Last revised: February 14, 2017
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SIXTH SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY — YEAR A
RCL: Deut. 30:15-20; 1 Corinthians 3:1-9; Matthew 5:21-37
RoCa: Sir. 15:15-20; 1 Corinthians 2:6-10; Matthew 5:17-37
The Gospel Reading for this day is among the most important in scripture for challenging the popular view of “hell” as a place of eternal torture in the afterlife, which I regard as anti-Gospel. Instead of the Good News of God tearing down the walls of hostility and forming us into one new humanity (Eph. 2), we get a god who cements our human division into eternity in the afterlife. Instead of a God who is perfecting us in love (Matt. 5:48) to redeem us from our deadly violence against one another, we get a god who outdoes our violence with eternal torture and punishment. The popular version of hell has absolutely no place in Christian theology.
So what was Jesus pointing to in today’s passage behind the word most commonly translated as hell? First of all, we need the actual name of the place — Gehenna, the Greek rendering for the valley of Ben Hinnom near Jerusalem (much more below in the exegetical notes) — as a real-world metaphor, not a name for a mythical otherworldly place. Mimetic Theory then offers an anthropological reading to this place-name, which I believe is the reading faithful to Jesus’ intent. It places the emphasis on human sacrificial violence, not divine violence.
In 2014 the reflections on this page yielded the sermon “Live in God’s Love — or Continue Down the Road to Hellish Violence.” Rather than use the phrase “sacred violence,” I developed the same concept as “good violence.” I made this choice to be able to more easily extend the sacred violence to include our modern secular forms of it. “Good” can be a more difficult word choice because we don’t ordinarily see the violence itself as good. But we do see it as good in the context of the higher purpose of maintaining good societal order. And it is “good violence” compared to the “bad violence” it hopes to defeat.
I see this passage, then, as Jesus enumerating many forms of good violence — some that we continue to use, like courts and divorce, and some we have stopped using, like cutting off bodily members and ritual sacrifice. But the key comes in the escalation of the good violence in the image of hell, Gehenna. It is, first of all, a valuable teaching moment that Jesus doesn’t mean by Gehenna what we mean by hell — primarily because he knows “good violence” as always our violence, and not God’s. The popular Christian version of hell — which so many are insisting to cling to — makes hell an instance of ultimate “good violence” perpetrated by God. MT insists that this is a remythologization — an undoing of the revelation that Christ came to enact through the cross and resurrection. Again, our popular version of hell is anti-Gospel.
But Gehenna in this passage is also important as a metaphor beyond the reference to child sacrifice. Even for Jeremiah seven hundred years earlier, child sacrifice represented good violence out of control that needed to be challenged. In this sermon I offer the examples of Auschwitz, 9-11, Hiroshima, and homeless children on American streets.
I end with three glimpses of Good News: the Incarnation as empowering the alternative of living in God’s love, doing away with the old view of hell, and God’s rescue of our victims as wonderfully portrayed in Revelation 7.
1. James Alison, Jesus the Forgiving Victim, p. 351. In a section on Mark 3:1-6, Jesus healing a man’s withered hand on the Sabbath, Alison imagines Deuteronomy 30 in the background of their Sabbath worship, and writes:
So Jesus is doing what should be happening in a Sabbath liturgy: he is re-enacting Moses for them. It’s as though he’s saying OK guys, so Moses Law prohibits certain things on the Sabbath? But here we are, celebrating the Sabbath by re-enacting Moses, and here we have someone with a withered hand. Well, I’m putting before you a choice, in exactly the same words as Moses did, because any attempt to re-enact Moses is always going to put before you this choice: the blessing if you obey, and the curse if you disobey. And obeying means pursuing life and good, and disobeying means pursuing death and evil. So here you are, are you really celebrating the Sabbath according to Moses? If you are, you will certainly want me to choose life and good, and if you are not, then who are you to accuse me of disobeying the Law of Moses?
