Finding the good news in a grim text…

I’m struck, having read the Gospel for today, by a quotation from Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest; ‘God is not a torturer. He only wants us to be merciful with ourselves.’  That seems a wonderful truth to me, and quite a contrast with some verses from the Gospel we heard today…

‘If your hand causes your downfall,  cut it off; it is better for you to enter life   maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire..’

‘And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter   life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell..’

There are so many problems with such verses that I hardly know how to begin. Any Hallelujahs sung before and after the Gospel reading were not really about responding enthusiastically to this message. Do we, and did Jesus, really want to recommend that people should mutilate themselves to avoid sin and temptation? I know you could argue, and people have, that in a culture where you could be executed for stealing or adultery then just losing a few fingers or an eye might seem a tempting alternative – but no, what am I saying? When could it ever be good or right to damage yourself, or to invoke the name of religion in encouraging people to be violent towards themselves or to others? If you watched any of The Handmaid’s Tale on television, if you keep up with the news about ISIS, or if you’ve ever listened to what people say at bus stops or in bars about religion being behind so much of the violence in the world, you will want to question whether verses like this are part of the Gospel at all. It’s not as though it would even work – to mutilate yourself like this. We all know that it’s not our hands, or feet or eyes, that lead us into bad ways – it’s somewhere more deep rooted than that. Just as people with gastric bands can find ways to over eat so I think someone with no hands could find a way to steal if they were really desperate. And in any case, the last thing I want anyone to do is to hurt themselves in the name of religion or anything else. In our times, we seem to have found so many ways to hurt ourselves and it’s heartbreaking to hear that so many young people are cutting themselves, that too many of us cause damage to ourselves through over indulgence or bad habits of all sorts, and that so many of us somehow think we need to punish ourselves. I wouldn’t want to read these verses in a school, for fear that someone might take it too much to heart, too literally, and that someone might think that God wants us to hurt ourselves, that cutting yourself could ever be a good idea…

And even if you think it might be better to suffer a little in this life so that we can inherit eternal life, this is really one of those Sundays when I want to protest. And not just because these verses are cruel or dangerous, or because they are the kind of thing that gets religion a bad name – though that would be enough. I want to protest because I don’t think they express the heart of God. I really don’t think I want anyone to hear those verses and think they are there for any other reason than for them to be subverted by the real good news of Jesus. God does not, and never will, ask us to hurt ourselves or others. God does not, and never will, encourage us to believe that violence is ever the answer to our deepest woes. I think God gave us, in Christ, a very different kind of answer to the things that hurt us so deeply that we might want to hurt other people or ourselves. I believe that cutting and hurt and pain and violence are not part of God’s will for us. I have spent too long with those who are hurting enough already to believe this could be the case. God came in Jesus to point us to a different way – I dare to believe – and here I stand.

My blood runs cold when I read stories about people of faith turning to violence, when anyone thinks that violence would keep the church or the community or even an individual person pure. If these verses have helped anyone think any of that was right then these verses ought to come with a warning as we read them. I can remember passing often in Oxford over the place where Archbishop Cranmer was burned at the stake. It seemed to me a kind of holy place – but a kind of warning place too. Those who burned the Archbishop who wrote the words of the Book of Common Prayer though they were hurting him so as to make him better. They weren’t the first or the last to think that was a good idea..

But what about Jesus then? Was he really the kind of person who wanted us to punish ourselves, to hurt ourselves so that we could avoid sin?  Did he really believe that torture and mutilation were ways to get people nearer heaven? I have to say that if I thought for a moment that he was, I’d take off my gown, quit the ministry and even the faith right now.

But why I am so convinced? I am very squeamish and very soft-hearted, so of course I don’t like violence and pain. But it’s not just for those reasons. And actually, if you press me, I can see that there are times when embracing suffering or being willing to endure it could be the right thing. I heard a magnificant programme this week about Dietrich Bonhoeffer – there was a man who did think it was better to suffer than to let evil go un-questioned.. There are times when these verses might challenge us to say ‘Yes, it is better even that I die, than that this evil (the Holocaust, for example) is allowed to happen…’ I can imagine that, and I hope that if it were really asked of me, I could do it..

But, there is another reason, another different kind of reason why I don’t believe that Jesus asks us to hurt ourselves so that we can be better. I don’t think that Jesus was as obsessed as this passage seems to be with us being good. Being religious is not actually about being good or being bad  – it’s about being loved, about discovering that we truly are loved, even while we are still sinners… and just whoever and whatever we are. The shocking verse about cutting off your hand so you don’t sin and the others like it are all about our kind of obsession with being good, how to make ourselves better people, and Jesus seems to have been quite relaxed about that most of the time. At least he doesn’t seem to have thought anyone could make themselves good by obsessing about it – in fact it might even be better to forget self, think about other people and just get on it. Don’t hate yourself, but love your neighbour. Don’t try to hold onto your life or your future – you’ll only really find it if you lose it in looking out and forgetting self..

And then there is also, and most of all, the extraordinary power of the Gospel narrative that reveals a story in which God is among us, God is embodied among us as the human being, the very best of the human race, in one who does not have a perfect body at all. He is goodness through and through. He is love made flesh. But his hands and his feet are broken and bruised and torn, not because he wanted to keep himself from sin – because he didn’t need to – , but because he gave himself for others.

If we’re thinking about cutting bodies in order to get to life, then I think we have to bring to mind the greatest story of an injured body, Jesus and his body.  And the strongest image we all have of Jesus is of his body on the cross, his feet and hands torn and cut, his body bruised from the scourging, his head crowned with ugly thorns, the blood blinding his eyes. Far from telling all of us to mutilate ourselves to win our own salvation, Jesus carried our wounds in his own body, and somehow, in a way that no theologian has ever completely explained, this wounding is the saving of all our lives. It reveals that God stands with those who are cut and bruised, those who are the victims of violence, those who cannot save themselves. Jesus never once showed any sign of wanting to do anything to anyone else’s body but heal and mend it, or touch it with love or set it free from death or shame. He was gentle with the bodies of those he met. He made the rest of us whole, all of us sinners, none of us ready for heaven on anyone’s terms – he made us whole, even at the cost of his own brokenness.

At every baptism service we say that we become part of the body of Christ, and at every communion service we remember how Jesus told his disciples that his body would be broken and his blood would be shed. He told the disciples that his body was to be given for the life of the world. And whether they understood it or not – he told them that it was better that he should give his body for us than to preserve his own skin. It is better that we should enter into life – sinners that we be – and it wasn’t that our bodies needed to be mutilated or hurt or broken – but that he was willing to offer his. The Christ I know was never and never will be the supporter of violence. He was never and never will be in favour of accusing sinners unless unless he could sit there himself alongside you on the sinners bench. He was never and never will be the saviour of the righteous and the good, but he is the friend of sinners.  He was never and never will be interested in who is good and who is bad – but embraces and loves anyone who …. well – just anyone.

And the thing is this – that I believe that you can find people who have found eternal life, or been given it, out of God’s sheer gracious love, even when, even when, they are very far from perfect. I think I’m looking at some of them, and certainly speaking as one. We don’t have to buy our way into heaven, we don’t have to make ourselves right for it. It’s God’s gift and God opens the door. And if anything, Jesus came to show how even those with thieving hands or lustful eyes can still find a way to life.. But let God find the way and don’t think you can force your way in by violence of any kind. I think that’s good news, for all of us. But I’m counting on the Jesus who said that ‘Whoever is not against us, is for us.’ I’m for him. I hope you are too. Amen.