“Questions for Self-Examination”

(Mark 9:42-50 – Pentecost 19 – September 30, 2018)

Mark 9:42-50 – “But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed, rather than having two hands, to go to hell, into the fire that shall never be quenched – where ‘Their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.’ And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame, rather than having two feet, to be cast into hell, into the fire that shall never be quenched – where ‘Their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.’ And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye, rather than having two eyes, to be cast into hell fire – where ‘Their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.’ For everyone will be seasoned with fire, and every sacrifice will be seasoned with salt. Salt is good, but if the salt loses its flavor, how will you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and have peace with one another.”

Dear disciples of Jesus:

2 Corinthians 13:5 exhorts all who claim to be followers of Jesus: “Examine yourselves as to whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves.” It is possible to deceive oneself, to talk the talk of a Christian but not to walk the walk of a true believer. In order that we might guard against hypocrisy in our lives, and that we may also provide a clear witness of faith to others, here Jesus leads us to ask “Questions for Self-Examination.” He leads us to ask ourselves: 1) Are you careful against offending the faith of the weak? 2) Are you truly repentant for your own sin? 3) Are you living as a salty believer?

1) Are you careful against offending the faith of the weak?

Jesus begins with a warning: “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea.” This leads us to examine ourselves and ask: “Are you careful against offending the faith of the weak?”

Earlier in the chapter, Jesus had taken a little child and put him amidst His disciples, as He taught them about greatness in God’s Kingdom. When He speaks of “these little ones,” obviously it includes such little children. But the meaning is broad enough to include anyone who may seem little in other ways – for example, those who are new to the faith or weak in faith. Jesus wants us to make sure we do not cause anyone who believes in Him to fall away.

The Greek word for “causes to stumble” is related to a trigger stick in a trap. When an animal moves the bait, the stick is dislodged and the trap crashes down. The one caught is in a death trap. That is Jesus’ picture as He speaks of causing a little one to stumble. Let us say one person leads a sinful life or teaches falsely against God’s Word. By his word and deed, he can lead a child or one who is weak in faith into a spiritual death trap. For by following his sinful example and falsehood, the little one is led away from true faith in Jesus.

If we have been given children or grandchildren, or if we have influence on children somehow, we have a high calling. We can lead them to Jesus by word and example and help them to grow in faith on their way to heaven. Jesus takes our treatment of the “little ones” personally. A few verses earlier He said: “Whoever receives one of these little children in My name receives Me” (Mark 9:37).

But what if we neglect the spiritual care of our children, or set a bad example for the young in faith by a sinful life, so that we lead them away from faith and from Jesus? He says of the one who leads the weak to stumble in faith: “It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea.” It would be better for such a person to die a most terrible temporal death, drowning in the deepest depths of darkness, than to cause another soul to fall away from faith and perish in eternal darkness and destruction.

Such words lead us soberly to examine ourselves in word and deed. As Christian parents, it is a great priority, and challenge, to lead our children against the sinful pattern of the world. We confess that we have not always been perfect parents. Nor have any of us, as members of the body of Christ, always been sensitive to the needs of fellow members who are new to the faith or weak in faith. Sometimes we have said or done things in the name of “Christian freedom” that were really loveless, considering how they could be taken by the weak in faith. Have we led another to join us in something that went against their weak conscience, and thereby caused them to sin (1 Corinthians 8:12)? Have we “sinned boldly” while counting on God’s grace, not stopping to consider the little eyes watching our example? Have we led anyone away from Jesus by not saying or doing what was in the best interest of their faith?

God’s Law condemns every way we disregard the spiritual good of others. It condemns every offense against the faith of the weak by what we have done or left undone. We cannot undo all the wrong in our lives. Our only hope is to throw ourselves on God’s grace in Christ. In Jesus’ wounds, we find the solution God has provided for our guilt. In His crucified Son, God forgives all our sins. Through faith in Christ, He has made us His own beloved children. For Jesus’ sake, our heavenly Father will always love and care for us as His little ones.

2) Are you truly repentant for your own sin?

Jesus’ concern is not just that others might be caused to stumble; neither does He want us to fall away from true faith. So next He leads us to examine ourselves and ask: “Are you truly repentant for your own sin?”

He leads us to think of this in terms of how we may be using the parts of our body for sin: “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed, rather than having two hands, to go to hell, into the fire that shall never be quenched – where ‘Their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.’” In the same way, Jesus goes on to speak of the foot or the eye that causes us to sin. It is better to get rid of it than to perish in hell with it.

So how have our hands, feet, and eyes served us? We know our hands have not always done as we sing in the hymn: “Take my hands and let them move At the impulse of Thy love.” We have used our hands in sinful actions. And we know our feet have not always done as we sing: “Take my feet and let them be Swift and beautiful for Thee.” We have used our feet to go and sin. And our eyes have served as windows to allow all kinds of uncleanness to come in.

