In nomine Jesu!
One of my favorite Robert Frost poems, Mending Wall, begins "Something there is that doesn't love a wall." Yet every character who shows up in today's liturgy -- with the exception of James -- appears anxious to "cut-off" or "wall-out" something. The Israelites, egged-on by "the rabble among them [who] had a strong craving" (clearly Rachael Ray fans), long to cut themselves off from freedom. Moses, fed-up with whiny followers, begs God for the penultimate cut-off, death. Joshua, clearly anxious to secure his midlevel leadership position, wants to cut out Eldad and Medad. The Apostle John wants to cut out those who don't "follow us." The psalmist invites us to sing of our relative security within the law's confines, cut-off from the world. Even Jesus waxes eloquent about "cutting off, tearing out, and throwing someone or something into hell." Only James appears anxious to stay connected, but Martin Luther, that not-so-subtle reformer, wanted to cut James' letter out of the New Testament. He calls it "an epistle of straw." What's a preacher to do?
Well, I'm going to start with the ultimate cut-off, hell, with all its medieval images as a place of
punishment for those cut off from a resurrected life. Although Jesus doesn't even use the word, much less the concept, even once today -- we're dealing with another inadequate translation -- hell appears three times in today's Gospel and, as a place of after-death punishment, has become the second most popular piece of real estate in contemporary American culture, right after "luxury condos." I recently saw this analysis of an on-line poll about hell.
Conservatives are more confident than liberals that they'll avoid hell -- and are sure they know someone who won't. Liberals are less confident about their own chances and also less sure they can identify the damned.
Asked to rate the "chances you might go to hell," 46% of self-identified conservatives said "not a chance" -- compared to 28% of liberals. Fundamentalist Christians were the most upbeat about their odds: 55% said "not a chance" compared to 21% of Roman Catholics. 56% of those completing the survey thought they knew one or more people who were "probably" headed below, with 64% of conservatives saying yes and only 47% of liberals. Conservatives, and men, are more likely to believe in hell as a physical
place with fire and demons, as opposed to a spiritual state of separation from God.
Do you know the doomed? 61% of men said they knew some hell-bound folks, compared to 54% of women. (It's unclear whether the results show that men are more judgmental, better judges of character, or hang out with more evil people.)
Most people identified the doomed as "acquaintances," but almost 25% said the hell-bound are members of their own family. Women were more likely to consign family members to hell, quite possibly because they spend more time with them.
And why are these people going to fry? The answers reflect one of the oldest theological debates: which matters more, faith or good works? For instance, 60% of fundamentalists said the unfortunates were going to hell because they didn't have the "right beliefs," compared to just 19% of Catholics who said that. 80% of Catholics said it was because of the person's immoral actions, compared to 40% of fundamentalists. The same split persisted politically: liberals said damnation was determined by bad behavior; conservatives, by a
smaller majority, thought beliefs mattered most. Those who thought their family members were headed down were very likely to think of hell as a place of fire and torment. Oh, and eternal. It was unclear whether the respondents were expressing a prediction or a wish.
Is this what Jesus is talking about, that, if we live a life cut-off from others we can spend eternity enjoying their flaming, eternally cut-off state? That's the majority's point of view.
But the word Jesus uses -- rendered "hell" in most translations -- is, in fact, the word Gehenna which in the Bible is a very real place that one didn't have to die to enter. Gehenna is a valley near Jerusalem where ancient idol-worshipers practiced human, often child, sacrifice. That practice was abolished by Judah's King Josiah, who cleaned out the valley and made it unusable for such practices, 600 years before Jesus, but the valley remains, as a garbage heap; its stories of death, fire and punishment becoming indistinguishable from its name. In Jesus' day, Gehenna was associated with those unspeakable horrors and remained a metaphor for a place where those who cut themselves off from God live.
Jesus' message is that it is better to cut off a hand or foot, or gouge out an eye, if doing so prevents us from living cut off from God. Jesus is trying to save us from the punishing loneliness which is the state of those who cut themselves off from God. If a part of us causes us to reject God, Jesus says, don't mess with it! Get rid of it! Don't give it a chance to even tempt you! In Jesus' day, temptation and sin were located physically in the offending body part. So if you steal with your hand, then cut it off. If your foot moves you to associate with evil people, then amputate it. If your eye causes you to desire something you shouldn't have, then you're better off without your eye. Do anything in your power to rid yourselves of that which can separate you from God and turn your life into a living hell.
Jesus never meant to be taken literally. However, the strength and meaning of his words ought not be underestimated. Jesus is telling us what it takes to be a disciple. Out of love for us, Jesus is warning us in the strongest possible way to rid ourselves of anything that can cast us into the outer darkness because it removes us from God's light. If money incites selfishness, give it away -- all of it. If our property moves us to violence to protect it, sell it. If our desire for
power causes us to spread lies and gossip, take a vow of silence. If success makes us egotistical about our accomplishments, quit. Put simply, Jesus says that it's better to be poor, homeless, bored and a nobody than to live a fiery existence walled-off from God because of wealth, desire, egotism, pride or fame.
Given all we have to rid ourselves of, we'd all need to live like hermits. In the fourth and fifth centuries, some tried this, leaving their homes and families to live alone in the desert with little or no possessions, hoping that others would come and share food with them. The problem, they learned, was that they couldn't cut off; that they took the realities of life with them. Even after removing themselves from the objects of their desires, they imagined what life would be like if they still had them. They learned that the only way to live faithfully is to be dead, which is precisely Jesus' point, because, by virtue of our baptisms, we are dead because in baptism we all died with Christ and were raised to life with Christ; and now we cannot ever be cut off from God. That's God's promise, the beginning of our life in God and its end.
Yet we know that we do not live that way. We
know that we live with one foot planted permanently in the kingdom of God, and the other foot planted, often by our own choice, in a Gehenna of our own making. With that foot we feel our way around in the darkness, wondering who we can get rid of, what we can get away with and how much we can still have things our own way. We do not have the strength to pull this off by ourselves and, when we try, we discover we cannot draw back our foot in Gehenna on our own. We cannot practice enough disciplines, take on enough spiritual practices to pull ourselves up by our own spiritual bootstraps, or give ourselves enough lectures so that choosing God's way is automatic. It is Jesus who died on the cross and got us out of sin and its consequences to begin with. It is Jesus, who, with our consent, draws back our foot from Gehenna's muck so that we can live more fully in the fullness of God's presence. Robert Frost, you see, is absolutely correct. There is "something [there is] that does not love a wall." That something is God and here at Christ's table, no one can be cut off. For here at Christ's table God
holds heaven and earth in a single, indivisible, peace.
Amandus J. Derr
Saint Peter's Church
In the City of New York