“The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart.” There is absolutely no doubt about it in the psalmist’s mind: God’s word is good. It is beautiful. It is life giving. It is more to be desired than gold and sweeter also than honey.
Which is a totally understandable thing to say and even believe when you lived 600 years before Jesus said these ominous words in our Gospel lesson this morning:
“If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and go to hell. 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. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two and to be thrown into hell, where . . . the fire is never quenched.”
How refreshed and restored do you feel after hearing that?
Jesus’ words are not exactly what we’d call good news — because we have a feeling that his warning is meant for us.
All we have to do is take a quick look at our hands and our feet and ask what we’ve been doing with them or where we’ve been going with them. All we have to do is think of what we’ve seen, what we haven’t looked away from, that is not noble or true or pleasing to God. We have all stumbled, and even with the most surface-level evaluation, we know that Jesus’ words implicate us.
But what do we do with that? Jesus’ words are hard. We hear “cut off your foot, chop off your hand, pluck out your eye,” and we quite understandably freeze up, wondering if our Savior could possibly be serious, or if he was just having a really bad day or playing a really bad joke.
The writer of Proverbs famously said, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy,” which is a poetic way of saying that it is actually better for us to be rebuked by someone we love than commended by someone who doesn’t care for us at all. And that’s true because the person who loves us wants what’s best for us, wants us to thrive, and they want this so much that they will sometimes risk hurting us so that we are saved from more and worse pain further on down the road.
I bring this up because I think it’s part of what’s going on in our Gospel lesson today. Jesus knows, just as we all do, that we are imperfect people, unable to keep our eyes fixed on God because we keep getting distracted by ourselves. We keep wandering off on wayward feet. We keep reaching out for what we should not have. Jesus knows that our situation is so dire that even if we were to cut off our hands and our feet and pluck out both eyes, we would still be unable to stand in God’s presence — because we are sinful, and we cannot save ourselves. That is not a truth we like to hear. Not a reality we want to deal with. But it is what Jesus tells us today.
And that testimony does revive the soul and make wise the simple because “by them is thy servant warned . . . . Then I shall be blameless, and innocent of great transgression.”
When Jesus came to earth to save us, he didn’t come to inflict strange and painful religious ceremonies on us. He didn’t come to command us to do violence to ourselves and then just move on, as though that would overcome our separation from God. What he did come to do and what he asks of us today and every day is much more serious than losing an eye or a hand or a foot. “Take up your cross and follow me,” Jesus says, “for whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” The stakes are high, so Jesus asks for everything — but only because he wants to give us everything in return.
In a few moments we will hear, “This is my body, broken for you.” And that is the truth to which our Gospel lesson ultimately points us. God so loved the world — God so loved you and me — that he sent his son into our world of sin and violence and sickness and death, so that his back might be whipped, his hands pierced, and his side broken open for us. Only then, only through the broken body of God himself, are we saved. Only then are we counted blameless and innocent of great transgression. Only then are we welcomed into a future more beautiful and safe and holy than we could ever imagine.
This is the hope we have. The hope that rests not on our efforts but on the Cross of Christ. And we can truly and with our whole hearts say that it is more to “be desired than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb.” AMEN.