(43) And if your hand causes you to trip up, hack it off; it is better for you to enter into The Life crippled than, having two hands, to go away into Gehenna, into unquenched fire. (45) And if your foot trips you up, hack it off; it is better for you to enter The Life lame than, having two feet to be thrown into Gehenna. (47) And if your eye trips you up, throw it out; it is better for to enter into the Kingdom of God one-eyed rather than having two eyes to be thrown into Gehenna, (48) where their worm is not dead, and the fire never goes out; (49) for each one shall be salted by fire.
The second person pronouns in this paragraph are all in the singular form. This is a “you” discourse, not a “you all” discourse. That’s unusual in the Markan composition and in the Christian scriptures in general. We should conclude that something quite “singular” is going on in this text and pay attention accordingly.
As I hear the text, I try to remain focused on the presenting problem in this section of the Markan account. Jesus is teaching the disciples about the suffering, death, and Resurrection which lie ahead for him (and perhaps for them). The disciples are establishing the organizational church in the new Messianic administration, thumb-wrestling over who will occupy which rungs on the ladder of position and power.
In the midst of that argument, they see someone who isn’t even part of the home team. He doesn’t deserve the power he has, in their view, to cast out demons in the name of (by the authority of) Jesus. So, they try to stop him – even though he is accomplishing what they, a few verses earlier, could not. The unnamed exorcist is destabilizing their budding Messianic meritocracy.
Meritocracy is a hot topic for divisive debate in the United States at this moment, as it has been for the last twenty years or so. Barack Obama’s election to the presidency (twice) buttressed the argument made so often that any little boy or girl in America can grow up to be the president of the United States. That statement is part of the mythology of American exceptionalism, post-racial naivete, and the camouflaging of power, position, privilege, and property in this country.
Not long ago, a scheme was uncovered which helped wealthy parents pay to get their children admitted to prestigious colleges and universities. Some highly visible parents have gone to jail, been fined, and suffered some small social stigma. The scheme was decried as evidence that wealthy people could simply buy their way into success, regardless of their native abilities, talents, and proclivities.
If only such crass pay-for-play projects were the real problem. In fact, the myth of meritocracy in the Western world covers the “front door” of privilege as well as the extra-legal “side doors” by which the powerful gain access and continue their stranglehold on position and property. One of the single most reliable predictors of life success in this country is not personal effort or accomplishment, for example. Zip code is a much better predictor of life success than anything we might do as individuals and a far better predictor than our native intelligence or skills.
The myth of the meritocracy covers up the fact that, as we all know, some of us win the zip code lottery by the accident of birth, and some of us lose that lottery by the same accident. Some of us begin the race of life five yards from the finish line, while others begin that same race a hundred yards away. In such a race, speed has little to do with the outcome. It’s all about where we begin.
Of course, we all know this intuitively. If we, as a culture, acknowledged this openly, we would have to retool everything we do in life. If we acknowledged that “deserving” our power, position, privilege, and property is based on a lie, we would either have to give it up for a better distribution scheme, or we would have to embrace the violence required to maintain the inequality.
Therefore, we tell ourselves stories to justify the system that privileges us. Or we are fed stories that justify the system that oppresses us. In the American system, we hardly think about these stories, and when we do, we who are privileged believe them.
I think the disciples are beginning to tell themselves a story that justifies their assertion that they are “greater than.” They will continue to tell that story throughout chapter 10 of the Markan composition, no matter how many times Jesus teaches them to the contrary. It is perhaps not until after the crucifixion and Resurrection that they can begin to see just how wrong their “greater than” story is for the Kin(g)dom of God.
Jesus advocates radical surgery as a treatment for the disease of the disciples. I want to be clear that Jesus is not advocating any actual amputations. This is figurative, hyperbolic language. No one should begin hacking off limbs or plucking out eyes in response to this text. But the surgery Jesus prescribes is no less painful.
If I use my hands to sustain the “greater than” story, that behavior has got to go. I can tell myself and others that I have worked hard for everything I have and everything I am. That’s true from a certain perspective. But if nearly sixty-five years of life teaches me anything, it reminds of how many times I could have gone over a cliff in my life. And it reminds of how many times I was lucky rather than good.
Other people have worked much harder than I with far different outcomes. And some people have worked much less than I with far different outcomes. The work of my hands does not make me “greater than” any other. If that’s the story I tell, I’m getting it wrong. And if that’s the story I believe, then someone else is likely suffering in order to support the falsehood that undergirds my life.
If I use my feet to sustain the “greater than” story, that behavior has got to go. It is so easy for me as a White man in this culture to simply walk away from anything and anyone who might make me uncomfortable. I can flee from the “inner city.” I can travel to different schools. I can choose to live in a place where I will see nothing but White bodies all day and every day of my life.
In such self-chosen spaces, I can live in the mythology of White Male Supremacy, and no one will challenge that story for a second. In the absence of such challenge, I can comfortably believe that the mythology is the Truth. If anyone dares to challenge that mythology, I can walk away. Or I can kick their heads in with relative impunity.
If I use my eyes to sustain the “greater than” story, that behavior has got to go. If I choose to see what supports my power and to be blind to what challenges it, then I am already halfway to hell. Yet, that’s precisely what so many of us do. We simply don’t believe the stories of the “less than” life among us because we refuse to see those stories. If someone is not doing as well, it’s their own damn fault, after all.
It certainly can be the case that a person could use hands, feet, and eyes to cooperate in the “less than” story that is told about so many people. But that’s not my place in the system. Like the disciples in our reading, I am sorely tempted to build and buttress the story that makes me “greater than.” The problem is that the “greater than” story leaves me on the outside of the Kin(g)dom looking in – left on the smoking garbage pile of history, being eaten alive by my own avarice and cruelty.
The Jesus story is not a “greater than” story. This section of the Markan composition is always spiced up when it is held alongside the second chapter of Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Whether there is a direct connection between the Markan account and Paul’s work is a matter for continued scholarly debate. But the rhetorical connections are obvious.
“Exercise this kind of practical reason among yourselves, which is also in Christ Jesus,” Paul writes, “who, being in the form of God, did not consider equality with God as something at his disposal, but rather he emptied himself, taking on the form of a slave, being born in human likeness; and in form being found as a human, he humbled himself, being obedient to the point of death – indeed, death on a cross” (Philippians 2:5-8, my translation).
This is the story that forms me as a disciple and puts my “power” in perspective. As I have noted previously, we can only read the “power points” in the gospel narratives from our own positions. The story is not ahistorical or atemporal. Someone who is not in a position of power, privilege, and property as I am should not read the story in the same way. But for me, the Philippians 2 story deconstructs the myth of meritocracy for me as a Jesus follower.
The myth of meritocracy declares that my worth depends on what I control, what I know, what I produce, and what I own. There is no grace in that for me or anyone else. There is no Good News in a system that renders human beings as units of production and property. Fortunately, God regards us as “little ones” who are valued and loved before we can produce or own or think about anything. Our vocation is to regard one another in the same way.
References and Resources
Jones, Robert P. White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity. Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.
Du Mez, Kristin Kobes. Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation. Liveright. Kindle Edition.
Lev, Uri Mayer-Chissick Efraim. “’A covenant of salt’: Salt as a major food preservative in the historical Land of Israel.” Food and History, Vol. 5, No. 2 (2007), pp. 9-39. 10.1484/J.FOOD.1.100220.
Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard L. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels Kindle Edition.