Well, as you can imagine, this is an annoying question. Those gathered were not really expecting to have Moses reenacted by this radical reinterpretation one that went back to the roots in their midst. It is an uncomfortable reminder that Moses, too, requires interpretation, and that he himself offers this interpretative principle which Jesus has just brought out. If the choice is to follow the commandments, or not to follow them, to do good and choose life, or not to do good, and not to choose life, which is it to be? One of the things you really can’t do1acewith this choice is to say I will obey the commandments, which means not choosing life. He’s got them in a quandary: the whole point of what Moses was about versus a particular passage from within that intention.
Well, they get it at once, they know exactly what he’s saying, and they are paralysed by it. For them, Moses was someone whom they might use against him, but now, rather than retaliate, he’s offered them real Moses as a question, insinuating that real Moses is against their Moses in a way that is perfectly clear to them. He’s given them what is self-evidently an authoritative interpretation. (pp. 351-52)
1 Corinthians 3:1-9
1. James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong, p. 176:
That it is “Christ crucified for you” who is the foundation of their new being is made clear by the ironic question in 1 Cor 1:13 “Was Paul Crucified for you?”, linked to Paul’s clear understanding that there is only one foundation, Christ Jesus (1 Cor. 3:11). It is this that is foundational of the community, and the way into participation in it is by imitation of the self-giving that lead to Jesus’ being crucified. Hence the centrality to Paul’s discussion of the Eucharist: it is the self-giving of the victimary body which is what enables the Corinthians to become one body in Christ. Hence also the necessity, for proper participation in the Eucharist, of a life that is an imitation of the self-giving of the victim.
Paul illustrates this by himself being an example of something despised, an offscouring, with victimary signs, even calling himself a scapegoat (1 Cor 4:13), urging the Corinthians to become imitators of him (1 Cor 4:16) even as he is of Christ (11:1). It is his free self-giving, and willingness to subject himself to the condition of others, for their own sakes that make Paul an imitator of Christ (1 Cor 9:19-23). That is to say that there is a particular antidote to the world of rivalistic desires and factiousness which is destroying the community: the learning of a new sort of desire which is not in rivalry with any desire at all, because it is the pacific imitation of the one who is on his way into expulsion. Paul gives specific content to the notion of ‘flesh’ here, out of which he urges his correspondents to grow. The flesh is precisely the world of rivalistic desire leading to futile foundationalism (1 Cor 3:1-4). Paul could not, in fact make it clearer than he does that the foundation that is Christ can only be lived from within a change of desires.
1. “Hell,” in verses 22, 29, 30. The NRSV has 13 instances of hell, all in the New Testament, and 12 of them translate the Greek Gehenna, the Greek rendering of Hebrew ben Hinnom, a valley south of Jerusalem. (The only other instance is in 2 Peter 2:4, where “hell” is a translation of the Greek underworld Tartarus, a place below Hades in Greek mythology.) The 12 instances that render Gehenna are as follows: Matthew 5:22, 29, 30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15, 33; Mark 9:43, 45, 47; Luke 12:5; James 3:6. So three of the twelve are in this lection.
The crucial question involves what Jesus means by Gehenna. I believe that Jesus is using Gehenna to name times and places of sacred violence. Hell is experienced in the apocalypse of human sacred violence. Some scholars cite evidence that Gehenna was a smoldering landfill at the time of Jesus, a place of human-made fires for our refuse — a fitting metaphor for the consequences of our human violence. But other scholars challenge this evidence as spotty and unreliable. There is another significance to ben Hinnom which does not rely on spotty evidence, the importance attributed to it by the prophet Jeremiah, and in the canonical history. The Valley of ben Hinnom came to also be known as the Valley of Slaughter because it was a place of child sacrifice. I cite one of the passages:
And they go on building the high place of Topheth, which is in the valley of the son [ben] of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire — which I did not command, nor did it come into my mind. Therefore, the days are surely coming, says the LORD, when it will no more be called Topheth, or the valley of the son of Hinnom, but the valley of Slaughter: for they will bury in Topheth until there is no more room. (Jer. 7:31-32)
Jeremiah attests to the slaughter also in 19:6 and 32:35. And Jeremiah isn’t alone. The Valley of ben Hinnom as a place of child sacrifice is also attested to in 2 Kings 23:10 and 2 Chron. 28:3; 33:6. I think it quite likely that Jesus’ Jewish audience would thus hear Gehenna as the Valley of Slaughter, the place of the highest idolatry against Yahweh, the place of child sacrifice.
