The difficult, and at times, harsh, readings today boil down to an ultimate choice – eternal life and the means to get there. The readings do give us a positive teaching that no generous life goes unrewarded, but also that no persistent selfish sinful way of life goes unpunished. We are given rather stark images of amputation and organ removal rather than to commit sins with them.
Any reasonable minded person can see that these drastic measures in Jesus’ teaching are not to be taken literally – yet the Gospel in its entirety contains passages like this one that do not sit easily with us.
It would not be the complete Gospel without this passage which we find deeply troubling and disturbing – regarding potential resorting to amputation and the like to avoid sinning with our limbs and organs! So what are we to make of the difficulty? We might say to ourselves – this is terrible thinking, and ‘old school’. But we cannot ‘pick and choose in Christ’ (St Paul).
Jesus was teaching for effect. Stark images and imagery make a deep impression on us. If we think of the best teachers at school who made a subject interesting and memorable it was their passion and their powers of persuasion. Their conviction was convincing. But they also used memorable stories and life lessons to hammer home their point.
There is a disturbing truth therefore in Jesus’ sayings today and that is the awfulness of sin and sin’s potential to exclude us from eternal happiness with God in heaven. Scandal and occasions of sin are to be ‘avoided like the plague’.
The term ‘scandal’ is used rather more generally today than its original meaning as a stumbling block (’skandalon’ in Greek). It was to perform a nasty piece of work to trip somebody up in their progress. It was an act of cruelty committed out of resentment and envy to take someone down a peg or two.
Scandal is the deliberate intention to place a building block in someone’s way, to trip them up and to cause them to fall. It involves malicious intent. It is better not to have been born at all than to live a life where we lead others into sin and possible damnation. The heart that desires to perform scandal to cause others to sin is truly evil. We seem to have lost the sense that we can speak , act and even dress ‘scandalously’. It is worth thinking about.
Occasions of sin are where we must be careful and have to avoid the deliberate decision to place ourselves ‘in harm’s way’. It may be the work of others to trip us up but like a minefield we must be on our guard and aware of the potential dangers to ourselves and keep away from all dangers to fall into sin – with our eyes for example – lust and covetousness and evil desires – and with our limbs – such as thievery or violence. We know our capacity to sin, we know our weaknesses and our potential to make wrong choices in life, to compromise our principles, to rationalise and make excuses for ourselves with sayings like ’just this once’ or ‘one more drink won’t do me any harm’ or ‘this rule does not apply to me’. We deliberate and we fall down.
Repentance is needed. The remedy to such self-delusion and selfishness is implied in the line regarding generosity – receiving a prophet’s reward for the offer of a cup of cold water. We must therefore turn from selfishness and be generous with our resources – this does not go unnoticed by the Lord who is quite ready to reward us for our acts of kindness, especially to those who represent Him.
Therefore while the thrust of the readings is on the dangers on the moral and spiritual plane - even spiritual jealousy and resentment at others’ success and others getting ahead - we are called to greater generosity of spirit just as God is generous with His Spirit.