Ed Peterman tells a story from his childhood, when he grew up on a farm in Preble County Ohio. His family discovered they had some rats in the barn, so his parents got some traps, and baited the rats with cheese around the barn. The next morning young Ed went out to see if they had caught anything. The first traps he examined were empty. When he came to the last trap, he saw something strange. The trap had been sprung, and while there was no rat in it, he noticed that it did hold the severed leg of a rat. He ran to tell his parents about this unexpected finding. They followed him back to the barn.
When they got to the trap with the rat's leg in it, his parents just nodded and smiled knowingly. “What happened?” Ed asked them. “Tell me what happened!” So they told him. The trap had caught the rat by the leg. The rat knew that its life was at risk, so it chewed off its own leg to escape. “That's the way rats are,” his father said. “Better to go on living with only three legs, than to die with all four.” Ed just stood there for a while, marveling at the courage it took for the rat to choose to survive by chewing its leg off and leaving it behind.
It makes me wonder whether we would have the courage to do what the rat did. If you were caught in a life-threatening situation one day, would you be able to cut part of yourself off and leave it behind in order to go on living?
This is the message Jesus wants to get across to us in the Gospel’s reading. Earthly life is important, but eternal life with God in heaven is much more important. Jesus is telling us that there is heaven, and there is hell. He is warning us not to risk losing our soul in hell. His mission is to save us from damnation to hell. He speaks more often about hell than he does about heaven. He describes hell as Gehenna, the pool of fire, eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels, the place where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, “place of torments” ( Luke 16:28 ), “furnace of fire” ( Matthew 13:42, 50 ), “unquenchable fire” ( Matthew 3:12), “everlasting fire” ( Matthew 18:8 ; 25:41). It is important that we do everything to avoid going to hell. Jesus communicates this message clearly to us:
“If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where the worms that eat them do not die, and the fire is not quenched.”
What shall we do with these teachings of our Savior? Jesus sounds too harsh! Many people today do not believe there is a hell. If there is a hell, they might say, “No one will be condemned to hell, because God is a loving God. Jesus already died for our sins.” Yes! God is a loving and forgiving God. He will not condemn anyone to hell. But someone might choose to go there. In fact, if we do not to avoid the occasions of sins, we would go to hell. If we do not want to cut off our sinful habits, we would go to hell. If we continue to indulge in sinful lifestyle, we would definitely go to hell. This is the reason Jesus is warning us. Cut it off! Cut off anything that might lead you to hell. Get rid of sins in our life. Stay away from the occasions of sins.
Today, many people are losing the sense of sin. We don’t hear people mention about sin often. People seem to think that no one really sins nowadays. They might commit a crime or make a mistake but not sinning. The sense of sin is gone from our social thinking and conscience. As a result, for example, many government leaders and people in our society today think that it is wrong to defend the traditional form of marriage. Instead, they believe that it is right, just and heroic to welcome and promote same-sex marriage. Pre-marital sex is no longer considered sinful. It is not even considered wrong. That is why our government, our public education policies and many parents are supporting giving birth control pills to teenagers. Fifty public high schools in New York City are now distributing morning-after pills to students. The school system has already been dispensing birth control pills and condoms. These people are leaders and educators of our children. And their thinking is, “The children nowadays are not going to abstain from sexual intercourse. How many unwed mothers do we need? So it is a good idea to offer them birth control pills, condoms and “Plan B” pills.” They believe their policy is an aggressive approach to combat teenage pregnancy. Dr. Cora Breuner, a member of an American Academy of Pediatrics' committee on teen health says that this is “to offer relief or solace to a young woman or man who has made a mistake but doesn't want to have to live with that mistake for the rest of their lives.” I wish contraceptive pills and “plan B” pills would offer relief to teenagers who has made a mistake and will keep them from making another mistake. But I am afraid that this policy will encourage them to make more mistakes. Offering the 'Plan B' pill to students is not so much to relief the pain of their mistake than to encourage them to continue to be sexually active without facing consequences. This is definitely not Jesus’ approach. If we believe in Jesus, then we need to take him seriously.
A recent survey reports that 80 per cent of people in the U. S. believe in God. We believe that there is a personal God who created us and reigns over us. And we believe that Jesus is God’s Son. And yet we do not take the words of Jesus seriously! This is absurd! Jesus would tell us that we are not taking a very wise approach to life. Jesus is telling us in today’s lesson that we should take sin very seriously. “Whoever causes one of these little who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were put around his neck and he were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off . . .” Jesus is serious here.
The little ones who Jesus refers to may be children or any who are new and weak in the faith. The “little ones” are innocent, weak and easily misled. To lead a weak Christian down the wrong path is a terrible sin. Whoever does this deserves to be drowned, Jesus says! It is bad enough to sin and send you to hell, but it is far worse to do this to a weak brother or sister in faith. We are accountable not only for our own soul but for the soul of another as well. This great sin is overlooked by many. There are many who lead others to sin through advertisements, drug peddling, prostitution, child abuse, pornography, etc. to give bad advice or wrong guidance is to lead a person to sin.
William Barclay, a British theologian, tells the following story in his commentary on this Biblical text. He told a story about someone changing signs. That is, at an intersection of the road, one sign would point to the city of Seattle and another sign would point to the city of Tacoma. And the boy wondered to himself: How many people could I send down the wrong road if I changed the signs?
Your life is a sign post with a sign on it. Are you sending people down the wrong road or the right road?