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Snake handlers and poison drinkers

Modern Bible translations note that the Gospel of Mark probably originally ended at 16:8. Manuscript evidence indicates that the material found in Mark 16:9-20 was probably added a few decades after the Gospel was produced. Most of what’s in those verses is found in the other Gospels. But Mark 16:18 has something than none of the other Gospels have. It says of believers in Jesus, ‘They will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them.’ Some of us might be glad to know that verse isn’t part of the original Gospel. We might say, ‘Well, that’s not really part of the Bible, so I can ignore it.’ I wouldn’t go that far. After all, it is printed in our Bibles, even with the explanatory notes that imply that maybe it shouldn’t be, so we have to deal with it. But I will go this far: Christians who intentionally handle poisonous snakes or intentionally drink poison, daring God to protect them, are misguided. It’s one thing to trust in God through thick and thin, come hell or high water, in times of plenty or times of want. It’s another thing entirely to assume that God will protect you no matter how foolish you choose to be. It’s another thing entirely to dare God to protect you. It’s another thing entirely to act as if God didn’t give you a brain and the good sense that should come with it. There’s a difference between trusting in God and presuming upon God. This is why churches that keep meeting during the COVID-19 crisis are doing wrong. Their pastors and members can claim to trust in God all they want. They can claim that their continuing to meet during this pandemic demonstrates their faith and courage. But they are in fact presuming upon God’s care. Non-essential businesses that stay open in the belief that God will protect their workers and customers are being presumptuous too. They are putting God to the test, which indicates a self-centered and thus inadequate view of faith. Jesus himself gives us the example we need. We read about it in Matthew 4: Then the devil took [Jesus] to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ’˜He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘˜On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” Jesus said to him, ‘Again it is written, ‘˜Do not put the Lord your God to the test” (vv. 5-7). Would God have protected Jesus if he had jumped off the temple? Maybe. But even if Jesus knew that God would protect him, he also knew that he shouldn’t try to make God prove it. We can’t know what Jesus knew, but we can know that we shouldn’t put God to the test either. Besides, there’s this business of loving one another. We’re supposed to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. If we insist on continuing to participate in large gatherings, even with a faith community, we are putting other people at risk. A meme that’s been going around on social media helps make the point. It shows someone sitting with his feet dangling off the edge of a very high cliff. At the bottom of the image are these words: ‘When we have nothing left but God, we discover that God is enough.’ Amen to that. Then it continues: ‘But we still shouldn’t sit on cliffs. That’s just dumb.’ Amen to that too.

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