Are you squirming yet? Are you surreptitiously looking down at your lap, wondering what it would be like to lop off a hand or a foot? How would it feel to have an eye plucked out? Last week, we learned that Jesus requires us to welcome little children… to become like children ourselves… in order that we might enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Today’s Gospel message cautions us about the alternative… what will surely happen if we fail in this imperative… or become a “stumbling block” to others seeking Christ and the Kingdom. How might we cause others to stumble? I think you know. How many of us teeter on the brink of doing so, in one way or another, on any given day? It happens at work, when we act—or take sides—to advance our own selfish agendas, all-too-often to the detriment of others. It happens around the kitchen table, or when we’re out with friends, discussing politics, or our own special take on “religion,” and how that should translate into law and social policy. It happens a lot when we’re driving in traffic! Amiright? It happens whenever we forget that we are, each of us, ambassadors of Christ on earth. It happens when we fail to ask the question, as often as need be each day: “What would Jesus have us do?” and listen for the Holy Spirit’s response… and then act upon that which we hear. Are you squirming yet? You should be. We all should be.
Don’t you just hate it when Jesus talks like this? Isn’t this the same Jesus who said, “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest . . . For My yoke is easy and My burden is light” (Matt 11:28-30 NKJV)? I sure thought so! Wouldn’t we rather hear a soft-spoken, almost maternal, Jesus crooning about gathering his children together as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings (Matt 23:37)? I think we’d all prefer a less-demanding Jesus. But I have good news and bad news for you. First the bad: there are consequences for failing to live our lives in accordance with God’s will, and we will pay the price for “things done and left undone,” not just on Judgment Day… but every day. Like a great millstone hung around our necks… we are not punished for our sins, but by them. Jesus’ is simply telling it like it is. Now the good news (sort of): I don’t believe that Jesus really wants us to maim ourselves. He’s making the point that we must give up anything that becomes a barrier between us and God. And some of these impediments may be as dear to us, as integral to the comfortable lives we have created for ourselves, as our own hands, and feet and eyes. Remember that Jesus taught us to pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done,” when we talk to God (Luke 11:2-4 KJV). It’s not about what we want or what we think is best—it’s about discerning God’s will for our lives. Therein lies our redemption.
I am reminded of a great story of redemption from C. S. Lewis’ Voyage of the Dawn Treader in the Chronicles of Narnia series. Those familiar with the series will remember that Narnia was a magical country inhabited not only by humans, but also dwarves, gnomes and fairies… and a variety of mythical beasties like unicorns, centaurs… and dragons. It was a place where all the animals could talk! The Pevensie children, Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy had once wandered into Narnia through the back of an enchanted wardrobe and, with the help of Aslan… the lion… the son of the Emperor-beyond-the-sea (and, yes, that’s an analogy to our own Jesus Messiah) freed it from bondage to the evil White Witch. They had all been crowned Kings and Queens of Narnia and had seemed to live there for many years… and yet, one day when they were all grown-up and out on an adventure together, they wandered right back through that same wardrobe into this world… and only a few moments had passed. Pretty cool huh? They were happy to be home, but they sure missed Narnia.
Some of you may be familiar with the Dawn Treader story—it’s been made into a movie after all—but for those whose memories are a little fuzzy, I’ll quickly recap: Eustace Scrubb was not a nice boy. He was forever complaining and behaving so rudely that no one really liked him or wanted to be around him. One day when the two younger Pevensies, Edmund and Lucy, were visiting, Eustace was (as usual) picking at them and making fun of their stories about Narnia. Lucy was passing the time admiring a picture hanging on the wall of a green “dragon ship” with a purple sail, heeling and plunging through waves that actually seemed to be moving up and down. Because they were. Quick as a wink, Edmund and Lucy… along with Eustace, found themselves sucked through the picture frame and down into the choppy sea alongside the ship. It wasn’t long before they were hoisted to the deck of the dragon ship “Dawn Treader,” and Edmund and Lucy were thrilled to find themselves among old friends. They were back in Narnia!
