Saved by Fire and Salt
He didn’t tell anyone where he was going–a rookie mistake, but he was no beginner. The wind worn rock, the water etched sediments, each boney snag reaching up from the desert floor: it was a familiar place, a landscape he had mastered. But as everyone who pays attention eventually learns, there is no control we can bear with certain success. Shuttles explode, oil wells burn, planes crash–for all of our advanced technology and knowledge we often learn our best lessons in the wreckage. For him, it was a bolder that fell while he was climbing in the canyons of Utah near Moab. The rock crushed his arm and pinned it. And for 127 hours he struggled to get free. For Aron Ralston, that freedom came at a price–after five days trapped in the canyon with little hope that anyone would find him in the vast wilderness, he began to do the slow and painful work of cutting off his arm.
Infection, damage, disease–there are many reasons to cut off a hand, amputate a foot, tear out an eye. And in Jesus’s teaching today, he suggests another–to keep us from hindering the way of one of his Little Ones–the poor, excluded, downtrodden people who are following him into his reign.
Today’s Gospel is among of the most challenging passages in all of our scriptures. It is one that the Rabbis of old would have called a “dark saying,” strange and troubling. Jesus tells it though, not to upset us, but to get our attention and to make it absolutely clear what the coming of his kingdom is all about–welcoming grace and love, not seizing power.
The passage hinges on a metaphor. No one, liberal or conservative, reads it in its plainest sense. As the scholar Ched Myers quips, “never trust a two handed biblical literalist.” But to say that this is a metaphor shouldn’t ease our hearing of its message. Jesus is serious–if we want to be free, if we want to save our life and make way for the reign of God, then we should be ready to cut lose those attachments that have become as necessary to us as the limbs of our bodies.
The disease we must get free from, Jesus says, is not simply some personal sin. He is specifically concerned here with those attachments that get in the way of his little ones, that make them trip up. A stumbling block was a kind of animal trap that would allow a hunter to go in for the kill. Jesus wants to free his disciples of the attachments that would require them to continue the ways of oppression, rather than welcome Jesus way of love and freedom for all.
Who are these, little ones Jesus seeks to protect? They are peasants who surrounded Jesus and followed him on his way to Jerusalem–the blind and lame who had already lost their limbs and experienced all of the poverty and exclusion of their disabilities, the farmers struggling to pay both the landlords in the city and the Romans with their taxes; they are the poor who are still with us, now digging through trash piles in order to find food, the Bangladeshi peasants who are fleeing the coastlines that rise because we cannot stop the engines of our growth, the Chinese children who wheeze with asthma because the powerful have traded the well being of their ecosystems for the expansion of their economy. They are our neighbors and children and all of those whose lives are now captive to the idols of money and power, whose flourishing falls over the stumbling block of our greed.
Jesus has come into this world to establish a new reality of love and justice, grace and forgiveness–a Sabbath economy where all share in the abundance of God. And Jesus is leading his little ones in a march of freedom, that will meet the cross and move on to the resurrection. His message to his disciples, who have been positioning themselves for roles of power within his kingdom, is that the only way to enter it will be through becoming one of these little ones; following them on the march of his righteousness rather than getting in their way.
It is an urgent teaching because Jesus is on the road to Jerusalem. He is about to lose far more than an arm or eye, he will die soon and he needs his disciples to get clear about the mission: If you are attached to something that is going to get in the way of the little ones, something that will trip up the coming of the Kingdom of freedom and love for the world, then you need to cut it lose.
These may seem like harsh words, but what Jesus is offering here is nothing but mercy. He understands that many of them are stuck, pinned under the hard rock of their addictions. He wants to help them make the difficult choice that will save their lives and lead them into freedom.
Anyone who has struggled with addictions or been with a loved one who has, knows that addictions become a part of us. Our desire becomes attached to some thing that gives us some momentary good–a sense of security, a numbing of the pain, a feeling of worth. But then, once attached we find that we can’t get free from it. We cannot relax without the glass of wine, we cannot feel worthwhile without power over others, we cannot enjoy life without the delivery of an Amazon box. As the psychiatrist Gerald May has written, “Spiritually, addiction is a deep-seated form of idolatry. The objects of our addictions become our false gods. These are what we worship, what we attend to, where we give our time and energy, instead of love. Addiction, then, displaces and supplants God’s love as the source and object of our deepest true desire.”
And so we find ourselves, looking at our lives and at the world, and if we look honestly we see a world of destruction and pollution and exploitation that we, ourselves are a part of, and cannot let go of because we are addicted the very agents of that destruction. “[T]he conviction that we cannot change because we are dependent on what is wrong,” says the farmer-prophet Wendell Berry, is our “great obstacle.” “But that,” he writes, “is the addict’s excuse, and we know that it will not do.”
But what do we do, faced with our addictions that rob us of our freedom, damage the world, hinder love, and trap up the downtrodden as they seek the reign of God? How do we find a way out? Is there hope for healing?
Jesus ends this passage with another strange teaching, but it is one, that when understood should offer us some hope. “For everyone will be salted with fire,” Jesus says, and in these words he is reflecting the common practice after the amputations of his day–salt and cauterization–that is how the healing begins. He then says that we should have “salt within ourselves.” Together, then, in our saltiness, we are agents of God’s healing. Our bodies, broken from our addictions, are to become whole through the healing body of Christ’s people.
Jesus knows that so many of us are trapped in our addictions, pinned by rocks we cannot move. He wants us to have the courage to cut off those limbs that have become attached to our desires in such a way that we cannot live into the freedom of God’s reign or join the flow of Jesus’ love. The choice of this sacrificial love will be costly, he is certain, but there is no alternative other than to burn in the hell of our our addictions until there is nothing left that is not charred.
The great poet and and Anglican T.S. Eliot understood this choice better than most, and in his poem “Little Gidding,” he expresses it better than any. Writing of the Pentecost reality that Jesus hints at in our Gospel today, Eliot wrote:
The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre-
To be redeemed from fire by fire.
Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire. Amen.