Proper 21 (Sept 25-Oct 1)
Texts: Mark 9:38-50;
James 5:13-20; Numbers 11
‘THE ROAD TO HELL IS PAVED WITH GOOD INTENTIONS’
What the hell is going on?! Pun intended since it mentions hell three times in this passage. This is one of those Gospel Readings where the pastor finishes reading it; says, “The Gospel of the Lord”; and instead of responding, “Praise to you, O Christ,” you want to say what I just said, “What the hell is going on?”
Brothers and Sisters in Christ, there is no doubt that this is a difficult passage. But I think that if we wrestle with it this morning, it may yield a blessing. Beginning with the matter of hell. Across the church we are anxious about shrinking numbers. Especially the younger generation. You might take a moment to think about your own children or grandchildren who are missing from church. Keep them in mind throughout this sermon, as representing what is at stake.
Why are our young people absent? I have come to believe that a primary reason is that our Gospel message itself is missing the mark with them. Young people look around them at a world with many hellish elements: a global pandemic; worsening natural disasters due to climate change; an economic system that doesn’t work for them; systemic racism; intolerance to LGBTQ peoples; growing authoritarianism and the move toward fascism; and bitter divisions in our politics that make all these other crises worse instead of better. So do our young people really need to worry about hell in the afterlife? They have more than they can handle in the here and now. Here’s the thing: the Gospel message we grew up with focuses on the afterlife, right? And the younger generation would like Good News about God helping them in this life. Humankind is a mess; we need help now. Our message is missing the mark.
To make matters worse, the idea of hell that we grew up with is hideous in itself. Just because someone doesn’t believe in Jesus, God would punish them in hell for eternity? Really? Gandhi, for example. He’s supposedly suffering for an eternity because he’s not Christian? Really? Most of our young people are running away from notions like that. And I have to be honest: I agree with them.
So let’s begin our wrestling match with this Gospel Reading by getting straight on the matter of hell. The Greek word which our English translates as hell is actually the name of a place not in the afterlife but very much a place here on earth. It’s the name Gehenna, which was the Greek rendering of the Hebrew ben Hinnom. The Valley of ben Hinnom is a valley near Jerusalem. Some say that at the time of Jesus it was a landfill, a smoldering garbage dump. That would make sense of the line, “where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.” That’s a good description of a garbage dump, right? The other thing we are sure of about the Valley of ben Hinnom is that it was notorious for child sacrifice at the time of the prophet Jeremiah.1 The people of Israel were giving-in to the culture around them and killing and burning their children on altars of sacrifice.
So when Jesus says, “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 end up in ben Hinnom, in the unquenchable fire,” we have a better idea of what he means, don’t we? He’s not talking about an otherworldly place where God supposedly sends people after they die. He’s talking metaphorically about ending up on the trash heap of history. He’s talking about times and places where human beings go down the road of horrific violence — places like battlefields of dead bodies, mass graves after revolutions or genocides, or, close to home, morgues during a pandemic. If we were to suggest a place like ben Hinnom for which today’s folks would immediately get the point, it would be something like Auschwitz . . . or Hiroshima . . . or the World Trade Center on 9-11 . . . or Tulsa in 1921. In other words, hell is not a place of eternal punishment in the afterlife. Hell is the end of the road when human beings go down the road of hellish injustice and violence.
There’s an old saying: “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.” I think today’s Gospel Reading illuminates the road to hell in the context of many of our summer readings from Scripture. Back in June we read the first saying from Jesus which Mark labels as a parable. The scribes and Pharisees were accusing Jesus of being on the side of Beelzebul, a henchman for Satan. Jesus responds, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come” (Mark 3:23-26). By calling this a parable, Mark is telling us that it isn’t as straightforward as it seems.
