Historical Culture Context
Importance of Loyalty
In recent years, “kiss and tell” books have become an American political fashion. Friends of a president who served by appointment in his administration feel perfectly free to tell all sorts of stories when their appointment is completed. In the American cultural value system, loyalty is provisional and pragmatic.
The remaining verses of today’s Gospel passage display a radically different idea of loyalty in the Mediterranean world. The people whose loyalty is of concern to Jesus are the “little ones” who believe in (are loyal to) him (Mk 9:42). Thus, the “little ones” are not children but rather adult followers of Jesus whom he sometimes calls children (Mk 10:24; cf. Mt 11:25).
Jesus’ concern about those who cause his “little ones” to “sin” is a concern about those who rupture the faithfulness or loyalty of those little ones to him. Jesus considers unshaken loyalty to him so important that anyone who might disrupt it deserves capital punishment (being drowned with a stone tied around one’s neck).
The comments of Jesus about sources of disruption to personal loyalty reflect first-century Mediterranean psychology, which is not at all introspective but rather based on values attributed to external dimensions of human life.
From the beginning to the end of the Bible, it is clear that the Hebrews viewed human beings as consisting of three interlocking zones symbolized by parts of the body. Hands and feet symbolize purposeful activity. If one’s activity (hand or foot) causes one to stumble during tests of loyalty, one must put an end to such behavior.
Eyes are invariably paired with the heart in the Bible to symbolize the zone of emotion-fused thought, reflective consideration of proper courses of action. If the eye, the organ that feeds information to the heart, is unreliable in tests of loyalty, one must take serious action to halt the damage.
Interpreters incline toward giving these verses figurative rather than literal meaning. Surely, Jesus did not intend to gather a band of lame and blind followers around himself. While this view has merit, one should not forget that even today in the Middle East physical punishment of this sort is still meted out to convicted criminals.
Jesus’ point is that no matter how painful, any effort to insure loyalty to him in this life is far less painful than the punishment for disloyalty to be administered in the world to come.
The seriousness of Jesus’ exhortation becomes too apparent in the accounts of his crucifixion and death. Judean authorities who conspired to have Jesus put to death stand by the cross and mock him, saying: “He rescued others, but he cannot rescue himself. If he comes down from the cross now, we will place our loyalty and faithfulness in him” (see Mk 15:32; Mt 27:42).
Mediterranean loyalty means “faithfulness no matter what.” It challenges the conditional loyalty proposed by the authorities to Jesus on the cross and the American idea of pragmatic loyalty. What does loyalty mean to you?
John J. Pilch