On September 11, 2001, Emilio Martinez was anxious to get home from a business trip. He boarded an early flight in Ohio, but the plane had barely got off the ground when the pilot came on the intercom to tell the passengers that there was a “security breach” and that their plane was being diverted immediately to Omaha.
Emilio had an intuition that something very serious was happening—something that might make it very difficult for him and others to get home—so as soon as he got a cell signal, he called a car rental company and arranged to rent the biggest van they had.
When he deplaned, he heard the news about what was happening with the hijacked planes and the World Trade Center towers as he made his way quickly to pick up the van he had rented while still in the air. He did the rental paperwork quickly, then parked the van close to the terminal and went back inside. He tore a big piece of cardboard off of a discarded cardboard box then borrowed a Sharpie from a gate agent and made a sign that said “GOING TO DENVER.” Even though everyone was nervous and scared at that point, people started approaching him to ask if he was really going to Denver. “Yes,” he said. “And I can take seven people with me.”
In no time, Emilio’s rented van was filled with seven strangers. All of them nervous. All of them scared. But all of them wanting desperately to get home. All eight of them jumped into the van and Emilio drove them home from Omaha to Denver. Denver is a huge metropolitan area with lots of suburbs, but Emilio drove each and every one of his seven new friends to their front door. When they tried to offer him money to help cover the rental of the van or pay for the gas, he refused. With his simple act of generosity, Emilio Martinez became one of the unsung heroes of 9/11.
In George Eliot’s wonderful book Middlemarch, the heroine, Dorothea Brooke, asks the question, “What do we live for, if it’s not to make life less difficult for each other?” If you take nothing else home with you today, I hope you take that. I hope you let that question live with you. What do we live for, if it’s not to make life less difficult for each other?
In the ninth chapter of Mark, there’s a moment when the disciples want Jesus to make life more difficult for someone. The disciple John came to Jesus and said, “Teacher, we saw a man using your name to expel demons and we stopped him because he wasn’t in our group.”
Think about that for a minute. Someone was freeing people from spiritual oppression or possession—in the name of Jesus, no less—and they tried to stop him. Because…? Because he was not part of their group. In the eyes of the disciples he wasn’t properly authorized to use the name of Jesus, I guess.
Here’s how Jesus responded, as Eugene Peterson describes it in The Message: “Jesus wasn’t pleased. ‘Don’t stop him. No one can use my name to do something good and powerful, and in the next breath cut me down. If he’s not an enemy, he’s an ally. Why, anyone by just giving you a cup of water in my name is on our side. Count on it that God will notice.”
That seems pretty clear, but Jesus has more to say. He really wants them—and us—to get the point. When it comes to helping people, as far as Jesus sees it, we’re all on the same side.
But Jesus has another concern. He’s worried that by butting in on the good work that the non-disciple was doing, his disciples might have done something to alienate him and all those people watching him from faith in Christ. He’s worried that their bad example and cliquish attitude might turn people away.
“On the other hand,” he says—this is The Message again—“if you give one of these simple, childlike believers a hard time, bullying or taking advantage of their simple trust, you’ll soon wish you hadn’t. You’d be better off dropped in the middle of the lake with a millstone around your neck.”
Jesus is using hyperbole to make a point here…and he’s just getting warmed up. “If your hand or your foot gets in God’s way, chop it off and throw it away. You’re better off maimed or lame and alive than the proud owner of two hands and two feet, godless in a furnace of eternal fire. — And if your eye distracts you from God, pull it out and throw it away. You’re better off one-eyed and alive than exercising your twenty-twenty vision from inside the fire of hell.”
Now let’s be clear. Jesus is not advocating that we maim ourselves in any way. A lot of people are really troubled by this passage, and a lot of pastors hate to preach on it. One pastor asked his adult Sunday School class to think about which Sunday would be good for inviting their friends to church and one woman said, “Any Sunday except pluck-your-eye-out Sunday.”
She has a point. It’s a scary text and it could put people off. But it’s important to remember that Jesus is using hyperbole here. He uses these very graphic images to hammer home the point. He knows his followers will remember what he’s telling them precisely because what he says is so shocking and the images are so graphic.
But when you read past the hyperbole, you realize that he’s basically telling us, “Use some self-control, people! Think before you act! Think before you speak! Especially if you identify as one of my followers! If you bear the name of Christ, if you call yourself a Christian, think about how you represent Jesus. Your words and actions can come back to haunt not just you, but all of us who bear the name of Christ.
How many times have you seen a news story about how some “Christians” have made life difficult for other people? About a Christian-owned bake shop, say, that won’t make a wedding cake for a gay couple or about a prominent “Christian” making some kind of statement of hate or exclusion. My heart just sinks every time I see a story like that. I know that there will be people out there who will see that and it will turn them away from faith in Christ.
Jesus wants us to know that we will answer for those kinds of things.
Author Wendy Mass said, “Be kind. Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.” In The Message, Jesus says the same thing another way: “Everyone’s going through a refining fire sooner or later but you’ll be well-preserved, protected from the eternal flames. Be preservatives yourselves. Preserve the peace.”
Preserve the peace. Greet the world with an expansive and welcoming attitude—not one of exclusion. Help people whenever and however you can. Or at the very least, don’t be an obstruction when you see someone else helping people.
After all, what do we live for, if it’s not to make life less difficult for each other? Especially if we can do it in the name of Jesus.
 Mark 9:38-50 in The Message, a paraphrase translation of the Bible by Eugene Peterson