Is it time to get out the surgeon’s saw and scalpel, and start cutting away the parts of our body we have used for sin? If we took this literally, what part of our body could remain? Even if we amputated our hands and feet and plucked out our eyes, we still could not root out sin. The cause of sin lies so deeply inside us that only death will stop every impulse to sin. It is out of our sinful heart that sin proceeds through our members (Matthew 15:18-19).

Jesus is not teaching us to hurt and mutilate ourselves, but to take sin very seriously. Look at the consequences of unrepented sin. The word He uses for “hell” refers to a place called Gehenna. It was a ravine outside Jerusalem, a city dump where fires were kept burning to consume the dead bodies of animals, criminals, and refuse. The place was infested with worms that fed continually on the remains. Jesus used Gehenna to picture hell, where the unrepentant are cast outside of God’s heavenly city; where “Their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched” (Isaiah 66:24). In hell, there is a fire that continuously consumes the damned as punishment for sin. Guilt gnaws away at their conscience like an undying worm, bringing shame and despair. The sins that once brought temporary earthly pleasure, there bring eternal suffering and dying to body and soul.

If something is causing us to stumble and fall from faith, we need to cut it out of our life. Just as one may have to amputate a hopelessly gangrene-infected part of the body by surgery, instead of suffering the whole body to perish, we should be ready to radically remove any soul-threatening part of our life. For some, it may mean cutting off relationships that are leading the wrong way. For others, it may mean removing seductive reading and images that are entrapping their soul. For others, it may mean giving up substance abuse or some other destructive habit. What might be stealing our heart away from Christ and threatening our faith and eternal life?

The reason Jesus gives such a serious warning about sin is so that we truly repent of our sin; for only then can we take Him seriously as our Savior. As we confess our sins, sorry for our guilt, desiring to live a new life by the Holy Spirit, Jesus comforts us with His Word of forgiveness. He shows us the sinless life He lived before His Father, the life God is counting for our righteousness. He shows us how He bore all our sin and punishment on the cross. He was cast outside the gates of Jerusalem and consumed in God’s fiery wrath against our sins. He suffered the gnawing worm of our guilt. Now through faith in Jesus, we are fully forgiven, heirs of eternal life. We can look forward to the day He will bring us to heaven’s perfection, when we will never again be bothered by temptation and sin, but we will live with Him in eternal glory.

3) Are you living as a salty believer?

As heirs of eternal life through faith in Jesus, He tells us: “You are the salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13). Salt was an important commodity in the ancient world. It was used not only to season food, but to preserve it from spoiling. Jesus is saying that as believers, we have a preserving influence in this world that is spoiled and corrupted by sin. By living our Christian faith, we bear witness to the Gospel truth that preserves sinners from perishing. This is why Jesus leads us to examine ourselves and ask: “Are you living as a salty believer?”

He says: “Salt is good, but if the salt loses its flavor, how will you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and have peace with one another.” Are there times when we lose our saltiness by hiding our faith and trying to blend in with unbelievers? If so, we give a rather bland flavor in the world. Are there times when we harbor an angry and unforgiving attitude and show a lack of peace with others? If so, we give a rather bitter taste in the world.

“You are salt,” Jesus reminds us. “You became that when I sent the Holy Spirit into your heart and brought you to true repentance and faith. You became salt when you believed your sins are forgiven for My sake, and I set you apart as heirs of My heavenly Kingdom.”

How do we keep our saltiness in this world? It only happens by staying connected to Christ through His Word and Sacraments. The Holy Spirit uses these means of grace like salt to preserve us in true faith. As salt preserves food by burning away germs of corruption, God’s Law burns out of our heart the desire for things that would entrap us in sin, preserving us from the corruption of our sinful nature and the world. Then as salt improves the taste of food, the Gospel lets us “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8). As we hear Jesus’ Word of forgiveness and promise always to love and care for us, our saltiness is restored and we say: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). Our saltiness is also restored as we return each day to our Baptism. There in God’s cleansing waters, we drown our sinful nature by repentance; and with our sins washed away, our new spiritual self rises to walk in newness of life in Christ (Romans 6). And our saltiness is restored as we come to the Lord’s Table to partake of His Body and Blood by which He made full satisfaction for all our sins, and we go forth in the peace of His forgiveness and salvation, strengthened in faith.

As we continue to examine our lives under God’s Word, led by the Spirit to repent of our sins and trust in Christ for forgiveness and salvation, we cannot help but live as salty believers. As we share our hope in Him who loves us and gave His life for us, we will give the greatest encouragement to the weak in faith. Through our salty witness, may many others also taste and see that the Lord is good as their Savior.

Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be. Amen.