After recovering from the shock of his apparent teleportation, Eustace made it very clear that he was not pleased to be in Narnia, and spent the next several chapters of the book trying, as usual, to make sure everyone around him was as miserable as he was. His greed and self-centeredness once even led him to steal drinking water from his shipmates when the Dawn Treader was becalmed—far out at sea and without rain—for many days, putting everyone’s lives at risk. Eustace eventually managed to isolate himself from all attempts at companionship by Edmund, Lucy and the rest of the crew, growing more and more angry and despondent with each passing hour. But his luck was about to change. One day, as he wandered alone on an uninhabited island the ship was visiting, Eustace stumbled across a cave that contained a mountain of treasure—gold and jewels galore—wealth beyond his wildest imagination. And a dragon. But the dragon was old and decrepit, and fell over and died right before his eyes. Eustace suddenly decided that life in Narnia might not be so terrible with all that treasure… and he stuffed his pockets full of precious gems and slipped a golden bracelet onto his arm above the elbow and prepared to take his loot back to the ship to lord it over the others.
But then, Eustace suddenly fell into a deep, deep sleep and when he awoke, guess what? Yup. He, himself, had turned into a dragon. Bummer! He was hungry, and his instincts had become so feral that, without even thinking, he devoured most of the carcass of the dead dragon. The gold bracelet was cutting deeply into (what was now) his foreleg and the pain was excruciating. This was a bit of an awakening for Eustace: he couldn’t live like this. He was frightened and lonely and it began to dawn on him just how poorly he had behaved… how bad of a friend and shipmate he had been. And he resolved to do better. Eustace returned to the ship and, after a delicate period of rapprochement, was embraced and forgiven by his friends and shipmates. One problem remained, however: Eustace was still a dragon… and this reality horrified and disgusted him. And no one knew how to turn the dragon back into a boy. Eustace was at his wit’s end. And then Aslan showed up. It’s always good when Aslan shows up. He led Eustace deep into the forest, to the edge of a large pool with hot water bubbling up from the bottom. Eustace’s leg was throbbing terribly, and he was pretty sure that bathing in the pool would ease that pain. But Aslan told him he’d have to “undress” before he could bathe. Eustace intuited that Aslan meant he’d have to shed his dragon skin—and he tried, scratching himself hard all over… once, twice and then a third time. But every time he peeled off one layer, he found another, just as rough, just as scaly, below it. In despair, Eustace realized this was a job he wouldn’t be able to do by himself. He later told Edmund (and I’m reading from the book, here):
“Then the lion said—but I don’t know if it spoke—‘You will have to let me undress you.’ I was afraid of his claws, I can tell you, but I was pretty nearly desperate now. So, I just lay flat down on my back to let him do it. The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off. You know—if you’ve ever picked the scab of a sore place. It hurts like billy-oh but it issuch fun to see it coming away.” “I know exactly what you mean,” said Edmund [who, once upon a time, had had his own “come to Aslan” moment]. Eustace continued, “Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off—just as I thought I’d done it myself the other three times, only they hadn’t hurt—and there it was lying on the grass, only ever so much thicker, and darker, and more knobbly-looking than the others had been. And there I was as smooth and soft as a peeled switch, and smaller than I had been. Then he caught hold of me—I didn’t like that much for I was very tender underneath now that I’d no skin on—and threw me into the water. It smarted like anything… but only for a moment. After that it became perfectly delicious and as soon as I started swimming and splashing I found that all the pain had gone from my arm. And then I saw why. I’d turned into a boy again. . ..”
Are there impediments in your life that sometimes cause you to stumble and take on the form and appetites of a dragon? What stands in the way of your becoming the child of God that you were created to be, that Jesus tells you you must be in order to enter the Kingdom? Are you ever a stumbling block to those seeking Christ and the Kingdom? You must first name these things, and then attack them relentlessly until you are free of their taint. It won’t be easy, and none of us can do it alone. We must open ourselves to God’s sometimes-painful purpose in our lives and let him have his way with us. As messy and uncomfortable as that may be in the short term, I’m pretty sure it’s preferable to breaking out the meat cleaver.
C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader(New York: Collier, 1978), 90-91.