A woman cowers on the cliffs overlooking a deep mountain lake. An angry crowd has gathered to witness her terrifying death. Situated on the edge of the cliff, a massive disk-shaped stone stands on its side, a hole cut in the center. The executioners drag the trembling woman to the stone, force her head through the hole, and bind her in place with a rope. And then, with a single mighty push, they tip the stone over the edge. She tumbles end over end—sees sky, water, sky, water, sky—and then water.
In a dimly lit hut on the edge of a nearby village, a man drips with sweat as he studies a meat cleaver resting on a rough table. He sends his left hand toward the knife, forcing his fingers to close over the handle. Through a sheer force of will, he holds his right wrist to the table. The cleaver shakes in his hand; the man bites his lip; and a scream comes as it hacks through his wrist. Blood pools on the floor. And the man is not finished. Next will come his right foot, and then—he stares dully at the tiny sharp knife across the table—his right eye.
Sixty miles away, a garbage dump smolders outside of a city, the refuse slowly burning away. A naked man lies on his side, his eyes half open, his neck broken. His consciousness returns. How long has he been here? He sees well enough to know that his lower body is rotting away. And then he feels it. A small patch of skin on his hip swells, then splits, a handful of maggots emerging from the festering wound. He would scream in horror if his voice could be raised beyond a croak. A rogue tongue of flame licks across his arm, singing the hair and peeling the skin. He can’t move; his death will be long and slow and hideous.
These images are vivid and cruel, and I didn’t make them up.
Last week, we read how Jesus had predicted his coming suffering, death, and resurrection. His disciples thought that he would be a conquering political Messiah, Glenn Beck on steroids, who would restore his people to their Jewish heritage and drive out the corrupting rule of the Romans. That the Messiah would suffer and die didn’t fit into their paradigm of how the world works. It wasn’t a part of their “glory story.” So Jesus scolded them for trying to look the greatest and for excluding other followers of his who weren’t a part of their little clique. He modeled a concern for useless people and valued the contributions of those who weren’t a part of the Twelve.
Now, Jesus issues a series of warnings relating to this elitist attitude. We’ve seen several times in Mark’s gospel that often, people who think they are “insiders”—faithful disciples of Jesus—are in fact “outsiders.” Jesus brings this topic up again and counsels those who think they’re on the insider track to God’s kingdom.
His first warning is the story of the execution—the stone and the lake. It would be better to undergo this awful fate than to cause “one of these little ones who believe in me to stumble,” Jesus says. The punishment for such a person will be extreme and horrifying. Similarly, he lays out a series of three parallel proverbs. He tells his disciples to cut off their hands, feet, and eyes rather than permit anything to cause them to stumble. “It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God” crippled or blind than “to be thrown into hell, ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’” He quotes the final verse of the book of Isaiah, where God subjects those who rebel against him to eternal torment. Jesus is not afraid to preach hellfire and brimstone—not even against his own disciples.
The point is clear. Jesus’ disciples must do whatever it takes to cut off and tear out the proud, elitist attitudes festering in their hearts. If they do not, it will lead to their own downfall and possibly the downfall of other “little ones.” And God will respond appropriately with righteous, unquenchable fury.
As he dwells on the imagery of the fires of hell, Jesus utters a cryptic statement: “For everyone will be salted with fire.” He’s probably thinking of the sacrifices that the people of Israel were commanded to make to God, sacrifices that were seasoned with salt (Leviticus 2:13). Now, he says, each of his disciples must be “a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” (Romans 12:1). But if someone who claims to be his disciple becomes corrupted with pride, his “salt” will have “lost its saltiness” and be useless as seasoning. The sacrifice will be ruined. Such a person cannot honor God.
So Jesus tells his disciples, “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” Their Lord will soon face suffering; they should not imagine that they are any better than he. They must do what the Holy Spirit commands through the apostle Paul: “Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be conceited” (Romans 12:16). There can be no rivalry, no one-upping, no boasting, no cliques in God’s kingdom. So beware of pride, a nasty and despicable sin. If you treat the lowly as garbage, you’ll quite literally be thrown out with the trash.
Jesus was lowly in his suffering, and in his suffering he served the lowly. If you are united with him, you too are a servant of the lowly and a “little one” yourself. Be glad that this is where true greatness is found.