Here’s what I believe it means is this: when people are accusing others of being evil, they are seeking to cast out Satan, so to speak. Now, when such people — sometimes you and me? — are thinking in this way, they see themselves as on the side of good casting out the bad people. But Jesus is alerting us to the fact that when such thinking becomes the justification for violently casting out or killing who we think is evil, our actions often times themselves become evil. To violently cast out is not good casting out bad, as we think. It’s actually Satan casting out Satan. Because the result throughout history has been a human family perpetually divided against itself — which, in turn, has led to endless cycles of horrific violence that climax in things like Auschwitz, Hiroshima, World Trade Center 9-11, or Tulsa 1921. In short, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. We begin with the thinking that we are clearly good and they are clearly bad, so our intentions of getting rid of them must be good. Good intentions. But Jesus is trying to get us to see that this is actually the road to hell, the human family perpetually divided against itself.2
Let’s take a look for a moment at the first part of today’s Gospel, which seems unrelated to the wacky part which follows it. The disciples try to stop someone from casting out demons in Jesus’ name, and Jesus says, “Don’t do that! Whoever is not against us is for us.” It seems unrelated to what follows, but it’s not. In fact, it’s a similar scenario to what we just talked about in Mark 3 — name, Jesus casting out demons and the Pharisees seeing Jesus as against them. What I’m trying to get across here is that not only this whole passage but also the entire Gospel is about us human beings being trapped in Us-vs-Them thinking which leads us down the road to being perpetually divided in ways that always lead to hellish violence. That’s the deep-seated problem which Jesus came to save us from — and even his own disciples still don’t get it! The disciples reveal themselves as still trapped in Us-vs-Them thinking with this other person casting out demons: they think, ‘This guy’s not with us, so he must be against us.’ Jesus is trying to turn around their Us-vs-Them thinking, so he says, “Whoever is not against us is for us.” Do you see?
The bizarre words which follow, about amputating body parts to avoid hell, are a sign of Jesus’ exasperation. From Mark 3 to this point six chapters later, Jesus has desperately been trying to get his disciples unstuck from their typically human Us-vs-Them thinking. He has been crossing all kinds of Us-vs-Them boundaries: healing both the poor and rich, Jew and Gentile. He has miraculously fed crowds in both Jewish and Gentile country. He has begun to teach them that he will be handed over into the hellish outcome of our Us-vs-Them thinking: he will let himself be cast out on the Cross in a typical human display of Satan casting out Satan. Jesus has begun to teach his disciples how what he came to do completely inverts and subverts our usual human thinking. The first will be last, and the last will be first. The greatest among us must serve rather than be served. And still his disciples persist in Us-vs-Them thinking. So here Jesus resorts to the grotesque — cutting off your own hand or foot — that he might perhaps shock them into hearing and seeing what he has been trying to teach them.3
Have we understood yet, even in this supposedly Christian nation of ours? Look at our politics right now. Who among our politicians are stuck like the disciples? How many are trapped in Us-vs-Them thinking? So they have the opposite message of Jesus: they think, ‘Whoever is not for us is against us. They are our enemies. They are bad. They must be cast out.’ Are there any of our politicians who are instead following Jesus’ counsel — “Whoever is not against us is for us” — and thus looking for all the allies that they can? Politicians who are willing to join forces with anyone who is working for the good of everyone?
Look at the tragic results of our being divided right now during a pandemic. The medical experts who follow the science are telling us that tens upon tens of thousands have died from COVID-19 needlessly, because we have not been able to attack this virus together as a nation united. We have been bitterly divided on the most basic facts of fighting this pandemic, like wearing masks and getting vaccinated. And it has cost thousands of lives of fellow citizens who need not have died if we could have followed Jesus’ thinking in trying to heal our divisions — “Whoever is not against us is for us.” Instead, over this past year our ICU’s and morgues have become hellish places of death like the infamous Valley of ben Hinnom in Jesus’ day.
