Every so often, we’ll have a typo in the bulletin. More often than not, it is a small “g” in the word “God” rather than a capital “G.” Call them” scribal errors. Most are not as drastic as one I read about the other day. It seems a church soloist sang the Lord’s Prayer. They, as we, printed the text of the solo in the bulletin. And there for all to see was a Freudian slip of the keyboard: “…give us this day our daily bread and lead us ‘hot’ into temptation.”
I felt better about our bulletin scribal errors when I noticed the error that used to be right here in the bible. Here in the ninth chapter of Mark vv. 44 and 46 are actually missing. Look closely, they’ve been removed.
Before scholars took scissors to most of our bibles, the paragraph once read like this: “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell to the unquenchable fire v44: where their worm never dies and the fire is never quenched. And if your foot causes you to stumble cut it off; it is better for to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell v.46: where their worm never dies and the fire is never quenched. And if your eye causes you to stumble tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell where their worm never dies and the fire is never quenched.
As you can see, two of these “worm never dies, fire never quenched” verses were removed because the earliest manuscripts did not have them.
Apparently, as the church matured, so did our fascination with hell, worms that never die and fires that are never quenched. So much so, in fact, that a scribe inserted the phrase like some twisted chorus in a musical adaptation of the Left Behind book series.
Somewhere along the way the church became a little obsessed with the concept of hell as a literal place where people burn in torment forever. Thomas Aquinas said as much: “The fire of hell is not called so metaphorically. It is not an imaginary fire, but a real, corporeal fire.”
Dante illustrated this approach in his masterpiece “Inferno.” And Jonathan Edwards fanned the flames of those fears with his famous “Sinners in the hands of an angry God” sermon.
Hell continues to be pushed on billboards and blockbuster films warning us of eternal punishment if we don’t get our choices right. Some of us grew up afraid of going to that literal place. Maybe you still worry about going there. I know I’ve had some folks worry for me. Some years ago an acquaintance at the local country store told me his Sunday school class was praying for me and my whole church, for they feared the souls of we “heathen” Presbyterians were surely in danger. I simply offered “Thanks.”
For me, the problem is that I have always believed – since my conversion – in a loving God. It was God embracing me through the community that brought me to Christ. And of course there is the idea of a God who goes so far as dying for us. So to think that God then turns around and casts us into eternal torment doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. The twentieth century’s greatest theologian, Karl Barth, brought the focus on our election in Christ and would not even deign to address the concept of hell.
The other thing about the obsession with hell is that I’ve noticed that religious folks who are obsessed with hell often seem to think that people other than themselves are in danger of going there.
But I do understand why people might worry about me. Jesus says it’s better to cut off your hand, foot or pull out your eye than go to hell. He warns people like me that our actions have consequences and not just for the present. Some pain now, is better than a worse kind of pain in the future. So maybe I should be more worried about the eternal torment, that place where their worm never dies and the fire is never quenched. Maybe we all should be more concerned about hell… So let’s take a closer look at hell in the text.
First of all, hell isn’t actually the right word. The word “Gehenna,” from the Hebrew Ge Hinnom, the Valley of Hinnom, is the actual word here. The Valley of Hinnom is the place where Israel used to burn its trash. Like any landfill it was a place where the maggots never seemed to die. So much trash was burned there that the fires never seemed to go out.
But the Valley of Hinnom was even worse than that. It was the place where the bodies of dead soldiers were piled up during war. It was the place where the bodies of executed criminals were disposed of. It was also the place, centuries before Jesus, where followers of the Canaanite gods had practiced human sacrifice. “The people of Judah have done evil in my sight,” God says in Jeremiah 7. “In the Valley of the Son of Hinnom they built a temple to burn their sons and daughters in the fire which I did not command nor did it come into my mind.”
Jesus’ listeners weren’t thinking about Dante’s “Inferno” or Jonathan Edwards’ angry God. They were thinking about the landfill of waste, the worst that humans can do to each other - violence, destruction and death. “It is better to do violence to yourself now,” Jesus tells his disciples, “to purify yourself now, than to participate in things that can lead you to Gehenna, where our destruction of each other, our waste of human life, never seems to end. It is better to take drastic action on yourself now, than to end up there.
