hopelessness. Hell is a place of death, not life – and it’s where our path can lead us when we wander away from God’s path of life. Hell is the opposite of God’s kingdom, the absence of God’s kingdom. Sometimes hell is of our own making, the result of our soul sickness drawing us away from God. And sometimes the hell we’re in is the result of somebody else’s soul sickness, or just because we live in a sick and broken world.
Whether we are suffering because of our own brokenness or because of someone else’s, whether there is a literal hell or only a figurative one, Jesus has come to heal us and to save us from all of it – to save us from ourselves. However harsh or painful the treatment, Christ’s goal is to help us heal and become whole and find our way back to the path of life. And just like with physical illness, the path of healing can be long and winding and difficult. It’s one thing to recognize what it is that draws us away from God. But actually reorienting ourselves to God and letting go of pieces of who we are can be very difficult.
But we can take comfort and encouragement in knowing that even the most painful healing is a sign that Jesus has not given up on us. Just like with my mom, doctors only use aggressive, invasive treatments when they think there’s a chance of a good outcome – when they think it’s worth the risk to save a life. God thinks our lives are worth saving. God thinks your life is worth saving, and God is willing to fight like hell to do so. God in Christ came among us to bring us healing and salvation and life. And so, as harsh as Jesus’ words sound in this gospel text – and they do sound harsh – they are spoken from a place of great love. Jesus just knows that sometimes cutting things out is the only way to make us whole.