What To Cut Off
There are some difficult verses in today’s gospel – verses that might sound more like the Taliban than Jesus:
· Cut off your hand if it causes you to sin. Tear out your eye!
· You’ll burn in hell if you’re angry.
· Divorce is adultery.
What are we to make of these? Are they simply archaic and irrelevant today? Do we really want to suggest people chop their limbs off? Should we be threatening people with hellfire? Aren’t these just extreme statements from another age?
But on the other hand, if they’re what Jesus actually said shouldn’t we take them seriously? Isn’t it weaseling out if we ignore the verses that make us uncomfortable? There are certainly many Christians who feel it’s legitimate and thoroughly Biblical to use the threat of hell as a way to urge people to repent and change their lives.
I am not one of those Christians. I don’t believe in a God who sends sinners to hell, or wants us to amputate our offending limbs, or sees divorce as the unforgivable sin. And I don’t think we can read every word in the gospels supposedly spoken by Jesus as verbatim reporting. To me it’s both more complicated and more simple.
The foundation of everything I believe is that God is love, and Jesus shows us what living in that love looks like. It’s a searching, challenging, life-changing love that asks everything of us, but it isn’t a punitive, threatening, violent love. Because that isn’t love.
What Jesus is teaching is that holiness or goodness or blessedness is about more than obeying the rules and the letter of the law: it’s about where your heart is.
So you might not murder anyone, but if you hate someone your anger is destructive.
And you might not cheat on your partner sexually, but it’s entirely possible to cheat on them emotionally, and that’s a form of unfaithfulness.
It goes back to the Beatitudes: Blessed are the pure in heart or in spirit. We’re blessed when we’re walking the good path, and that’s about our bodies, our hearts, our innermost being, as well as about our outward actions. Jesus’ consistent criticism of the Pharisees was that they focused on the outward things, on obeying the letter of the law, but missed the spirit of it. They were good at pointing out others’ flaws and failings, but missed the log of hypocrisy in their own eye.
The way that Jesus calls us onto isn’t a wishy-washy sentimental way: it’s tough; it asks us to go deeper; it asks us to search our own hearts and be prepared to make hard choices, sacrifices, for the sake of following this way more and more fully. And it’s a way that leads to life, as opposed to destruction.
Which brings us back to the concept of hell.
The actual Greek word that Matthew uses is Gehenna, which was the name of a valley just outside Jerusalem. Some scholars say it was where child sacrifice by fire used to be practised. Others say it was the city garbage dumb which was constantly smouldering. Either way, it was a real and feared place, and a symbol of destruction. Matthew uses it often in his gospel, to convey the significance of not following Jesus’ way.
Jesus’ way is hard, but following it leads to life.
Not following it leads to destruction – not because you’ll be pushed into a fiery hell by devils with pitchforks after you die, but because a life ruled by pride, anger, lust, callousness, selfishness, hypocrisy is a life that profoundly hurts others and warps yourself. Here, now, in this life.
We make our own hell here on earth.
It’s our choice.
Today’s first reading (from Sirach) says, “If you choose, you can keep the commandments, and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice. God has placed before you fire and water; stretch out your hand for whichever you choose. Before each person are life and death, and whichever one chooses will be given.” [Sirach 15:15-17]
It’s our choice.
We can choose to nurse our anger and grievances, or we can seek reconciliation.
We can choose to cheat or we can be faithful.
We can choose to walk the hard, narrow way of blessing, or we can slide into destructive and self-destructive patterns of thinking and acting.
We’ll reap what we sow.
In Canada, right now, we’re seeing the results of our nation not doing the hard work of reconciliation with the indigenous peoples of this land. Truth and reconciliation have to be more than words of apology and good intentions: there has to be a real willingness to listen and change. It’s called decolonization, and it’s hard, it goes against the grain, but I believe it can lead to new life in many ways.
It’s the same with racism: if our society is to be just for everyone, we white folks have to do the hard work of looking at our own privilege and the way it empowers us and protects us, while it excludes and endangers others. We have to be willing to look through the sharp lens of the gospel, no matter how uncomfortable that makes us.
One last example: we’ll be challenging each other at St Aidan’s this Lent to change some very basic habits around our use of plastics, to make a small step towards lessening our harmful impact on the environment. And we know that if we’re to stop climate change escalating we have to cut off our dependence on fossil fuels and our love of consumerism and travel. Again, the sharp lens of the gospel asks a lot of us; asks us to cut off some precious, delicious habits. If we don’t, we all suffer.
So you see how it goes. We have daily, even moment-by-moment choices to make about how we’ll live our lives, and they have enormous consequences, leading either to life and justice and healing (i.e. the kingdom of heaven) or to destructiveness and alienation and suffering (i.e. hell). The choice is ours. May God grant us the courage to choose wisely and the wisdom to choose courageously. Amen.