So we must be aware that our 21st century popular idea of hell — as a place where God sends persons after they die to eternal punishment — has gone far afield of what is likely behind Jesus’ use of Gehenna. In fact, our idea of hell has become precisely a concept of human sacred violence — a violence of human imagination that we attribute to God. Those who sacrificed their children to Molech in Jeremiah’s time thought that the gods wanted them to do that. How often have we slaughtered children in Christian history in the name of a God who punishes people eternally to hell? The popular idea of hell brings us fully back into the sacred violence which Jesus came to unveil as human violence, and not God’s violence. It must be forgiven, let go of, if Christianity is to be faithful to Jesus.
An alternative to the popular idea of hell, which is often put forward these days, is that hell is experiencing the absence of God. But I’m not sure that can be meaningfully gleaned from Gehenna as the place of child sacrifice. The revelation of sacred violence involves recognizing that it is erroneously done in the name of communion with God on the part of the perpetrators of the sacrifice. What Jesus’ cross reveals is that God is present in communion with the victim, not in communion with the perpetrators. What we see on the cross may look like God’s absence. Jesus seems to signal that by crying out with the first verse of Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” But the rest of that Psalm testifies to a God who is actually present with a victim of collective violence, which is why it is so meaningful to read this psalm in its entirety during Holy Week. God is present, not absent, in these hellish moments and places, but it is with the victims.
Elie Wiesel illustrates this with his gripping story in Night. A child hangs from an SS gallows and the question goes up, “Where is God?” Wiesel writes: “And I heard a voice within me answer him: ‘Where is He? Here He is … He is hanging here on this gallows.'” (Night, Bantam Books, 1982, pp. 61-62.) Hell is Auschwitz. It is the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001. Hell is the innocent children incinerated at Hiroshima. And God is present — with the victims. (Isn’t that what Revelation 7 shows us? Those who have gone through the ordeal? The victims of our sacred violence from every time and place gathered to God’s throne by the victory of the Lamb Slain?) Doesn’t Jesus’ Gehenna more aptly give us the hell of our own continuing child sacrifice?
See also Gil Bailie in Violence Unveiled on “The Fires of Hell.” And this topic is important enough that there are book-length treatments friendly to the perspective of Girardians: Rob Bell, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived; Brian McLaren, The Last Word and the Word after That: A Tale of Faith, Doubt, and a New Kind of Christianity; Sharon Baker, Razing Hell: Rethinking Everything You’ve Been Taught about God’s Wrath and Judgment; Brad Jersak, Her Gates Will Never Be Shut: Hope, Hell, and the New Jerusalem. Finally, there is also a great video documentary by Kevin Miller, Hellbound?, with contributors including Michael Hardin, Brian McLaren, Sharon Baker, and more.
2. “offering your gift at the altar.” Can this mean anything other than making a ritual sacrifice? And remember that this was the prescribed means for dealing with sins like anger and its consequences. So Jesus is telling folks to stop the prescribed remedy for reconciliation and to go make reconciliation with the person face-to-face.
1. Paul Nuechterlein, The Abingdon Creative Preaching Annual 2014, pp. 45-46 (one of thirteen essays I contributed to this book). Here is the essay on Matthew 5:21-37.
2. Raymund Schwager, Jesus in the Drama of Salvation, pp. 41-44, 184, 190. See several substantial excerpts that help interpret Matthew 5.
