42“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. 43If your hand causes you to stumble, 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. 45And 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. 47And 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 eyes and to be thrown into hell, 48where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.
Jesus warns against causing “one of these little ones” to stumble. Better to have a mill-stone around his neck and be cast into the sea. We saw mill-stones in Israel from this time, used both for grinding grain, and for olives. Jesus had recently brought a little child into their midst, so he can certainly refer to causing a child to stumble, but he is most likely also warning against causing a new believer to stumble. The disciples were talking about another man healing and casting out demons in Jesus’ name – could their harsh treatment of this competitor have caused some who had believed in Jesus because of his miracles to decide there was nothing to this prophet from Nazareth? When we, as Christians, are hyper-critical of one another do we cause some to turn away who had begun to believe? Are we putting stumbling blocks in front of people’s faith?
And what is it that causes a person to stumble, to sin? Is it one’s hand? Better, Jesus says, to cut it off than to sin. Is it one’s eye? Better to be blind. This is hyperbole – Jesus does not really believe that it is one’s hand, or one’s eye, that causes one to sin, nor would he have people running around crippled and blinded because they think that will cure their sin. Jesus often used hyperbole, as did other teachers of his time, to emphasize the importance of what he is saying. It is like when your mother said, “When you fall out of that tree and break your leg, don’t come running to me.” But it is not our eye or our hand that causes us to sin; it is our thoughts, and our hearts – those are the things we need to change. Relating back to what Jesus had been talking about, it was the disciples’ need to be grandiose, to be greater than the others, that needed to be removed and cast out.
This is one of the few times in the gospels where Jesus actually speaks of someone being thrown into “hell.” The word actually used is “geenna”, or Hinnom, which was a valley outside Jerusalem which had been used as a trash dump, but at one time had been a place of child sacrifice to Molech, a form of Baal, when Judah had gone astray (see 2 Kings 23:10). In Jewish apocalyptic literature of Jesus’ time this place with its continually burning trash fires and history of atrocity had become associated with death and punishment. The phrase about the worm and the fire is a quote from Isaiah 66:24, “24And they shall go out and look at the dead bodies of the people who have rebelled against me; for their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.” Again, this is hyperbole – apocalypse was a form of writing which played on hyperbole and fantasy. Notice in the scripture text that there is no verse 44 or 46 – these were repetitions of verse 48, which were added by medieval copyists fascinated with the idea of undying worms and hell-fire. These repetitions are not found in the earliest manuscripts, and thus, modern translations leave them out. You will, however, find them included in a King James translation, where they did not have the earlier manuscripts available for comparison when writing.
Now, where does the next phrase, “for everyone will be salted with fire”, come from, and why is it here? It may be that the previous discussion reminded Mark of something else that Jesus said and he just added it in here – or it may be that as he talked about the fires of geenna Jesus was reminded that everyone has some amount of suffering in their lives. To be salted with fire may refer to those times and things with which we struggle, but in the end, their sprinkling flavors and strengthens our lives. Jesus closes this whole discussion by saying, “be at peace with one another.” That was the point of his illustrations and discussions – the disciples, and we as well, should not be jealous and competitive and angry, but should be at peace with one another.
stone in the photo was used to press olives