You can walk away... and you may not notice.
Introduction to the Gospel
The meaning of Gehenna: Our picture of hell is largely influenced by Dante, and to some extent by the Book of Revelation. But Jesus does not use the word Hell. He uses the word Gehenna. Gehenna was " a small valley in Jerusalem. In the Hebrew Bible, Gehenna was initially where some of the kings of Judah sacrificed their children by fire. Thereafter, it was deemed to be cursed." It was also called the Valley of Himmnon. A legend has it that the King Josiah turned it into a gargabe dump, so that there was always stuff there smoking and burning; fire that never went out.
The idea that this "gave rise to the idea of a fiery Gehenna of judgment is attributed to Rabbi David Kimhi's commentary on Psalm 27:13 (ca. 1200 AD)." Buit it seems "there is neither archaeological nor literary evidence in support of this claim, in either the earlier intertestamental or the later rabbinic sources. Also, Lloyd R. Bailey's "Gehenna: The Topography of Hell" from 1986 holds a similar view.
"There is evidence however that the southwest shoulder of this valley (Ketef Hinnom) was a burial location with numerous burial chambers... By 70 AD, the area was not only a burial site but also a place for cremation of the dead with the arrival of the Tenth Roman Legion, who were the only group known to practice cremation in this region."
In time it became deemed to be accursed and an image of the place of destruction in Jewish folklore.
So Jesus is talking about Gehenna as a place of destruction; in fact, some of the Rabbis said you could not be in Gehenna for more than a year. It is not about God putting us in a place of eternal damnation and torture.
The Gospel: Mark 9:30- 50
They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 31for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, ‘The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.’ 32But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.
33 Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the way?’ 34But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. 35He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ 36Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’
38 John 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.’39But Jesus said, ‘Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me. 40Whoever is not against us is for us. 41For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.
42 ‘If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. 43If 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 Gehenna, to the unquenchable fire. 45And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into Gehenna. 47And 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 Gehenna, 48where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.
49 ‘For everyone will be salted with fire. 50Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.’
In Chapter 8 of Mark, Peter finally gets it: You are the Messiah!
And from then on, Jesus is teaching the disciples what it means to be Messiah, and what it means to follow the Messiah into the kingdom of God.
In the teaching of last week's reading, he took a child in his arms, as a symbol of God's love for all of us. The child epitomises the weak, the powerless, and the defenceless. And what Jesus said to the disciples, who were all about who was the greatest; who was in charge; who understood God— what he said was that, in God's eyes, to be great, to be a leader, to be like God and to welcome God… is to welcome the child and protect the child—and any person who is in the place of the child— above all others.
If the way we are living our lives as Christians is not doing this, then we are not great. We are not living as Christ called us to live. God forgives all things, but that does not change the fact that when we do not welcome the child, and put the child first, we are not living the life of the kingdom. Instead, we... are separating ourselves from God.
Now this week, Jesus really doubles down on this; he emphasises it all over again. It's the same conversation, and the child is still there in his arms, for he talks about "one of these little ones."
But look how the little ones are caused to stumble by the disciples! The disciples saw someone healing just like Jesus did, and they told them to stop because they were not "following us." It's as if I said Elliot and the church up the street should stop being church because they don't belong to us! Or one of you saying that Rod's congregation should stop doing what they are doing because they don't belong to the Uniting Church.
Rod is doing a work of power. He is calling people out of the land and culture around us and helping them open themselves to God. So is the church up the road. If I tell them they are wrong, not good enough, and that they should listen to me, what I am doing is causing them to stumble. I am tripping people up on their way into the kingdom of God.
Instead, I am to serve them, just as I am to serve you. If I put my needs before you, if I require you to do things my way because I want more money, or I'd like people to say how important I am, or I just want to be first— all that stuff trips people up. It puts fences in the way of their entering the kingdom. There is a point to make here: My way is quite different from something that we choose to do because I have pointed out that Jesus would not do things the way we are doing them. Do you see this?
Now Jesus uses some massive exaggeration here, to make a point. You might know the word hyperbole. It means to overstate the case to point out how just important something is. So he says: Cut off your hand! It is so serious a thing to make a little one stumble that we should rather cut off our hand off rather than not enter the kingdom.
