These are the very graphic verses where Jesus talks about …
…cutting off your hand, plucking out your eye, and hell.
I want to talk about this. Not just to understand what the passage might mean but also because I think we should have a feel for how to approach these verses in the first place.
It’s not like they’re the only New Testament verses where Jesus uses this imagery; you’ll find similar in Matthew 5:29-30, right after the verse about how looking at a woman lustfully is adultery. The thing is, no one genuinely believes that men should pluck out their eyes after they lust. So, if we’re ever to going to get traction with the idea that men are responsible for how they look at women, then we also need to reckon with Mark 9:42-49.
What’s more, Mark’s account is longer and lays it on thick with references to the ‘worm that does not die’ and the ‘fire that is not quenched’. Out of the two then, Mark’s rendering of Jesus’ words is the more difficult to tackle.
Historically, I’ve not been one to put much store in icons of saints. Coming from a Protestant background, visual images of “holy people” seem more like an idolatrous waste of time – and why bother with the saints anyway when we have Jesus? The other week though, my breath was caught by an icon of Paul. He was holding his letters, on which was a small image of St Paul’s Cathedral, and a Huia bird sat on his shoulder. In that moment, my heart ached like I had just discovered a happy photograph of a much beloved grandparent who had passed away years ago.
My reaction was no doubt informed by the fact that I’d recently read an essay that discussed how people can relate to historical figures by seeking to embody that person’s values. Given how much Paul has been in my thinking in recent months, and how much I have grown to admire him, it meant something to me to see a face that was his face. I now had more than just letters; I had an image.
You bet I watched the royal wedding last Saturday! And I loved it.
I’ll admit, if I’d heard the words of Michael Curry’s sermon on your average Sunday morning, from your average preacher with your average congregation, I’d have been underwhelmed.
As it is, I’m giggling a little inside. It’s the thought of “I can’t believe he just got away with that.” A black American, an LGBT+ affirming Episcopalian, came into a traditionally white, elitist, patriarchal institution and said we’ve all got to love each other – and if we do that, we’ll change the world.
Everyone in the room had to shut up and listen. (Tee hee.)
And he was broadcast to over 1 billion people.
But it’s more than just the numbers. By speaking, this man carried representation for his nation, for people of colour and for people groups he campaigns for. It meant he was not just speaking his message – he was embodying it too.
And having a rip-roaringly fun time whilst he was at it!
He has certainly had an impact. Everyone has been buzzing about him and even some celebrities who are hardly Christian and not exactly people I admire (Piers Morgan, for example) are applauding him on Twitter. Curry has succeeded in showing who God truly is, in a way that people could see and understand and delight in.
As I finally come to write reviews of this last cluster of books from 2017 I realise that I’ve probably more not read them, than read them. Sorry about that. This batch is probably of most interest to people who are questioning some of the answers they’ve been given by the church, particularly around sex, sexuality and gender. There’s also some sci-fi. Here are the books I’ll give you a little flavour of:
Only kidding! The themes for 2017’s theological reading seem to have been justification (and my discovery of a long-standing debate between John Piper and Tom Wright), hope and the kingdom of heaven, and prophecy. So here are a few short reviews of:
Why the Reformation Still Matters
New Testament for Everyone commentaries
Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries
Whole Life Worship
Surprised by Hope
(Actually, they’re not short. This post is about 3,500 words. Whoops.)
1 Corinthians 11:3. Ephesians 5:22. If you’ve been anywhere near the arguments about complementarianism you’ll probably know what these verses say about women without having to look them up. Even if you don’t, you’ll definitely be familiar with what people have said they mean.
Several of my reads in 2017 were about the role and place of women. There were moments I was ready to write very long thank you letters to the authors; other times, I filled the margins with angry scribbles. Here are some short reviews of:
The Rise and Fall of the Complementarian Doctrine of the Trinity
From theology to anthropology to fiction, these are my books of 2017. I didn’t like all of them, and I didn’t read all of them from cover to cover. But in this post (and the next three), I’ll share some thoughts on what I made of them.
The number one spot belongs to The Twilight of Cutting and it warrants a full blog post in its own right.
Written by a Bosnian woman who works as an Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Cornell University, it is a stunning study of the complexities of discourses surrounding female genital mutilation (FGM), which is also known as ‘cutting’.
I’ve always loved the first five books of the Bible (aka the Torah).
I don’t feel lied to because suddenly I’ve opened up and noticed the gory bits. I had already noticed the bits prejudiced against women, disabled people, homosexuals and people with different ethnicities. Oh, and the slavery and the retributive violence. And the honour-shame culture.
I’m not opening up my Old Testament every day thinking “This is the text that’s unadulterated goodness and will show me show to live my life with absolute clarity.” I always knew it was more complicated than that.
Yes, I have approached the text from my earliest youth with a presumption that it is inherently good, but I’ve not been so naïve as to think that everything it describes is good. Including the bits that the authors and compilers don’t seem to be flinching at.
Now I know that this makes me an outlier and I’m prepared to own that. I’m not about to inflict the genealogies of Numbers or the sacrifices of Leviticus on people who simply don’t have the stomach for it. Struggling with the Pentateuch does not make someone less of a Christian or less of a human being. If anything, struggling with it shows you’re actually exercising your God-given faculties of thought. Good. Do that.
So why do I feel lied to? Well, loving the Torah is something I felt as a child and as a teenager and as a student.
And you wanna know what else I was doing all that time? I was reading my New International Version translation of the Bible.
In 2017, I want to be known for identifying with people who are both like and unlike me.
It strikes me that 2016 was a year where many people became very keen to sort themselves into groups, groups that are founded on difference. Groups that allow hostility and fear to increase. Groups that allow people to not identify with others.
The thing is, as a Christian, I feel called to do the opposite.
Yesterday (that is, 1 Jan 2017) one of the readings in the revised common lectionary was Hebrews, chapter 2, verses 10 to 18. The passage talks about how Jesus became our great high priest, and that it was “fitting” that he was made perfect through suffering. As the author of Hebrews puts it in verse 10:
10 In bringing many sons and daughters to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through what he suffered. (NIVUK)
It’s no secret that the majority of named people in the Bible are men. As a woman brought up in a Christian household, it was important to me to be informed about the women in the Bible, including Esther. She is, after all, one of only two women who has a whole book named after her.
I read the story as a child, lapping up the arrogance and doom of the “vile Haman” who plotted to destroy the Jews, as well as the beauty and courage of Esther who spoke up for her people. I didn’t really get why chapter 10 was all about her uncle Mordecai and I didn’t think too much about the vengeance massacres in the later chapters. I knew that the book didn’t mention God but only because my mother had told me it didn’t and the children’s versions I read talked about God a lot.
All in all, I thought I knew the story pretty well, but the truth is I didn’t really know it at all. What brought me to this realisation is what I would call the best book I read in 2015: Esther in Ancient Jewish Thought, by Aaron Koller (Cambridge University Press). It is an academic book and comes with a pricey price tag, but I cannot recommend it enough to anyone who’s serious about in-depth Bible study. Here are some of the things it taught me.
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