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The Rev. Dr. John H. Pavelko


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 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Mark 8:38-50

Severed Arm Theology

The Severed Arm

Aron drove down from Aspen to Moab UT for a weekend break. He wanted to enjoy the sunny, warm climate of southern Utah. He was equipped for two days of bike riding through the desert and rock climbing the shear walls of the canyon lands. The area has some of the most desolate and intriguing scenery in the lower 48 states. Buttes, mesas, and winding twisting canyons offer a dream wilderness experience.

Aron woke on Saturday morning and decided to begin the day with a 15-mile solo ride to the Bluejohn Canyon Trailhead, lock his mountain bike to a juniper, canyoneer down Bluejohn to Horseshoe Canyon, then hike back to his pick up his bike. In canyoneering, a climber uses rock-climbing skills, ropes and other gear to maneuver through the narrow slots of the sheer canyon walls. Aron was a avid mountain climber. He had already crested 59 of Colorado's 14,000-foot peaks, 45 of them as a solo climber in the middle of winter. The solitude of the canyon did not intimidate him.

His backpack was rather light even for the desert. Aron packed two burritos, less than a liter of water, a cheap multi-tool utility knife, a small first aid kit, a video camera, a digital camera and some rock climbing gear. Whether confidence or arrogance blinded this experienced climber, his lack of food, water and extra clothing would be a costly oversight.

The initial descent went smoothly. However, he was nearly to the canyon floor when he committed another error in judgment. While working his way through a narrow slot, he had to climb over an boulder weighing at least 800 lbs. It was wedged between the walls. He climbed up its face and the rock appeared stable as he stood on top but as he began to climb down, the rock shifted pinning his right arm against the canyon wall.

During the first hour of his entrapment, Aron calculated that he had four possible solutions.

  1. Another hiker would happen upon him and rescue him;

  2. he would chip away enough of the rock to free his hand;

  3. he would move the rock by rigging his ropes and other climbing gear;

  4. if all else failed, he would be forced to sever his arm.

Over the next four days, all his efforts to free his arm proved futile. The boulder was too heavy to move and too dense to chip away. Having exhausted his food and water two days earlier Ralston recorded a video message for his parents. He etched his name, date of birth and what was certain to be his last day alive on the canyon wall. He prepared to die. On Thursday morning he had a vision of a toddler running across the sunlit floor to be scooped up by a one-armed man. The vision inspired Aron. He knew what he had to do.

He first broke his radius bone which connected the elbow to the thumb. A few minutes later he cracked the ulna. Next he applied a tourniquet to his arm. Using his rather dull knife blade he then severed his own arm below the elbow. Freed from his rock imprisonment, he administered first aid to stop the bleeding, rappelled the remaining 70-feet to the canyon bottom, hiked 5 miles downstream where he found a vacationing Dutch family who helped him until a Utah Highway Patrol Helicopter could evacuate him to the nearest hospital.

Aron knows that his rescue was a miracle. During his ordeal, this Methodist prayed often and in various ways seeking guidance and rescue. He believes that his vision was divine intervention. Without it he would not have been able to break the bones in his arm. His faith has been strengthened. The experience changed his life. He gained a greater appreciation for family and friends; being around them brings greater pleasure. He also knows that following his passions is the most important thing in life. So rather then becoming bogged down with a mortgage and paycheck, Aron spends his days going vertical on rock walls, picking his way up towering sheets of ice, and canyoneers through rocky mazes created by water and wind.

Jesus would have admired Aron's willingness to sacrifice an arm to save his life. What value is one hand if its preservation brings death? Compared to the rewards of life, a hand is trivial.

In our consideration of these words we must remember the flow of the chapter. The events begin after Jesus descends down from the mountain upon which Peter, James and John witnessed the transfiguration. At the foot of the mountain a worried father greets the four men. He has asked the other disciples to drive off a deaf mute demon from afflicting his son but they are powerless in the devil's presence. Jesus delivers the boy from the deaf mute spirit. The band of wanderers then return to their home town of Capernaum. After arriving Jesus asks the Twelve what were they arguing about during the trip.

