Some sayings of Jesus are so difficult to deal with, it is tempting to say He was exaggerating and we shouldn't take Him too literally. For example, in today's Gospel, when Jesus says 'If your hand should cause you to sin, cut it off,' did He really mean it, or is this just Semitic hyperbole? One possible way to deal with this saying would be to take Jesus a bit more literally: He doesn't actually say our hands cause us to sin.
If instead of sin, He had been talking about a diseased part of the body, we wouldn't find it particularly objectionable if He had said we should cut it out if this would save our life. The reason the thought of chopping our hands off is so objectionable is because in reality there are other more fundamental causes of our sin. The force of Jesus' language should alert us to the urgency with which we need to deal with the real causes of sin. It belongs to penance to cut out these causes.
Earlier on in Mark's Gospel, Jesus does in fact allude to the cause of sin. He teaches that out of the heart of man comes evil thoughts and actions. In this teaching we need to remember that the hearer's of Jesus understood the heart to be not only the source of a person's emotions, but also of their thoughts and every decision they make. Our sins are caused by our disordered thoughts and desires.
The Greek word for repentance, meta-noia literally means a change of mind. We need to listen to the prophetic voice of John the Baptist and repent. We need to reorder our thoughts and desires, so that the way is clear for Christ to enter into our lives. And we need to give expression to our repentance, to our change of mind, through acts of penance. Traditionally the most important forms of Christian penance have been prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Perhaps if we were more aware of how penance cuts away the causes of sin and enables us to be united with Christ, we might perform our acts of penance more readily and joyfully.
All too often we would prefer to avoid the need for penance, so we look away from our own hearts and we try to find other external causes for our sin. We look for people and other circumstances to blame. Jesus does recognise that people can cause others to sin and that it is a terrible thing when this occurs, worse than being thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around one's neck. But Jesus is not telling us to be exclusive and cut people off from the Church. It is the disciples who wanted to be exclusive. They wanted to exclude the man casting out demons in Jesus' name because they didn't consider him to be 'one of us.'
It is rather ironic that shortly before this incident, the disciples were unable to cast out an unclean spirit. When they asked Jesus why they were unable to cast it out, He said that this kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer and fasting. So we might suppose that the outsider who successfully managed to cast out a demon, was someone who prayed and fasted, someone who was truly repentant. How terrible it is then, if we try to exclude such people and block the path of repentance. Jesus' warning about causing others to sin, is not so much a warning to others, but a warning to us. Only God knows whether or not someone is truly repentant, so we are putting our souls in great danger if we go around judging who is in the in-crowd and who is not.
In cutting out the causes of sin, we shouldn't start with other people – we should start with ourselves. Trying to root out sin in other people is likely to lead to dissension, to factions and to hatred. But if we try to root out the sin in ourselves, if we examine our hearts and truly repent, we will enter into the peace, unity and love of Christ.