There is a cutting edge to these scriptural readings this weekend. Certainly, the words that St Mark records as coming from the mouth of Christ are not gentle ones. The choices that Christ lays out for his followers in this Gospel are very black and white. Anyone who is not with me is against me. If anyone interferes with someone else’s efforts to follow Christ, by scandal or bad example, it would be better for that person to be tossed into the ocean with a millstone around the neck.
Those who hold back, or hedge in their own choice of Christ’s values, had better do some drastic rearranging of their lives if they hope to be saved. In imagery that is almost gruesome, Christ tells his followers, if it is your hand or your foot or your eye that leads you astray, cut if off, pluck it out.
So where does that leave us? Well, the point must certainly be made that by no means was Christ literally calling for the cutting off of hands and feet and eyes. But he was certainly insisting that nothing is worth sacrificing salvation, and those foolish enough to throw away their hope of salvation in favour of anything else deserve just what they get.
There are so many tempting attachments in our lives that can seem to be so good, so satisfying, so important. Any number of times each of us must choose between these kinds of satisfaction and Christ. And let’s be honest, it is not always so easy.
For example, in this situation, I can make a pile of money, or I can be Christian and miss out on all that. In that situation I can be popular, fit in with the crowd, or I can be Christian, and perhaps really be left out, maybe even pushed out, laughed out.
In another situation, I can get revenge on someone I really dislike, someone who has genuinely offended me, or I can be Christian, and perhaps even see that person get the better of me again. And on and on.
I think it is that simplicity of choice that so often is our problem. Surely God doesn’t really expect me to pass up the chance of a pile of cash, when it would be such a satisfying thing to have. Surely God doesn’t expect me to pass up the chance to be accepted, supported, fit in.
Surely God doesn’t expect me to pass up the especially delicious satisfaction of getting even with someone who has really hurt me, and more than likely will do so again given half a chance. Well, the answer to all of those is, “Yes”, God does. That is exactly what God expects. God expects us to realise that such satisfactions, as St James puts it in the second reading, very quickly decay, and leave those who pursue them with nothing. If we are foolish enough not to realise that, then nothing is what we shall have.