Year B Proper 21: the hell with it

From this morning’s gospel:

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. And 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 hell., 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.

Well, that escalated quickly…

The apostle Paul said somewhere to the Corinthians:

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” (1 Corinthians 12:21)

And in Genesis we are told:

So God created humankind in his image; in the image of God he created them. (Genesis 1:27)

Paul to those Corinthians again:

Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? (1 Corinthians 6:19)

And finally from the Gospel according to Luke:

While he was still speaking, suddenly a crowd came, and the one called Judas, one of the twelve, was leading them. He approached Jesus to kiss him; but Jesus said to him, “Judas, is it with a kiss that you are betraying the Son of Man?” When those who were around him saw what was coming, they asked, “Lord, should we strike with the sword?” Then one of them struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his right ear. But Jesus said, “No more of this!” And he touched his ear and healed him. (22:47-51)

It is dangerous – and we do it all the time, but it is dangerous – to take snippets of chapter and verse away from the context of the Gospel message that God created us for God’s own delight, in God’s own image; that we are temples, vessels of God’s Holy Spirit; that Jesus came to strengthen, and to heal us, body, soul, and spirit.

It is only in that context of that Gospel message that we dare to read this morning’s chapter and verse, from the Gospel according to St Mark. Because the Gospel makes it clear that Jesus did not come to frighten or to punish or to wound God’s people; quite the opposite.

But then what do we make of these verses?

The first words of Jesus in Mark’s gospel account are a call to repentance, but that call is couched in gospel terms, placed firmly in the context of good news:

Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:14b-15)

For Jesus, repentance is really, really important, and a vital part of his gospel message. And it is good news.

And placed in that context, I don’t think that we hear Jesus trying to frighten his friends into being on their best behaviour. On the contrary, I believe that he is recognizing aloud how hard their road to holiness is. His own road will go through the cross – Rome could devise no more exacting and prolonged torture for its enemies.

He knows that the disciples are already finding it hard to hoe the row that he is leaving them – instead of humility and service of God and neighbour, instead of love they exercise jealousy, and entertain arguments about who is the greatest, and about who should be allowed to own and to use the name of Jesus. It is difficult to repent of the ways of the world, having been thoroughly raised in them. And Jesus recognizes this and names it for them.

When Jesus talks to his disciples about hell, he uses the name Gehenna. Gehenna was a real place, a valley outside Jerusalem formerly known as a site of child sacrifice and horror, now a rubbish dump where fires did burn without ceasing and worms did live continually and without end. It had become a byword among first-century Jews for eternal torment; but it was a byword based not on the imaginings of Dante and Milton that we have inherited, but on the reality of a rubbish dump, burning eternally on the site of old atrocities. [1]

His disciples are not afraid that Jesus will throw them onto the city rubbish heap. That is not why they follow him so closely, to the end.

It is, unfortunately, we, the church, who have turned Jesus’ words into threats instead of promises.

But Jesus said, “No more of this!” And he touched his ear, and healed him.

Amy-Jill Levine, prominent Jewish scholar of the Bible, writes,

If the body is in the image and likeness of the divine, is torturing it to be celebrated or condemned? What purpose does eternal punishment serve, other than certain revenge fantasies of those who are not being tortured? Schadenfreude may be a source of emotional pleasure, but it is not nice. [2]

Nor is it theologically correct. “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you,” admonished Jesus. Not once did he say, “Give them hell!”

Repentance is difficult. It involves giving up our fantasies of revenge, in this life and the next. It involves forgiving ourselves as God forgives us; it involves forgiving others as God forgives them. It involves, as Bill Countryman puts it, giving up “the right to have higher standards [for forgiveness] than God.” [3]

It involves submitting ourselves to the grace and mercy of God, letting go of greatness, setting envy aside, living truly in love. It is not easy. Giving up a grudge is about as painful a process as cutting off a foot. Learning to see someone in a new light feels like clawing out our eyes to borrow a better, brighter pair.

The disciples were not afraid that Jesus would throw them on the rubbish heap. They did not hear a call to self-mutilation; they had seen, over and over again how Jesus would rather heal than hurt, would rather rescue than condemn, sit at table with sinners than sit in judgement over them.

And none of this removes our responsibility to repentance; but not for the sake of harming our bodies or our souls, but for their healing.

Richard Holloway, one-time Bishop of Edinburgh, puts it this way:

There is a powerful metaphorical truth in the idea of hell and eternal burning, because shame and guilt can burn into our very souls and destroy our peace of mind; but it is this very burning that Jesus wishes to rescue us from, not plunge us into. [4]

The fires and the worms no longer dominate Gehenna. The valley today is a green and pleasant place; even hell has been redeemed.

But let us let Jesus have the last word, as he was the first:

“The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the Good News.”


[1] Richard Holloway, Another Country, Another King (HarperCollins, 1991), 130-131
[2] Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus: the enigmatic parables of a controversial rabbi (HarperOne, 2014), 265
[3] L. William Countryman, Forgiven and Forgiving (Morehouse Publishing, 1998), 23
[4] Holloway, op cit., 140-141

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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