Mark is quite intentional by his placement of this passage. The location of the argument and the question by Jesus implies that the selection of Peter, James and John to scale the mountain may have put a strain on their relationship with the other disciples. Perhaps the discussion over why Jesus chose them and not the others boiled over into an argument that produced some rather loud boasting and male strutting. Little boys will eventually give up playing the childhood game of “King of the Hill' as they grow up, but men really never give up their verbal jousting establishing male dominance and superiority. Last week we learned that Jesus uses the moment to teach them about the greater importance of welcoming the unimportant.

This takes us into this morning's passage. I wonder if the men tell Jesus stopping someone from driving out demons in his name in hopes of regaining their shredded egos. They may have wanted his approval. In their police-like action, they were claiming exclusive ownership of any deliverance ministry. Jesus rebukes them again. Anyone can do a miracle in his name because it forces them to choose sides even if they are not a part of his group. A person cannot be on his side to do a miracle and then switch sides to curse him. Even the simple act of giving cold water shows that a person is on his side.

The Seriousness

A careful reader of this gospel may be wondering why Jesus is making such a dramatic point about a such a minor topic. This is not to minimize the damage that over-inflated egos can have on a church community. The witness of many a church has been destroyed simply because pride blinded waring factions from what their opponents' position had at least some value. In comparison to the destruction upon the lives of children and society that adultery, theft, and murder causes, pride seems insignificant. However, that is Jesus' point. Every expression of sin, especially the insignificant should be taken seriously.

We have a natural inclination to compare ourselves with others. We know that we are not as good as some but we hope that we are better than most. We do not want to come across as religious fanatics and we definitely do not want to be accused of being pagans. We are comfortable being slightly better than average. By advocating self-mutilation, Jesus, shocks us into the realization that every sin should be taken very seriously. We are not dealing with harmless peccadilloes or slight offense. Our careless acts, our selfish deeds, our thoughtless and hurtful comments are not innocent miscues. Sin is sin. Any act that transgresses the laws of God brings death. How serious is it? Jesus says it is so serious that you should be willing to give up your eye or your hand or your arm because if you do not you could lose your life.

The Difficultly

Eliminating the cause of sin is not easy. The Aron Ralston's story reminds us just how difficult it is. My arm recoils when the nurse touches my skin with a cold swab before giving me a shot. I have been known to holler quite loud during the extraction of a tiny splinter from my foot. I cannot imagine enduring the pain of breaking two bones and cutting through the skin of my own arm with a knife. Jesus did not have to read the Aron Ralston story to know this. The pain of self-mutilation would have been just as severe in his day as ours. So, is the removal of the causes of sin.

Jesus knows that he is admonishing us to accept a difficult, painful task. He knows our past. He knows the causes for our stumbling. He understands why we do what we do but because the implication of the problem is so serious, he is not going to allow us to take the easy way. This is a struggle that we must be willing to engage.

The Necessity

Jesus used the graphic imagery of self-amputation to enable his disciples to understand the serious nature of sin, the difficulty of removing its presence from one's life and for them to know the absolute necessity of the task. This may seem contradictory to the hyperbolic nature of the analogy. A speaker usually uses hyperbole to illustrate the impossibility. Hyperbole is a distorted exaggeration of reality. However, the necessity of the task is understood if we go back almost two hundred years in Israel's history to the time when the Syrian tyrant, Antiochus, tried to purge Judaism from the religious landscape.

The story is told in a book called 2 Maccabes. It is found in the Jewish Apocrypha. An elderly scribe, and a mother with seven sons were given a choice. They could renounce their Jewish faith or die. Eleazar refuses to even pretend to renounce his faith for fear that the children of Israel would suspect that the 90 year old man accepted an alien religion for the sake of living a brief moment longer. The elder scribe refuses to be a stumbling block for the younger generation. He tells his tormentors, “I will not transgress the sacred oaths of my ancestors concerning the keeping of the Law, not even if you gouge out my eyes and burn my entails.” For their faith, Eleazar, the mother and her seven sons died a martyrs death. One son has his tongue cut out and his hands and feet cut off.

These Maccabean martyrs became national heroes and symbols of commitment for the people. Jesus may have intentionally alluded to these great heroes to remind his disciples of the necessity of the call. They were willing to die for the faith. Disciples of every generation must be willing to make the same choice. It is a necessity for the faith.

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