Saturday, November 19, 2011

Sheep, Goats and Gehenna (November 20, 2011)

Homily:  Yr A Reign of Christ, Nov 20 2011, St. Albans
Readings:  Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Psalm 100; Eph 1:15-23; Mt 25:31-46

Sheep, Goats and Gehenna

In our gospel today Jesus talks about the sheep and the goats.  It’s his last chance.  It’s his last public speech, not by his own choice, but because later that day he would be arrested. It’s his final attempt to get his message across.

What’s the message?

Actually, it’s hard to miss.  It’s repeated four times.  We are called, we were created, we are commanded to respond to human need with loving service.  We must feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, give clothing to the naked, care for the sick, visit those in prison.  This list is repeated in its entirety four times in today’s reading.

So why is it that so often when I hear today’s gospel, I come away from it wondering about hell.

When I look at the text, I can see that today’s gospel is about, in order of importance:

First how we are to live, that is by responding to human need with loving service.

Second, about judgement, God’s Judgement.

And third, about the consequences of that judgement, the eternal fire and punishment that we call Hell.

However when we hear the gospel, often we turn things upside down.  We focus first of all on Hell, secondly on Judgement, and by that time we may be so preoccupied that we forget to even pay attention to the main point, that is, how God wants us to live our lives.

Why is that?  I think that it’s because many of us, many of us in the church, have unresolved issues with hell.  Because this notion that God will separate out the goats and send them to the eternal fire seems to be at odds with our theology of grace, at odds with our basic Christian understanding that God is a loving God, who accepts us as we are, forgives our sins and adopts us into his family as children.  How can we reconcile these things?

There is no doubt that Jesus is using extreme language and images in this text. It is after all his final shot at it.  If this were an email, IT WOULD BE ALL CAPS.  Jesus is shouting.  This is a wake-up call.  This is Jesus the prophet from Nazareth trying desperately to get people’s attention before it’s too late.

Why is he shouting? Because when he used a nice story like the story of the Good Samaritan to try to get his message across, we didn’t get it.  Because when he modelled the behaviour that he was calling us to, by feeding the hungry, by providing water for the woman at the well, be welcoming and eating with the prostitutes and tax collectors, by healing the sick and those who were in chains, by clothing the one who was naked, we still didn’t get it.

We live in a world where people are hungry and thirsty even though there is enough food and drink for all.  We live in a world where people are intentionally marginalized and made to feel unwelcome.  We live in a world where those who are sick and in prison are often isolated and lonely.  There are times when we respond to those needs with love.  Thank God for those who do.  But there are times when we don’t.  Why?  Sometimes it’s deliberate.  Sometimes it’s because we’re afraid, because we ourselves feel vulnerable. Sometimes it’s because we’re caught up in social structures and global systems that create injustice and suffering and we just don’t know what to do.  Sometimes it’s because we fail to see the needs around us, because we’re too busy or too focused on ourselves.

And Jesus says in today’s gospel “this will not stand”.  That God will not allow it to stand.  That God has promised to put the entire world right, showing up sin for what it is, judging it and destroying it so that it no longer has the power to infect his good creation.  That when God’s kingdom comes on earth there will be no more neglect of neighbour, there will be no more failure to respond to another’s need, there will be no more doing evil and injustice to one another.

That’s why in today’s gospel, Jesus talks about judgement and hell. 

And it does get our attention, at least in part because we have unresolved issues about hell.
Hell is something we don’t talk about much in the church, at least in the Anglican church.  In part that is because our common notion of hell is grounded in the picture that arose in the middle ages, in the writings of Dante and others, which in turn draw on images from Greek mythology.  The most common idea about hell in our culture is that it has something to do with the after-life, that when people die, that God will sort them into two lots, and the good people will go to heaven and the bad people will go to hell, a place of damnation and eternal punishment.  And that sort of picture makes many of us really uncomfortable, uncomfortable with the notion that a loving God would let some people end up in that sort of hell. 