3. Brian McLaren, The Secret Message of Jesus, uses Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount as a centerpiece by making it the most-oft cited passage in the book, including two chapters devoted to it — Ch. 14, “Kingdom Manifesto” and Ch. 15, “Kingdom Ethics,” with a good summary of the entire Sermon on pp. 135-36. Here is the longer section on the first part of this passage from Ch. 14:
Ancient wisdom forbade murder, but Jesus message, the message of the kingdom of God, calls people deeper and higher: to transcend the hidden emotion of anger that motivates murder and to stop insulting people. After all, insult is a kind of character assassination, a kind of socially acceptable violence with words. The kingdom of God calls us beyond simply doing no physical harm (as big an improvement as that is over doing physical harm!), it calls us to do no harm with words. And even more radical it calls us to actively seek reconciliation, giving interpersonal reconciliation an even higher priority than religious devotion as the next few sentences make clear:
So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny. (vv. 2 3-2 6 NRSV)
Even though Jesus uses dangerous, provocative language You have heard that it was said . . . but I say to you this is no abolishment of the Sacred Writings. No, Jesus is calling people to a higher way of life that both fulfills the intent of the Law and exceeds the rigor of the religious scholars and Pharisees, who focus on a merely external conformity and technical perfection. As the manifesto continues, Jesus applies the same You have heard . . . but I say pattern to deeply important issues for individuals and societies sexuality, marriage, oaths, and revenge.
In each case, conventional religious morality (the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees) is about not doing external wrong: not murdering, not committing adultery, not committing divorce, not breaking sacred oaths, not getting revenge on the wrong people. But the kingdom manifesto calls us beyond and beneath this kind of morality; we must deal with greed and lust, arrogance and prejudice in the heart. And more, instead of merely not doing wrong, with a changed heart we will be motivated to do what is right. Jesus words on adultery fit into this pattern. Yes, he says, you can avoid technically committing adultery, but your heart can be full of lust. Just as there would be no murder without anger, there would be no adultery without lust. So, Jesus says, if you want to live in the kingdom of God, you dont seek to stir up lust and then prevent adultery, but rather you seek to deal with the root, the source. The kingdom of God calls you to desire and seek a genuinely pure heart.
Or, if you are a man (only men could sue for divorce in those days), you can get a perfectly legal divorce so everything is externally okay, just like someone who never commits murder or adultery. Thats completely satisfactory for the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. But the kingdom of God goes further and says, No. You can be legal, but your legal divorce causes trouble for your ex-wife, so that doesnt fly in the kingdom of God. That righteousness isnt righteous enough. (pp. 122-23)
4. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, vol. 4), three sections entitled “Kindred,” “Woman,” and “Truthfulness,” pp. 120-131.
5. James Alison, Knowing Jesus; pp. 42-45 are on the Sermon on the Mount. Link to an excerpt of Alison’s comments on the Sermon on the Mount.
6. René Girard, Things Hidden, pp. 196ff., provide commentary on the Sermon on the Mount which places the Beatitudes in context — a section on “The Preaching of the Kingdom,” pp. 196-202.
7. Wolfgang Palaver, René Girard’s Mimetic Theory, pp. 35, 216, 220, 232, 240, 295-96. Palaver’s excellent account of Girard’s work makes it clear with numerous citations that this portion of the Sermon on the Mount was central to Girard. In a passage on Girard’s views on war, he connects this week’s passage with next week’s — that the road of anger can lead to the hell of war:
Girard’s rejection of the thesis that war and political hostilities represent eternal human institutions opens up significant ethical perspectives for the future. This rejection undermines all theories that define warfare and xenophobia as inexorable elements of human nature. His argument that these institutions are based in the scapegoat mechanism shows, namely, that all forms of interpersonal violence and hostility begin in the most elementary human relationships. The way out of violence and enmity must be found on these rudimentary levels. The Sermon on the Mount is one such example that exhibits this way to peace. The practice of reconciliation and the love of ones enemy must commence from the beginning in order to avoid eventual dependence on the institution of warfare or any other means of channeling violence outwardly. Wrath or words of insult against ones own brother pave the way that ultimately leads to the hell of war (cf. Matthew 5:21-22). (p. 295)
8. Michael Hardin, The Jesus Driven Life. Hardin features the Sermon on the Mount in section 1.4, “The Life of the Kingdom of God,” pages 48-58. On this passage, Hardin comments:
Third, the way of the Kingdom of God means that the way we relate to everyone changes. Not just our friends, but also those we despise and those who cant stand us. It is not easy to love the unlovely. When we are attacked, we attack back, when we are threatened, we threaten. Our natural posture is defensiveness. This is true not only on a personal level but also on a political one. Have you ever noticed that when someone attacks you it is always unjust but when you attack another it is always just? It is this problem that the Sermon on the Mount addresses for it lumps all defensiveness under the same rubric. In Matt 5:21ff, Jesus says that to be angry is the same as murder. When you get angry the first thing you do is to have this sort of inane conversation in your head. They said this, I will say that, they will respond thus, I will have that response, etc. Notice how you always win this battle!