Do you get what he is implying here? Not only will we trip them up if we do not cut off our hand. If we do not stop causing them offence; we will stop ourselves entering the kingdom!
It's better to enter the kingdom with only one hand than to enter Gehenna with two hands. Gehenna was the place— a valley just outside Jerusalem— where they used to sacrifice children… That's what it means to cause little ones to stumble: it is the same as killing and burning the little children; the beloved first child of the family! When we decide that we must have our own way— and damn the way others feel— then we are essentially burning them, sacrificing them for our needs.
And then Jesus says about Gehenna that it is a place "48where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched." It is a quotation from Isaiah 66. In that place, the book of Isaiah imagines God returning to Jerusalem and setting all things right. It says the people who have entered the kingdom— the people who have been faithful to God— will go out and look upon the bodies of those who had rebelled against God.
24And 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.
To cause people to stumble is to go against God. It is to rebel against God. And it is to begin removing ourselves from the city of God; it is to take ourselves out of the kingdom. It is to enter a living death; burning, infested with worms, and to be among the devastated wandering survivors of a conquered city.
By contrast, the life of the kingdom is to love the little ones, to serve the little ones instead of our own desires. This heals us. It transforms our lives; it makes us God's people in the sense that we are able to experience the joy and the healing of the kingdom. The Kingdom ceases to become only a future promise, and becomes something we taste now.
This is a real thing. The fire and the worms and the cutting off of hands is hyperbole— overstatement to get our attention— but the reality exists. We get blasé about it, or perhaps, sometimes, we haven't noticed the glory in which we live.
I remember a visitor to church, years ago: We did what we normally did, griped about the minister, I guess, and grumbled about the state of the kitchen, and other things. But the visitor wept at the door as she spoke to the minister: "You are all so happy here," she cried.
On holidays in the far north, our young son's behaviour was constantly bad. Wendy and I were going home to friends; he was terrified by the size and openness of that glorious country. And then, in the gorges of the ranges, he would be a peace as his world closed in around him. He felt safe with boundaries which locked him into a smaller place. He could not see the glory, but only the threat of life. This is the country we whites call desert, but which, as a child, Lucy knew to be always full of food; a rich place, not a desert.
You can be there, in the middle of it, and not see it at all.
Richard Beck wrote recently
... there is a sacred, hallowed texture to life. There is a spiritual backdrop to life that makes it human and meaningful. This sacred, hallowed texture is what makes values values, the beautiful beautiful, the good good, the evil evil, the wonderful wonderful, the meaningful meaningful, the human human. That this sacred texture exists is the most obvious and practical fact of our lives. And yet, search as the materialists might, this sacred texture will never be spotted in the Periodic Table, in the equations of particle physics, or in the telescopes of the astronomers.
In short, if you watch how humans live--their joys, their sorrows, their art, their values, their dreams, their loves--you'll easily see how this sacred texture is the most obvious fact about the world, more factual than anything Stephen Hawking ever described and more practical than anything Steve Jobs ever created.
But do you see— this is me speaking now— do you see that when we cause the little ones to stumble, we become blind to the "sacred, hallowed texture to life?" Horror and horror that we should harm the little ones, but do you see that he is saying, "You will not snatch this child from my arms?" He is saying that in the long arc of the universe, "You will never remove this child from my love," and he is also saying, "You can walk away from me and not even notice. You canlive with the worms and think that is how life is meant to be, and as good as it gets!"
Well, we have no children here. So how does this apply to us, given that there are no children here? In Jesus' teaching, the child epitomises the little ones; the child is the example, par excellence. The little ones... are us. Us... in our pain, in our sorrow and grief,in our fear of the future, in our sense of being lost from day to day, in our wondering what we are doing in this place. We are the little ones.
Are we helping each other grow? Are we caring for each other, building each other up? Do we seek to be gentle, constructive, and kind? Do we ask what we can do to make this place work for the least of us?
Of course we always fall short in doing these things— all of us. But we can also simply gripe, gossip, and centre the universe around ourselves. And we will not notice what it does to us— I warn you: We will not understand why people sometimes look at us with a certain pity. For we are stepping outside the kingdom and entering a Gehenna.
Love God by loving the little ones around you, for then you enter the kingdom and see the glory; see the sacred, hallowed texture to life which is beautiful and glorious. And you welcome Jesus, and the One who sent him. Amen