The end of today’s Gospel reading is so gruesome and vivid that my guess is that it’s easy for that to be the only bit we remember. Plucking out eyes and cutting off feet, unquenchable fire where the worm never dies: no wonder Christianity has a bad name among some people. But it’s important, as always with the Bible, not to let our first impression be our lasting impression, and to set what we hear into context.
When we do, we find that this passage isn’t really about life after death at all, but about life before it, In particular it’s about what Jesus thinks his followers – people like us – are meant to be doing.
Let’s clear up a few facts for a start. The word that’s translated as hell in this reading is actually “Gehenna”. It’s the name of a valley near Jerusalem where, in Old Testament times, people had worshipped the Phoenician God Moloch. Worshipping Moloch involved the practice of human sacrifice, as many ancient religions did. In particular it involved the sacrifice of children, something which probably seems incomprehensible to us. This was absolutely forbidden by Old Testament law, but the prophets kept denouncing it which tells us that it must have been happening anyway. By the time of Jesus, the Roman occupying forces were also using Gehenna as an open-air cremation site, something that was abhorrent to Jewish people. It was a grim place, full of terrible associations, a place of suffering, a place of smouldering fires and the stench of death. It was a symbol that stood for pain and suffering to the people of Jesus’ time, like Auschwitz does for us, but that was all it was – a symbol. Jesus wasn’t trying to give us a systematic theological description of the afterlife here – the Jewish people had all sorts of different ideas about heaven and hell at this point anyway. He was just using an image that he knew would shock his disciples, an image that would convey to them that they’d just done something so wrong in his eyes that only this sort of language could express the depths of his feelings.
So what had been happening that provoked such a violent reaction in him?
We need to look at the beginning of the passage to find out. One of his disciples had said to him “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” That might seem like a minor faux pas to us, if it seems wrong at all, but it was this that had got Jesus so worked up that he started talking about unquenchable fire and worms and the plucking out of eyes.
Jesus’ disciples had been following him for some time by this point. They’d listened to him, watched him, even been sent out to preach and to heal by themselves. But this comment told Jesus that there was something very basic that they hadn’t understood at all, and unless he sorted it out, it would undermine everything they did. Listen to what John said again. “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” It is the “us” that is the problem. Somehow they’d decided that the kingdom of God was all about them and the select little club they’d formed around Jesus.
Let’s imagine that scene they witnessed. They’d seen someone healed, someone who was severely disturbed, “possessed by demons” in the language of the day, someone who’d been tormented, miserable, frightened, shunned, maybe for some time, but who’d gone home that day at peace, restored to themselves and to their family. Isn’t that great. I don’t know how it happened, but what rejoicing there must have been that day! But all the disciples could think and talk about was the infringement of the Jesus “brand”. What was worse, they weren’t even really offended on Jesus’ behalf, but on their own. Deep down, they thought they owned the franchise, the copyright, the trademark. Jesus had sent them out to heal in his name, and they thought they were the only ones licenced to use it. It was all about them, not about Jesus, and still less about the compassion of the healer, or the need of the one he healed.
They were misusing Jesus’ name in a far worse way than the healer they’d complained about. At least he’d used it to heal. They were just using it to determine who was in and who was out, who was a member of their tribe and who wasn’t.
Evolution has hardwired us to live in tribes. Tribalism presumably developed as a protective measure way back in human history when we first came up against other groups who were competing with us for land and resources. How could we tell who was friend and who was foe? We learned to recognise those who looked like us or shared our cultural markers. That told us who was in our tribe, and who wasn’t, who we should defend and who we should attack. There were understandable reasons for this. Tribalism springs from a fear that there won’t be enough of what we need to go around, but while that might sometimes be true of land and food, it is never true of the love of God. There is more than enough of that to supply us all in abundance, and if we understood that perhaps we wouldn’t fight so bitterly over land and food either. But tribalism so deeply embedded in us that we jealously guard things we don’t need to guard at all, just out of habit. That was what had happened here. The disciples had formed themselves into a new tribe, and they thought that gave them the right – and the duty - to put a fence around God and control the access others had to him.
Jesus was furious. This was exactly the thinking he’d condemned in the Pharisees, but here it was alive and well in his own disciples.
They thought they were doing a good thing, protecting God against those who would waste or spoil his love, those who didn’t keep the rules they had thought up, but they were the ones who were in the wrong, and Jesus needed to tell them so in the strongest possible terms.
“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me,” he says,” it would be better if a great mill-stone were hung round your neck and you were thrown into the sea.”
The concept of the “little ones” was important in the Bible. The Hebrew word was anawim, a word that is usually translated as “humble” or “afflicted”, and the Old Testament talks about them a lot. They were the poor, the sick, the widows, the orphans, the slaves , those who seemed to be of no account in the world’s eyes, who always ended up at the bottom of the pile. But the Bible tells us again and again that God cared for them and expected those who claimed to follow him to treat them with respect. When Jesus called this healer and those he ministered to “little ones” he is telling us that they were people who were desperate for help, too desperate to care whether they were getting what the disciples consider to be authorised, licensed ministry or not. All that mattered was that it worked. And it had worked, no matter how lacking in credentials this healer had seemed to the disciples. God had used him, whether they liked it or not, because God went wherever he wanted to.
This is as hard for us to grasp today as it was for Jesus’ disciples. Put a bunch of people together and sooner or later they will build a fence around themselves and try to control who is allowed into their group. Churches are no exception to this.
Don’t get me wrong. I am a passionate believer in the value of churches, groups of people learning together, worshipping together, listening to God together, encouraging each other to serve and to love. It matters that we are here. We need each other.
But the minute we think that being here means we own God and his truth, we are in trouble. The minute we start imagining we can control other people’s access to God, rationing his love to those we think deserve it, we are in trouble. When we behave like that, just like the disciples, we become worse than useless. Not only do we damage others by our dismissive attitudes, we miss the love and life of God that is in them too, and so we impoverish ourselves. “God is love,” says the first letter of John, “and those who live in love, live in God and God lives in them.” (I John 4.16). How much of God’s love do we miss if we only look for it within our own four walls, among those who look like us, talk like us and think like us? Love is the only trademark that identifies the work of God, the only brand name worth bearing, and there’s no copyright in it.
The fierce words of Jesus in this passage may sound uncomfortable, but they point us in a direction that is profoundly hopeful. There is more love than we can imagine in the world, he tells us. God is at work all over the place, if only we have eyes to see him. He has a particular tendency to turn up among those the world calls “little ones”. The struggling single parent, the homeless refugee, maybe ourselves if we are feeling low or suffering; when we look at the “little ones” at first glance all we see is need, but look closer, look with respect, look with the expectation of finding God at work and he will be there. That’s been my experience of many years of ministry, and of my own tough times too. Until we understand this, that God works in littleness and humiliation – even in a man crucified on a cross – we haven’t understood anything.
So this week, let’s go out on a “God hunt.” Let’s not decide in advance what God should look like or where we’ll find him. Let’s pray instead that he will open our eyes to see him at work wherever love is given or received.