It’s the emphasis on “yourself” that is easily over looked by some religious people who are used to warning other people about going to hell, used to praying for “other” people who they believe are going to hell, used to excluding others, whom they suspect are going to hell.
It seems excluding people from the group is a special problem for those of us who follow Jesus. “Teacher,” a disciple says to Jesus, “we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him because he was not following us.”
The disciples see threats from outside their community. They see threats from people outside of their control. They see threats they want to stop. We hear this today in our public discourse. We hear it when we scapegoat Muslims, or foreigners, or Republicans or Democrats, or urban or rural folk.
You can hear it in our communities when people blame what’s wrong with our cities or our towns on racial or ethnic or religious differences. People who are different from the groups they belong to.
We also participate in this in our families when we blame our dysfunction on everybody else in the family but ourselves.
In these situations, it’s the “other” people, the outsiders, that the disciples seem most worried about. So Jesus warns the disciples that good can come from the outside. “Whoever is not against us,” he says, “is for us.” And bad can come just as easily from the inside -- says the one who will be betrayed and denied by his closest followers!
And yet the temptation of the church, or really probably any human group, is to worry more about threats from outside of its boundaries than from corruption that comes from within. So maybe Jesus uses such strong language here, to recommend such drastic actions: If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off, your foot, your eye, cut it off -- maybe he uses such potent language because he knows that this attitude of scapegoating others for our problems, of blaming other people for our sin, of naming “them” as the problem – that it’s the path that leads to Gehenna – the place where the casualties of our scapegoating pile up, the place where the stench of our sin wasps thick in the air, where their worm never dies and the fire is never quenched.
It is the path human beings are susceptible to, even maybe, especially those of us who say we want to follow Jesus. The sin to which we are often prone is making scapegoats of other people rather than looking first within. The challenge for followers of Jesus is trying to train that tendency out of our behavior, if not out of our hearts.
In some ways that is what the church is for; the people who know that our human proclivity for scapegoating others is so deep that we’ll all be tested by that temptation many times over. We’re a people who know that even Jesus’ closest followers can hear words about forgiveness and welcome and reconciliation and peace clearly several times over and still find themselves arguing over who’s the greatest, as they try to stop someone from healing because he is not authorized by the group. Or preventing children or other people made vulnerable in our world from coming to Jesus, after he has warned them directly several times.
In many ways, that’s what the church is for, to help train people in a different kind of neighborliness – one that leads to life, instead of Gehenna, that place that symbolizes the worst that our kind does to each other, that place of human misery. That’s what the church is for, to help us salt the world with a different way of living and being and loving and giving than the scapegoating that destroys humanity.
A few years ago I read the story of a South Carolina community afraid of Syrian refugees. No actual Syrian refugees had come to the town, or were scheduled to come to the town. But that didn’t stop two hundred citizens from coming together to feed off each other’s fears.
“They don’t plan to assimilate,” a local businessman told the crowd. “They don’t plan to take on our culture, they plan to change the American way of life,” he concluded.
A resident asked if the refugees could be sent home on ships, another asked if they could be flown to Saudi Arabia. When the answer was no, another said “Do we shoot them? Come on, I mean this is crazy!” Crazy!
Despite the fear mongering, the Anderson Mill Road Baptist Church already had dozens of members who had completed refugee support training. “It’s very hard to read your bible,” their pastor said, “and refuse refuge to people who are vulnerable.”
It was a small voice next to all that fear mongering. It was only a paragraph of hospitality and welcome in a sea of newsprint of fear and exclusion.
But if you’ve read your bible you know that it only takes a pinch of salt to season the whole batch. And in the words of that Baptist pastor I could almost hear Jesus finishing his sentences.
Yes, it is painful for us to welcome people when we are afraid. Yes, it is painful to welcome people when neighbors are criticizing us for it. Yes, it is painful to give welcome when the fear of the “other” is so much easier to sell. Not just in South Carolina, but across our nation, across the world.
But you see, we are trying to purify ourselves of fear and hate and those scapegoating tendencies. We’re trying to learn to love, trying to learn to give, trying to learn to live, we’re trying to be a pinch of salt to a world so obsessed with blaming our failures on others, that we’ll rewrite our bibles in the process.
We’re trying to be a pinch of salt to a world in desperate need of the seasoning of healing and hope.
For you know, a pinch of salt goes a very long way.