So I think that it’s important to go back to our scriptures, to go back to the teaching of Jesus to try to understand what he meant when he uses the word “gehenna”, the Greek word that we translate as hell.

It’s a word that Jesus doesn’t use very often, recorded just a dozen times in the New Testament

If you look at these texts, mostly in the gospels of Mark and Matthew, you will notice a few things.

You will notice, first of all, that in Jesus teaching, the opposite of hell is not heaven, but life.  If you look at Jesus’ sayings, they mostly say that it is better to enter life than to go to hell.  The emphasis is not on life after death, but on life, now and in the future.  Sometimes Jesus will put this slightly differently.  He will say that it is better to enter the kingdom of God than to enter hell.  But remember, the kingdom of God is something that in other places, Jesus will say “has come near” or “is in your midst”.  Again, this isn’t just about an afterlife, he seems to be talking about a life that is both present and future.

And the word that we translate as hell is also revealing.  Gehenna, the word Jesus uses, is actually a place name.  It is the Hebrew name for the Valley of Hinnom which is found on the south west side of Jerusalem.  It is the garbage dump of the city of Jerusalem, the place where garbage from the city is dumped and burned, with a fire that burns day and night.  Not only is garbage dumped there, but sewage from the city also ends up in the Valley of Hinnom.  To make matters worse, child sacrifice used to be practiced there, because of this the valley had been condemned as an evil place by prophets such as Jeremiah. 

This is the word that Jesus uses for hell.  This is the actual place that his listeners envision when Jesus refers to eternal fire in today’s gospel.  Gehenna is the valley where evil, filth and garbage are sent to be destroyed in a fire that burns day and night.  Gehenna then, is a real place, a real garbage dump, which becomes the image of what God will do to destroy all that is evil and filthy, the eternal fire which burns all the garbage that has polluted God’s good creation.

This is the New Testament image of hell.  Hell is the place of fire which burns everything that opposes what God wants for the life of his people and his good creation.

Are people oppressed by war and violence?  To hell with war and violence.

Does a little child suffer from abuse?  To hell with child abuse.

Does someone you know suffer from addiction?  To hell with addictions.

Is there neglect of neighbour in our world?  To hell with it.

To hell with all these things that oppress us and prevent us from living life as God intended us to live.  Let them burn and be destroyed.

God wants us to enter into life, life as God intended us to live, the life that Jesus called life in the kingdom of God.  It is life that we can enter into here and now, but a life that has yet to be fully realized in our world today.  It is the life in which we love one another and care for those in need.

God’s judgement is this:  anything that prevents us from living the life that God is calling us to in his kingdom will not stand.  Neglect, abuse, injustice – all are garbage and they will burn in the fires of Gehenna, which we call hell.

If there is anything that is preventing you from living life as God intended, well to hell with it.  Jesus, in a passage from Mark, using the exaggeration typical of his culture, tells his disciples, even if it’s your foot that’s the preventing you from living life as God intended, well to hell with it - but don’t you go with it.  Better for you to enter life, to enter the Kingdom of God with only one foot.

Of course, it’s not our foot that’s the problem.  It’s all that other stuff we talked about, the net of sin and abuse and neglect and injustice that we all get ourselves caught up in.  It’s that net that God will judge and send to hell for destruction, so that we can be free to enter life, to enter the kingdom of God without being all tangled up in it, without being caught in it.

God wants us to be set free from whatever it is that’s preventing us from living the life we were created to live.  That is God’s judgement.  And that to me is good news.  It’s not something to be afraid of.  But it doesn’t mean that everything will be easy.  Repentance, change, transformation, getting untangled from the net, all that may be difficult, it may be painful, we may need help.

Luckily for us, the shepherd who knows how to distinguish between sheep and goats also knows how to find lost sheep.  In fact, Jesus says, that’s why he came.

And so back to the main point:

May we learn to love others as God has loved us.


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