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Thursday, September 24, 2009

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

by Kristin Berkey-Abbott

The readings for Sunday, Sept. 27, 2009:

First Reading: Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22

Psalm: Psalm 19:7-14

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 124

Second Reading: James 5:13-20

Gospel: Mark 9:38-50

Sometimes, we forget how harsh the message of Jesus must sound to outsiders. Sometimes, we've heard a certain phrase so often that we don't stop to ponder the implications.

Consider this verse: "And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire" (Mark 9: 43). And then we get the verses about cutting off a foot and plucking out an eye.

As a child, I was always taught that these verses were metaphorical. Of course we shouldn't pluck out our eyes if we looked at something forbidden.

As an older person, I wonder if we fall back on that idea of metaphor too often. Unfortunately, what often happens is that we sweeten up the message of Jesus in a desperate bid to attract non-believers. Look at all those prosperity gospel books, if you don't believe me. Several years ago, I was stuck in an airport in Kentucky, and I scanned much of a book entitled God Wants You to Be Rich! Really, I thought. The God I worship wants me to give my money away. If I take Jesus literally, not figuratively, I should be giving more of my money away. Notice how I'm hedging, even just then. There are plenty of verses where Jesus tells us to give ALL our money away.

As a pre-teen and early teen, I often voiced my desire to be either Jewish or Catholic. My parents were confounded by these requests and tried to explain the differences between our Lutheran beliefs and that of Jewish people and Catholic people.

But for me, it wasn't about beliefs. It was about practice. I wanted a religion that would impose a harsher discipline. I wanted to keep kosher. I wanted penance activities to do to earn forgiveness.

Now that I'm older, I want a religion that accepts my faults and reassures me that I'm lovable anyway. But I often wonder if mainline groups are losing members to more fundamentalist faiths because those faiths offer more rigorous requirements.

Jesus knows that we don't often require enough of ourselves--not in our spiritual relationships, not in our friendships, not in our workplaces, not in our families. Jesus knows that we will let ourselves off of the hook and not require real change of ourselves. And worse, Jesus knows that our harmful practices may harm others. Like the disciples who tell the man casting out demons to quit, we often dampen the positive passions of others.

What do we need to pluck out of our personalities? What is causing us to fall short of the full glory that can be ours? Or, to frame the question in a more positive way: how can we be good salt?

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