Take Out the Trash
Sermon, Church of the Holy Trinity, Toronto, October 1, 2006
Numbers 11:46, 1016, 2429
Today's gospel passage presents us with a particularly charming image of hacking off feet and hands and ripping out eyes, the kind of picture we usually see these days in CSI or ads directed at fourteen-year-old boys. One exegetical website reminds readers that it is not to be interpreted literally as an exhortation to self-mutilation.
But for all the dismemberment it presents, it's no doubt the references to hell that make this passage particularly popular. It tells us to cast off the sinful parts of us, or we'll burn in hell. Maybe even to cast out the sinners among us! Yeah! Hell! Very, very popular among many groups of Christians, and one of the most enduring images associated with Christianity. The pastor up there, telling his flock: <bible-thumper mode> If you don't believe, you'll burrrrn in heelllll! Rip the sin out of your life or you'll burrn in heellll! And if you cause someone else to sin, you'll buurrrrrnnn in heellllll! If you are not among the believers, you're gonna buurrrrnnn iinnn heeelllll! </bible-thumper mode>
Whoo-wee. That's kinda fun. (And it's just so enjoyable to come up with a good caricature!) And then on the other side of Christianity are people like... well, like me, really, on occasion... who tend to look at these folks and say, "Those disgusting, hateful, unchristian scumbags! Boy, if I believed in Hell, I'd want to send them to the front of the line for it, by way of a woodchipper!" Mmm-hmm! That righteous indignation tastes so good!
And neither side has much room for the other side, and both sides tend to be loath to admit that the other side could really be or do anything good. My dad wrote a column once talking about some of the good things that evangelical Christians do, and he got a pretty hot letter from a liberal Anglican priest friend of his. Because as much as conservative Christians often think that left-wing freaks like us have tossed out the Bible and walked away from Christianity and are doing just whatever feels good to us and thus couldn't possibly be doing any good, liberal Christians like us can tend think that conservatives just believe in hate and fear, and that if they do any good at all it's by accident and is vitiated by their essential... big bad nastiness. Each side sees the other as fit candidates for that millstone hands, feet or eyes to be cut off and burned, or whole bodies to be tossed into Hell! Yeah, baby, yeah.
I think this desire to caricature others, and demonize them and want to see them hurt, while certainly a common human trait, is misleading us, causing us to lose our footing here, trapping us... in a misreading, a misinterpretation of this passage. Because the English version we have here might be in keeping with the standard translations, but there's a certain amount of interpretation involved in the choice of words.
I want to look closely at some of the Greek text that's our source. First let's look at what's translated here as "causes you to sin" other versions have "offends you." The Greek is "σκανδαλιζηι σε," which is indeed related to the English word "scandalize." The Greek word actually comes from a word for a snare, a spring-loaded trap, and it came to mean "catch," "make stumble," even "offend" more metaphorically. Do we think that Jesus here is saying, "If some body part is offending you ticking you off get rid of it"? Well, he's probably not endorsing cosmetic surgery, actually. The context, which is a little different when this passage appears in Matthew, following the famous bit about committing adultery in your heart, still in both places Matthew and Mark can lead us to read it as meaning "causes you to stumble" or "catches you" metaphorically, of course.
But, now, causes you to stumble how? Where are you going, what are you doing? Well, you seem to be trying to enter the kingdom of God, to enter life. Life is creation, growth. The kingdom of God... well, let's try a fill-in-the-blank here: God is... (God is what?) ...Love. Jesus said the two greatest commandments were... what? (Blank) God, and (blank) your fellow human beings. Love. OK. So really, what we're getting here is that if some part of you is catching you and keeping your from loving, you should... well... get rid of it. Throw it out! Or you'll end up... where?
Well, now, that's another important word here. "Thrown into hell" is, in the Greek, "βληθναι εις την γεενναν." That means thrown, alright, but into... Gehenna. Gehanna? What's that, something you colour your hair with and use for temporary tattoos? Nope. It's the Hinnom valley. Where's that? Well, it's a little valley just south of Jerusalem. In earlier times, it had been a place where people were sacrificed to an idol called Moloch. After that practice was stopped, it was turned into a place where garbage and the bodies of executed criminals were thrown to be burned. It other words, it was the town dump, and a really disgusting one at that. A deeply unclean place, associated with death and all that's vile. We're not talking about a place where gulls and pigeons carry away McDonald's hamburger cartons. They had all manner of refuse, and dead bodies too, burning. Constantly.
Now, a lot of commentators will say that Jesus was using this here as a vivid illustration, simile or metaphor for what to expect in the land of eternal damnation. But, really, that's forcing it into a schema that wasn't current in Jesus' time and place. Jesus did talk at other times about Sheol also translated as hell where it comes up which was more of a shadowy afterlife that everyone went to, maybe just a poetic way of saying death; it wasn't a place of punishment. Here there's nothing to lead us to think he's referring to anything other than being dead on the garbage heap. The oft-repeated quote from Isaiah, "the worm does not die, nor is the fire ever quenched," isn't Isaiah's description of hell. Let me read you the passage from Isaiah it's the very last verse of the whole book: "And they shall go out and look at the dead bodies of the people who have rebelled against me; for their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh." So does that mean they're being tortured? Well, no. They're dead. Dead bodies don't feel pain. They're just dead and really, really disgusting, lying on the town garbage heap, which is always kept burning and is always full of maggots. Yuck. They're trash.
So what we have here really is Jesus saying, "If there's something in your life that's keeping you from growing in love" making your life trashy, we might say "get rid of it, or else you might just become a piece of trash yourself. A waste of a life." And of course he said it using those vivid images of which he was very fond. Didn't put things halfway. Today people would say to him, "Phew! Don't hold back, Jesus, tell me what you really think!"
So there it is: follow the path of love, or you're just wasting your life. Get rid of what's keeping you from loving, 'cause it's just making you waste your life. And don't stop other people from serving love, 'cause you're just worse than useless then.
So what sorts of things could be causing us to stumble, trashing our lives? Well, one really good candidate is any hatred, any desire to see other people hurt, any refusal to accept that people we disagree with might be able to do good things nonetheless, might have good parts about them. Any dehumanization. Of anyone. By anyone. Whether we're itching to see people burn in hell, or just wishing they would go to hell, we've got a little trap, a little stumbling block, that's just wasting a part of our lives. The more of our lives we let that take over, the more of our lives are trash. We're going to have feelings of anger, thoughts of negativity. We're human. But we don't need to keep them. We don't need to hang onto them, or entertain them or let them entertain us. We can just toss them out. Say "buh-bye!" Even if they're fun in their little way. What goes against love goes against life. So take out the trash.