Which is better?

October 1st, 2006
Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29 Mark 9:38-50

Which is better? Slavery and rich foods or freedom and bread? Is it better to bow down to a master and have our physical needs cared for or to live in freedom and rely upon God alone for our needs?

I had a friend once, named Ray. When I met him, he had recently been paroled from prison where he had been serving time for theft. This was not the first crime he had committed either—he had been in and out of trouble since he was a young boy. For a year, he struggled to learn how to live life outside of prison. Getting a job was difficult, but he managed to do so and he had an apartment with his father. He faithfully checked in with his parole officer. But, daily life was difficult. He was so used to having someone tell him what time to get up, when to go to the shower, when to brush his teeth, when and how to clean up. Someone always prepared his meals, did his laundry and there were no bills to pay. It was not long before he lost his job because he had been late one too many times. Soon afterwards, his father told him he had to move out because he wasn’t paying his share of the bills and he was so messy and irresponsible. It was not long before Ray quit checking in with his parole officer and began to engage in his old habits of stealing. He was arrested and sent back to prison, this time for stealing a car. If you asked him why he did this, he would have told you that ultimately, he wasn’t cut out for living in society. He never learned to live in the joy of freedom. He was better off in prison because there they would feed him and he would always have a place to sleep.

He, like many people who have been in prison, didn’t know how to live in freedom. Think about this—he, and many other people like him, often want to go back to prison because they like it better. They would prefer to give up the freedom to come and go as they please, to visit friends and family whenever they want, to choose what they will wear every day, to choose where they will live, to have and raise children, to drive a car, to walk outside whenever they want in order to have guaranteed food to eat and a place to sleep.

This is similar to what the Israelites were saying to Moses in today’s Old Testament reading. They complained that they had been brought out to that desert to eat nothing but this manna when they could have remained in Egypt and eaten well. They would rather have returned to their life of slavery under pharaoh—a life of restriction, abuse and confinement—than to live free lives and be fed on bread sent daily from God.

We don’t do that do we? Surely we don’t think it would be better to be in prison, in slavery than to be free? How often do we cling to things that enslave us and separate us from God—things that are addicting, hurtful, sinful? How often do we fail to be good role models for children and those who are young in their faith—the little ones—because of our choices? There is a similarity between the life the Israelites lived in slavery in Egypt and our lives in slavery to sin. Just as they desired their old life, we too cling to our old lives as well.

In today’s gospel lesson, we hear Jesus’ harsh words about what we choose to live with and how it can affect us. I will admit that my first reaction to Jesus’ instructions is to shiver. Cutting off our hands or feet or eyes if they cause us to sin—the thought sends cold chills down my spine and it is easy to get caught up in this imagery and miss the significant point Jesus is trying to make.

We know that he doesn’t mean literally to cut these limbs off, not only because he was a man who healed others to make them physically whole but also because none of his followers or the disciples of the early church practiced this kind of self-mutilation. He says that it is better to enter in to life without things that cause us to sin. Enter into life? Aren’t his disciples, the ones he is talking to, alive? I think that Jesus is talking about something other than just being alive. Rather, I think he is talking about entering into life with him—into a life of discipleship—a life lived in the kingdom of God. Jesus says if you hand causes you to sin, cut it off.

Well, we all know that our hands do not really have a consciousness separate from ourselves. They do not have a will and life of their own and they cannot actually make us sin. Nor can our foot or our eye or any other part of our bodies. However, there are certain situations that can cause us to be more likely to sin or to live in ways that may cause others to stumble. We all know what those situations are for ourselves and what is a bad environment for one person may not be for another. For example, a recovering alcoholic or drug addict does cannot continue to spend time with their friends who drink heavily or use drugs. Painful as it may be to end those relationships, they must cut them off in order to enter into their new life and to stay in that new life of freedom.

A professor of mine once told a class that he had the secret to fighting sin. “When you run into a situation where you are tempted to sin,” he would say, “when you feel like you are going to give in to something that you know you shouldn’t do, when you feel overwhelmed and are afraid there are two powerful words you should always remember.” We all held our breath waiting for the magic formula that would save our souls. “The words are—Run Away!” Put distance between yourself and the ability to sin. Practical advice and similar to what Jesus tells us today. We can see this in all kinds of situations in our lives, from friends that encourage us to gossip or goof off at work to ways in which we indulge in too much of any good thing. Removing ourselves or the temptation makes it harder to sin.

Yet, struggling to prune ourselves to be good disciples, we might think, hey, things were sure better back then, when we weren’t trying to follow Jesus. Back when we were in bondage to sin, we ate well, drank well, had lots of friends. Now we have to work hard and following Jesus isn’t always easy. We aren’t always popular and now we have to make different choices about our actions and our money and how we spend our free time. Slave food was pretty good—maybe we should go back. This is where Jesus’ words come to us—but not as a threat but as an example of what is valuable. Jesus tells his disciples and us that the new life of discipleship in following him is worth cutting off anything that gets in the way.

One definition of sin is “anything that separates us from God”. If that is so, then cutting off things that make us sin is very important and it brings us closer to God.

However, in the end, as hard as we try, we will never be able to cut off enough things from our lives to be sin free. We cannot do it. Pruning ourselves to be good disciples is a worthy task, but ultimately we cannot do it on our own because in the end, it is not a hand or a foot or an eye or a bottle or relationship or anything outside ourselves that causes us to sin. It is our broken human nature. Each Sunday we confess that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free OURSELVES—that’s the most important word there. We can’t free ourselves. So who can? Who can free us? Who can cut away all those things that keep us separated from God? Who can free us from our slavery, even though we long for what we mistakenly think is its good food, and lead us into freedom so that we can be fed by God?

Jesus teaches his disciples that it is better to cut off anything that causes sin. He loves us so much that he did much more than cut off a hand or foot to be with God. Rather he sacrificed his whole self so that WE can be with God. Jesus took upon himself all of our sin and cut it off from us in his crucifixion. In his death, he takes away the sin of the world so that when we are baptized into his death and resurrection, he has cut off our sin from us so that we may live a new life with him.

We still struggle with sin in this life. We still face things that encourage us to sin and struggle with our broken nature in this broken world. But here, we have bread from heaven—the body and blood of Jesus—to help us in this struggle. Here we are fed from God’s own hand, from God’s own body, to strengthen us in our life here. We, like the Israelites, still sometimes long for our slave-food. We cannot always see that this freedom in Christ, where we are fed by the hand of God, is so much better than bondage. And, as with the Israelites, God does not give up on us. God stays with us and continues to feed us on himself and cut away our sin so that we may have new life in him.

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