Take a moment to think about the disastrous consequences of our deep divisiveness on the other crises which our young people are inheriting from us: worsening natural disasters due to climate change; an economic system that doesn’t work for them; systemic racism; intolerance to LGBTQ peoples; growing authoritarianism and the move away from democracy toward fascism. We are so deeply divided we can’t seem to get anything important done. Humanity is a mess. That’s why our young people want more than a Gospel message that focuses on the afterlife. They seek nothing less than a new way to be human in which we can come together to address the very real threats to our survival.
So let’s end with the Good News! We’ve revisited the parable of Satan casting out Satan from back in June — which lays out the problem of a human family divided against itself. I’d like to end this morning with a scripture we read mid-summer which gives us the Good News of how God is addressing the problem (Proper 11B). I’ve suggested today that our Gospel message is missing the mark with our young people. When we get them in our catechism classes, we have taught them that the Gospel comes from St. Paul’s doctrine of justification by grace through faith. I’d like to propose that there are better articulations of the Gospel from Paul, like this one from Ephesians 2 (vv. 14-15):
For Christ is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace. . . .
Do you see how that fits exactly what we’ve been talking today?! What if the Gospel is more centrally about God in Jesus creating One New Humanity out of all our divisions?4
Let’s especially be clear about our traditional view of hell as a place of eternal punishment. It is completely and totally ruled out of bounds by a Gospel of God creating One New Humanity. The Gospel can’t be about God both making One New Humanity and then dividing them into two in the afterlife for all eternity. If the Gospel is about God making us into One New Humanity, one human family, then our traditional view of hell is quite simply anti-Gospel . . . the opposite. Our view of hell has exemplified our being trapped in Us-vs-Them thinking rather than being healed of it. Earlier I said that I agree with young people who are running far away from ideas like this in our Christian message. Hopefully, now you can see why.
So let’s leave ourselves with this question: could our children and grandchildren get on-board with a Gospel of One New Humanity? That as followers of Jesus we are called to offer healing to all our divisiveness, so that we can work together as One New Humanity? Yes, with all the bitter divisions currently in our human family, that’s a tall order, a steep hill to climb. But wouldn’t it be better if more and more of us were at least on the heavenly road of healing and peace than on the hellish road to more violence? Do you think our young people might be more inclined to join us on that road of peace, facing the many challenges of life together? Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Peace Lutheran Church,
Burlington, WI, September 26, 2021
1. See Jer. 7:30-32; 19:1-6; 32:35; 2 Chron. 28:3 and 33:6.
2. For more on the parable of Satan casting out Satan, see Proper 5B.
3. The great American writer Flannery O’Connor once said of her own work, “I use the grotesque the way I do because people are deaf and dumb and need help to see and hear.” This is completely in line with Mark’s Jesus making Isaiah 6:9-10 central, claiming of his teaching in parables, “in order that ‘they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand. . . .’” (Mark 4:12) Mark then uses the theme of not being able to hear and see throughout his Gospel.
4. For more on better articulations of the Gospel, I recommend Brian McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity, especially Ch. 14, “What Is the Gospel?”; and The Great Spiritual Migration. This sermon kind of sits on the knife’s edge of hope: more clearly seeing the deep-seated human problem of division and how it makes all our current crises worse, while at the same time holding out hope that this is precisely what Jesus came to address in proclaiming the Reign of God as something that helps us to be human in a new way. (The Cross epitomizes our problem of Satan casting out Satan resulting in a perpetually divided human household.) Underlying this portrait but not overtly stated is that much of what has historically passed as Christianity has become as much a part of the problem as the solution. For example: doctrines like that of hell as a place of eternal punishment, the act of a false god who creates a final division of human beings in the afterlife rather than of the true God “creating one new humanity in place of the two.” For a brilliant articulation of human hope on the knife’s edge, I highly recommend Brian McLaren’s forthcoming book (May 2022) Do I Stay Christian?: A Guide for the Doubters, the Disappointed, and the Disillusioned.