Here on the 26th Sunday in ordinary time, the readings have a seriousness of tone that will continue through the first couple of weeks of Advent. In the reading from Saint James, and in the teaching from Jesus in the gospel, we are challenged to take seriously the reality of Gehenna.
So what is Gehenna? The answer to this question is like so many other answers to questions that believers raise, multifaceted. And that’s why I want us to focus on the reality of Gehenna rather than the many alternative explanations for Gehenna. But let’s start with some of those alternative explanations. One that you will hear is that Gehenna was a trash pit, and like many trash pits it was always burning. In this explanation, Jesus was referencing a local physical place to remind his listeners of the importance of being a good person. Other explanations are that Gehenna was the place where sacrifices to Moloch were made. Moloch was the local God of the Canaanites to whom live children were sacrificed by throwing them into a pit of fire.
Three times in the gospel story Jesus contrasts Gehenna with life. So it may be true that Gehenna was a trash pit, and it may be true that it was the place of sacrifice for the pagan god of Moloch, but Jesus uses this imagery as a contrast to life. And when Jesus speaks of life, he is speaking of eternal life. So Gehenna is eternal death. The church has come to describe that eternal death as Hell.
For most of us, it is a constant temptation to focus on our current mortal lives rather than to focus on eternal life. And in the letter from St James, we are warned of the consequences of losing our focus from eternal life to our current lives. When Saint James uses the words “you rich,” let us substitute, “you worldly.” One doesn’t need to have a lot of money to be focused on the things of this world. All of us can focus on clothing or money. Sometimes the sense of not having much of it makes us focus on it even more. In his letter, St. James warns his listeners that a focus on the stuff of today will be a testimony against us. He says, “it will devour your flesh like a fire.”
An eternal fire pit like Gehenna also will devour our flesh. But do we really believe in such a thing? The Christian walk is full of forks in the road. And yet, there is only one path. Our challenge, and our discipline as Christians, is to stay on the right path when we are offered so many diversions. And the principal diversion that we hear is some variation on the general idea that Hell doesn’t really exist.
Total skeptics will argue that there is no proof of life after death, and therefore we should not be concerned with what happens after we die. I just do not see how one can call oneself a Christian and subscribe to that view. The Bible, the Word of God, speaks of a day of judgment and eternal life or eternal punishment. We are hearing exactly that right from the mouth of Jesus today. So it is easier for Christians to dismiss the total skeptics.
But the idea that we should not be concerned with what happens after we die can be more positively presented. We have heard from at least one well-known American Bishop that perhaps God’s love is so powerful that it overwhelms all those who turned away from his love with the result that nobody is in Hell because eventually God’s love drew them all to heaven. Now that is a nice thought. And it can make logical sense: God is love, God is omnipotent, so God’s love is finally unvanquished and everybody comes home to God.
Yet, it is a challenge for me to understand how the good Bishop can read today’s Gospel and end up believing that there’s no such thing as people ending up in Hell. In this gospel story, Jesus takes the consequence of sin very seriously. It’s serious enough that he argues we should take drastic measures to avoid the things that lead us to sin. He argues for drastic measures because the consequences are just as drastic. Gehenna is not merely a fire pit for Jesus. Gehenna is a place of eternal, painful, punishment for unrepented sin. Maybe the Bishop is right, and everybody goes to Heaven, but a prudent person would not bet on that outcome. Jesus preaches the reality of Hell, and it’s generally a good idea not to dismiss what Jesus preaches.
I once heard an old man say that life is a balance of the stick and the carrot. He said that between the stick and the carrot, the stick was very, very real and the carrot was mostly fantasy. I grant you that is a bit of a dark view on life and the human condition, but it can get you motivated, can’t it? When we get whacked by the Stick of Life, it hurts. And pain can change our behavior. It would be more glorious and more noble if we changed our behavior because we responded out of our own free will to what is beautiful and what is true and what is good. But God can work with less than perfectly noble motivations. When we say that there are no atheists in foxholes, that’s what we are talking about. How many lives were changed because a person in fear for his life asked God to get him out of his predicament? God does not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. He ultimately wishes us to be perfect, but he can work with our imperfections. That’s how much he loves us.
So, if we don’t want to fall into the pit of Gehenna, God can work with that. He sees it is more about us avoiding the stick rather than reaching for the carrot. He sees that it is motivation from fear, but fear comes from seeing more clearly. If I am afraid of the pit of Gehenna, then at least I recognize that there is an eternal life and there is an eternal judgement. And in seeing those two things, I am way ahead of so many people who continue to call themselves Christians but are effectively humanists who concern themselves entirely with the current day and rarely consider that day of judgement.
Jesus is saying to us that the day of judgment should be near the top of our minds every single day. Jesus is saying that sin and its consequences are real, and they have lasting impact. Jesus is asking each of us to consider the ways we fall into sin and think of how we can remove those triggers from our lives. And in his examples, Jesus is acknowledging how hard it can be to remove those triggers.
Let’s consider two that might be in our lives. If you are under 40 years old, the smartphone and social media have been a fixture in your life. Wherever you go, you bring Facebook and Instagram and Twitter with you. Your phone insists on being paid attention to. It notifies you of what other people are saying in those apps, and it lets you know how your messages are being received. When it comes to moving around, you have no idea where anything is because you’ve never looked at a map larger than your six inch screen, and you really just need to know when to take the next left or right turn. None of this is bad unless any of this distracts you from God. Given the choice, some of you are so addicted to the phone life that cutting off an arm sounds not so bad as switching to a flip phone. But Jesus wants us to really consider those things that pull us away from God and be courageous about removing those things from our lives.
If you are older than 40, then news and political opinion TV shows might be something that pull you away from God. When we see somebody on TV saying what we’ve been thinking, it can be so powerful. In a world gone mad, we finally found a voice of sanity. And we can become addicted to these information streams. While we might still own a road atlas, let us not disparage our younger friends for their reliance on their phone apps. We are just as reliant on our political news feeds. And Jesus might be asking us to get rid of TV because it is ultimately separating us from him.
No, we don’t have to pluck out our eye, but we might have to pluck out what our eye is accustomed to watching. Can we do it? Yes, if we turn to Jesus. Yes, if we believe in Heaven and Hell. Yes, if we believe Gehenna is more than a trash pit.
Jesus is using strong language because the message is so important. Let us not dismiss the message because we think the language is harsh. Let us consider the things in our lives that might separate us from the love of God, and let’s cut them out of our lives so we are not cut out from his Life.