"Pay Attention!": Sermon for the 19th Sunday After Pentecost, Year B

"Pay Attention!": Sermon for the 19th Sunday After Pentecost, Year B

Sep 30, 2018

Passage:Mark 9:38-50

Preacher: The Rev. Dr. Robert Pace

Series: Pentecost

Category: Discipleship, Grace, Forgiveness

Keywords: exaggeration, grace, love, hell. forgiveness


We hear a lot about "hell" in our culture and even in the Gospel readings. When Jesus talks about tearing off limbs and "burning" them in hell of "the unquenchable fire," what is he talking about? This sermon takes a look at Jesus' use of language in the Gospel of Mark, and also how we respond to Jesus' desire for us to "pay attention."


In the name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.

Jesus wants us to pay attention!

Like many preachers across the country today, I'd like to preach about Hell.

... So pay attention!

I think Hell sounds like a pretty scary place, but we heard it mentioned three times in our Gospel reading today, so I think we ought to take a good look at it.

In fact, for full disclosure, I have to confess to you all, I have been told by more than one person in my life that they thought I might be going to Hell.

So let's see where this goes!

What images come to your mind when you think about Hell?

Part of our cultural understanding of hell, whether we are conscious of it or not, is driven by the fourteenth-century epic poem The Divine Comedy  by Dante Alighieri. The first part of the poem in the Inferno (which is Italian for Hell). He describes in great detail the nine circles of suffering located beneath the earth--(this is why we say "we go down to hell").

What brought me to this topic is Jesus saying to his disciples that no one had better put a "stumbling block" in the way of faith of his disciples. He did not want anyone--including his disciples to "trip up" the process of faith. He wants them to "pay attention!"

Several years ago, when I was a lay person at a different church, I watched an incident occur one Sunday morning that has always stuck with me.

Many of us church-goers tend to be creatures of habit. I'm no exception. We generally always went to the same service time each Sunday, and we sat in the same pew--"our pew"--each Sunday.

This, of course, meant that in the pews around us were fellow members of the congregation who were sitting in "their" regular pews as well. We knew who sat in front of us and behind us and beside us each Sunday.

Then, one Sunday, a couple of visitors arrived and were sitting in the pew in front of us. It was a surprise. I was pleased to see it.

But what was a bigger surprise was what happened next.

The "regular" occupant of that pew arrived. He saw the visitors in "his" pew. Then he politely asked them to move. They were in his seat.

We never saw those visitors at that church again.

Jesus sternly warns his disciples not to put stumbling blocks in the way of the "little ones"--his disciples. He wants us to them to pay attention!

Jesus doesn't want us to trip up anyone on their path to finding wholeness in the Gospel.

This is where Jesus' warning get pretty dire--pretty drastic.

He says: "If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea."

And this is when the references to Hell come in...

Jesus goes on:

"If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched."

So, does Jesus REALLY want someone to find a mill, wrestle with a huge stone, tie it around their neck, and throw themselves in the sea??

Of course not!!!

We have to remember that the center of Jesus' message--the Gospel--the Good News--is FORGIVENESS.

Jesus is using a form of Aramaic hyperbole here. Hyperbole is a type of speaking that means exaggeration...this was a custom of his culture and his time. He was overstating an example to make a point.[i]

Pay attention!

So what about the other examples? Does Jesus want us to cut off hands, feet, our eyes? NO!!! Again, this is hyperbole!  Aramaic exaggeration to make a point.

Jesus wants us to PAY ATTENTION!

And I think that most of us get this, right?

Most people understand and realize that Jesus didn't really want anyone to cut off their arms or legs. (Otherwise we'd have a lot more seriously injured Christians walking around).

But isn't it interesting, then, that it seems harder for many to see that the second half of the these statements by Jesus are also metaphor?

When Jesus says "be thrown into hell, to the unquenchable fire," many picture eternal damnation. I think it's also important to realize that this, too, is Aramaic hyperbole--it's exaggeration. It is metaphor. Jesus says: Pay attention here! And Jesus' original hearers would have understood that.

So, what was hell? It was an actual place--Gehenna. This place was also known as the Valley of Ben Hinnon--just outside of the city of Jerusalem. About 800 years before Christ, in the reign of King Ahaz, and during the reign of his great grandson, King Menasseh--these kings allowed altars to other gods in this valley--including altars for the sacrifice of children to the God Moloch. When King Josiah came to the throne he wiped away these altars and declared the Valley of Ben Hinnon (Gehenna) unfit for habitation. For the next several centuries, Gehenna developed into the city dump for Jerusalem. By the time of Jesus, Gehenna (translated as "hell" in the Mark) was a continual smoldering, burning, smelly, horrid, terrible place to be.[ii] But it was a place. Here... on earth...

And because of this, I really think this bolsters the argument that Jesus is using it as a metaphor.

For example:

He said: "Take a millstone" (something you can never actually do) to the sea (a real place where you could drown), therefore this is hyperbole.


He said: "Cut off your hand/foot/eye" (something you would never be expected to really do) to Gehenna (a real place where you would burn up as the garbage and trash of the city burned), therefore this is hyperbole.

Here's the Good News:  

Even though I don't think Jesus was talking about our eternity here, that's what this scripture brings up for us. So let's talk about that...

Here's what we know as Christians: If Christ destroyed death forever, we will be in the presence of the Lord forever. That's part of the "mystery of his will." That's our belief in the life of the "world to come." God is continually calling us to our completion--our wholeness in God. This will be a place of ultimate joy, happiness, fullness, and completion of who we are.

   However, we also know that there are some who choose to separate themselves from the love of God in this life. And perhaps, these people will continue to choose separation, even after death.

Separation from the knowledge and love of God, we know, results in pain, anger, shame, hopelessness, and darkness--in other words, it is a kind of hell.

I will also say that God's grace is probably more powerful than my imagination about what can thwart God's grace. The truth is, I'm not sure that even the most determined individual could resist the love of God for ALL of eternity (it is, after all, ETERNITY)."

So let's listen to Jesus and...

PAY ATTENTION... and forgive someone who you need to forgive...

PAY ATTENTION... and open your heart to the needs of poor...

PAY ATTENTION... and admit that you could be wrong...

PAY ATTENTION... and care for someone who is sick...

PAY ATTENTION...and pray for the healing of the world...

PAY ATTENTION... and love one another...

PAY ATTENTION... and know you are loved--for all of eternity!    Amen.


[i]Edward F. Markquart, “Pentecost 17B Mark 9:38-50,” Sermons From Seattle: A Quest For Better Preaching, at

[ii] William Barclay, The Gospel of Mark, Daily Study Bible Series, Revised Edition (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1975), 231.