Harsh words from Jesus this week, who seemingly instructs us to mutilation. If your eye offends you, pluck it out. If your hand offends you, cut it off. If your foot offends you, tear it off.
Even if we accept that he is speaking metaphorically, what can such a call toward violence mean for us? What message does Jesus have for his followers today?
We can hear first an invitation to imperfection, of all things. I think on some level we all of us are perfectionists, often harder on ourselves than on others. It seems that we are only satisfied with ourselves when we feel that we have achieved perfection. Jesus’ instruction reminds us first that we cannot be perfect – that God made us to be flawed beings for the very reason that those who are imperfect are necessarily dependent both on God and on others. In Jesus’ day, to be so disabled was to be on the margins, to be an outsider, and to depend on others for their very lives.
In urging us toward this state, perhaps Jesus is inviting us to see ourselves, and to see the world, from the point of view of the margins. Live on the outside and our perspective changes. Live on the fringes and see how much we need one another. Live as though I need help and I find myself more open to those around me.
In the world in which Jesus lived and preached, physical perfection was the highest possible standard; moreover, anyone with a handicap such as a missing eye or hand or foot was judged to have been found wanting by God himself. The disability was thought to be a punishment, a judgment from God. To invite us to live handicapped might be an invitation from Jesus to recognize the folly of this outlook because we are all, in some form or fashion, handicapped. We all of us are flawed, and if that is true, then it makes ridiculous the idea of being singled out for divine judgment.
And if we accept that Jesus is speaking metaphorically, is inviting you and me to life on the margins, what happens when we – metaphorically, of course – pluck out the eye, tear off the hand, tear off the foot? These are the very basic parts of our structures, the things we are certain that we cannot do without. Yet people without them live quite well and often go on to engage in acts that most people who are not missing those body parts cannot do.
Jim Abbott is a former professional baseball pitcher. In 1993, pitching for the New York Yankees, he threw a no-hitter against the Cleveland Indians. That is impressive by itself, a feat made even more impressive when we learn that Mr. Abbott has only one hand.
What does Jesus mean when he invites us to tear out the things that we think that we depend on, the things we think we cannot live without? I believe he is inviting us to an evaluation, perhaps a harsh one, in keeping with the language of his metaphor. What offends us? That is, what in each of our lives is getting in the way of us getting the point, what prevents us from walking in the Jesus way, what so distorts our focus that we are more concerned that someone else performed a healing that we could not, than the miracle of the healing itself?
What is it that we have made so central to our lives that we think we cannot live without – yet blocks us from hearing Jesus’ words, absorbing Jesus’ message, following Jesus’ challenging and rewarding path through our days? What, in fact, is getting in the way of our walking in the Jesus way? What can we tear away and discover that without it, what we might have seen as imperfection can in fact grant us a new perspective? When we put ourselves on the margins, we gain a new way of looking at the world, a way that celebrates that which we once would have criticized, so that we find that each of our imperfections brings something unexpected into the world.
The story is told of a water carrier who had two large pots, each hung on the end of a pole that he carried across his neck. One of the pots was cracked. While the other pot was perfect, and always delivered a full pot of water at the end of the long walk from the stream to the master’s house, the other pot always arrived only half full.
The perfect pot was proud of its accomplishments. But the cracked pot was ashamed of its own faults and miserable because it could accomplish only half of what it had been made for. After two years, it spoke to the water bearer one day by the stream
“I am ashamed of myself, and I want to apologize,” it said.
“Why?” asked the water bearer. “What are you ashamed of?”
“For these past two years, I have been able to deliver only half my load because the cracks in me cause water to leak out all the way from the stream to the master’s house. Because of my flaws, you have to do all of this work, and you don’t get full value from your efforts,” the pot said. The water bearer had a different perspective. He said, “As we return to the master’s house, I want you to see the beautiful flowers along the path.” As they went up the hill, the cracked pot took notice of the frangipani and the lotus, the jasmine, primrose, and hibiscus gracing the path and perfuming the air with their rich scents. The sight cheered the pot. But at the end of the trail, it still felt bad, and so again it apologized.
The water bearer said, “Did you notice that the flowers were only on one side of the path? That is because I know about the cracks that you call flaws. I planted seeds only on your side of the path, and every day while we walk back from the stream, you have watered them. I have been able to pick these flowers to decorate my master’s rooms. Without the cracks in you, he would not have been able to enjoy their beauty.”
If we tear from our lives all that gets in the way of making Jesus and his way central to our being, we might at first think that we are stripping away something we cannot live without. Instead, by changing our view of the world and those around us, we are discovering that in our very imperfections, we find a new way of being, a way that draws us closer to others. We find that our flaws and shortcomings, if they encourage us to depend on others, require us to build up relationships that bring about the Kingdom of God for all of us.