Jesus says that the Christian life does not consist of these mental battles. Instead we are to make peace in every way for Blessed are the peacemakers. More than that, retaliation is not an aspect of Christian existence (5:38ff). When Christians (not people in general) are hassled or persecuted, it is not part of their calling to get them back. Christianity is not a gang where if one member is suffering at the hands of rivals, it sends out its members to get the other gang. Instead we are called to love our enemies. How different would the world be today, if so-called Christian America had, instead of announcing war after 9/11, offered forgiveness?
This new way of relating also extends to the way we understand our sexuality. Jesus admonitions on adultery and divorce are, I suspect, made to men primarily because in his time males were at the top of the gender hierarchy. With the rise of Internet pornography, Jesus clear call to resist lust has as much to say today as it did then. The problem of pornography is not the sexual acts themselves but what is occurring in the minds of those who watch. Engaging pornography, for men and women, is a vicarious way to have the beautiful lover, to be the object of desire, to be tended and titillated by the fantasy lover. We see ourselves as gods desired and fawned over as the powerful ones who bring or withhold pleasure from our lover. It is clear that sexual fantasizing is a form of idolatry.
Divorce in the Christian community is also forbidden. Why? Jesus wasn’t ever married so he cannot be very realistic about this, can he? Divorce among Christian couples is a sign that forgiveness has limits. I will forgive you and stay committed to you only this far. Yet, in the gospels, Jesus teaches us that forgiveness is not for the single event, but is to be expressed 70 times 7. Forgiveness for the errant spouse is a sign of how far God forgives us.
If there is an exception today for divorce I suspect it is not for infidelity, but for abuse. Christian couples are to live in love, not hurting one another, not dominating one another, but in the real egalitarianism given in the Spirit (Gal. 3:27ff). When a Christian husband is abusing his spouse (or occasionally a wife is abusing her husband) it is clear the Spirit is not at work in such a person for abuse is violence, and the Spirit of God is not violent. In such a situation my advice would be to flee so that the abused does not give the abuser a place to keep sinning against them (one thinks of those in the early church who sought martyrdom to whom Cyprian offered the same advice). (pp. 54-55)
9. Richard Rohr, Jesus’ Plan for a New World: The Sermon on the Mount, see especially pp. 129ff. Rohr combines three perspectives that are immensely helpful to me: Catholic spirituality in the tradition of Thomas Merton, the Emerging Church, and Girardian anthropology (the only footnote in the entire book, p. 4, acknowledges his gratitude to the work of Girard and Gil Bailie).
10. Other good books for parish ministry on the Sermon on the Mount: Clarence Jordan, Sermon on the Mount; Glen Stassen, Living the Sermon on the Mount: A Practical Hope for Grace and Deliverance.
11. Sermons/blogs from a Girardian perspective by members and friends of Theology & Peace: Tom Truby, a sermon in 2011, titled “If We Want to Follow Jesus; and in 2014, “Who Won?“; and in 2017, “Escalation!“.
Reflections and Questions
1. The point of this passage to me is this: either we learn Jesus’ way of fulfilling the law in love, or we go down the road of anger and lust to sacrificial violence.
2. Pope Francis, in his encyclical titled The Joy of the Gospel, has sparked some controversy by being critical of our Western economics, which he calls an “economy of exclusion.” Here’s a brief excerpt:
How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality. Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape. Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. We have created a “throw away” culture which is now spreading. (#53, pp. 27-28)
Isn’t the Pope pointing here to the hell of today’s sacrificial violence? We cannot comprehend what was normal to people of Jeremiah’s time, namely, ritual child sacrifice. In my community, however, it seems normal that our Kalamazoo County estimates are that 1000 children in our community are homeless. How can we otherwise tolerate this? If we were to see our homeless children as sacrificial violence akin to the 8th Century valley of ben Hinnom, wouldn’t we find a way to stop it? Or is it a 21st Century example of hellish sacred violence that we are blind to?