The Costliness of Grace (Mark 9:43-48)

by Ronald Goetz

Dr. Goetz, a Century editor at large, holds the Niebuhr distinguished chair of theology and ethics at Elmhurst College in Elmhurst, Illinois.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, February 5-12, 1986, p. 111. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Jesus’ language in all its vigorous overstatement still reflects a sense of divine fury over the failure of the divine purpose to work itself out in the actions of human beings that does not compute with our urbane, 20th-century middle-class liberal Christianity.

And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. 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 than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched [Mark 9:43-48].

‘‘It is better for you to enter life maimed . . ." Jesus was possessed of a ferocious righteousness that, frankly, leaves us appalled. Confronted by such a text, we are immediately impelled to find some way out from under its judgment. Clearly, we insist, Jesus was speaking hyperbolically. Did he not frequently overstate the case in order to drive home his point? Surely Jesus was not literally calling for a pack of limping, blind and handless disciples to follow stumbling after him into the Kingdom of God.

Our recognition of a certain exaggeration in our text is some consolation, but not much. For who ever supposed otherwise? Hardly anyone in the history of the church, with the notorious exception of the self-emasculated Origen, ever really supposed that self-mutilation was a remedy for sin. It is almost universally recognized that Jesus’ drastic language was his metaphorical way of expressing his hatred of sin. Yet it is precisely the intention that lies behind his metaphor that gives us our problem. For Jesus’ language in all its vigorous overstatement still reflects a sense of divine fury over the failure of the divine purpose to work itself out in the actions of human beings that does not compute with our urbane, 20th-century middle-class liberal Christianity.

Bonhoeffer’s accusation that the modern church seeks "cheap grace" has become a commonplace. It is all but impossible not to agree with his critique. We do indeed want our salvation free and easy. We don’t want our secular lifestyles unsettled by our religion. We sincerely hope that grace is cheap. It’s the only way we would be willing to afford it. If we believe in salvation at all, we tend to believe in universal salvation, for it is the only basis on which most of us could remotely hope to be saved. All the time we’re still Christian enough to call to God in the name of Jesus -- the very Jesus who warned of hell where the "worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched."

Of course, the hell talk can be gotten ‘round. Jesus was a first-century apocalyptically oriented Jew. Hell was a part of an apocalyptic schema that also included language about literal demons, an imminent supernatural end to the cosmos, etc.; modern scientifically oriented individuals cannot be expected to interpret Jewish apocalypticism by reviving medieval pictures of hell. In fact, we see things very differently.

Both in the secular world and in the church, our characteristic approach to human frailty is not chastisement and dire threats, but understanding; not calling people to repent their sins, but teaching people the gentle arts of self-acceptance; not an ethic of cross-bearing, but an ethic based on the value of self-actualization. Jesus taught us to love our neighbors as ourselves, and we render this in terms of the cliches of pop psychology. "In order to love one’s neighbor, one first must love oneself." The terrible truth is that Jesus would have made a miserable shrink. For Jesus, human frailty and weakness must be excised, not adjusted to. Jesus stands outside our characteristic approach to psychology and ethics, and he refuses to come in. And our problem is that we can neither agree with Jesus nor let go of him.

To be sure, the hand-chopping, eye-plucking remedy for sin could never work, if for no other reason than the fact that we have more sins than we have bodily parts. If all offending parts were removed, in the end we would simply be torsos supporting heads. And there’s the rub. Our hearts and minds are still intact. Yet from our hearts and minds come forth all our sins. Our other organs would have been made scapegoats for the real culprits. "For the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth" (Gen. 8:21). Yet Jesus spoke in such desperate terms in order to underscore his sense of outrage over a situation that is made worse by the very impossibility of it all.

Certainly, it is helpful to realize that Jesus did not intend his words to be taken literally, and the demythologizing insights of biblical criticism save us from an attempt to repristenate the apocalypticism of the first century in a forlorn attempt to be faithful to Jesus’ words. Nevertheless, the power of Jesus’ words cuts through our attempts, however legitimate, to mitigate them. The fact remains that we are sinners. Individually, we are all that our weekly ritualistic, liturgical confessions of sin make us out to be.

We are indeed prideful, selfish, lustful, slothful, cold of heart, deceitful both to ourselves and others -- the melancholy list goes on. And collectively we Americans are on top of the radically unbalanced eco-political structure of the world, getting ours first. Most of the time we successfully erect self-justifying rationales that protect our sin against the lash of Jesus, but we all, on occasion, let our guards down, and the anger of Jesus exposes us in all our godlessness.

Yet even in these moments of exposure, our self-justifications are still close at hand. How easily we cover our nakedness once again with rationalizations and, in a single movement of our soul, quickly come to resent the embarrassment that the revelation of our actual condition caused us. Having regained our composure, we despise the disturber of our self-respect. Quite apart from the fact that talk of eternal hell insults our modernity, we reject the hell talk of Jesus because we reject the right of anyone -- son of man or son of God -- to speak to us in such terms. We grant that we are not perfect, but we refuse to grant that our imperfections, such as they are, justify God’s eternal rejection of us. How dare Jesus, or anyone, speak to us in terms of amputations, gnashing worms and unquenchable tires! Metaphors and myths notwithstanding, who does he think he is?

It is ironic that the one who ended up mutilated for sin was Jesus himself. He who said cut off your hand and foot was hanged hand and foot from the cross. He who advised plucking out your eye shut both his eyes unto death. Perhaps Jesus has earned the right to discuss with us the gravity of our sin, having forgiven us our sin in such mutilating agony. Perhaps his forgiveness of us might evoke in us, if only for a moment, a willingness to wonder about the pride we take in our modernity, our self-sufficiency, our self-justification. Perhaps we do stand in need of grace. Could it be that if Jesus’ cross is any indication, the only real grace is costly, hard-earned grace? Maybe we, even we, need as a mercy to hear of the awe-ful judgment of God for a time. And thereby to be brought to our senses about the significance of our lives and deaths.