This Sunday’s Gospel speaks on two levels. First, it tells us what to do. Then it talks about the consequences. Last things first:
In this Gospel, Jesus three times threatens “Gehenna, the unquenchable fire.” The last time, he adds “where their worm [or maggot] does not die.” (The reference for this passage, “Mark 9:38-43, 45, 47-48,” looks like the Lectionary is hiding something, but vv. 44 and 46 are where some early-modern versions of the Bible repeat the line about worms. Our verse numbers were invented by a French Protestant in the 16th century: they have no authority. The older authorities don’t repeat that line: like our Lectionary reading, they have it once.)
It needs to be repeated: Jesus is not the nice guy in the Bible. Nowhere in the Bible are the threats as awful as from the mouth of Jesus. “Their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” is the last verse of another supposedly nice-guy part of the Bible, Isaiah—but Isaiah is talking about dead bodies.
People think Jesus sweeps in to tell us to stop worrying about hell. The real Jesus, the Jesus of the Bible, is the main one in the Bible who does tell us about hell. Jesus is our merciful Savior—but “nice guy” is a mischaracterization. It is Jesus who reveals the eternal consequences of sin.
The two verses that follow our Gospel suggest that fire is inevitable. The question is whether the fire is ours, or burns against us. We will all face God, but will we be with him or against him?
Gehenna is from the Hebrew for “Valley of Hinnom.” In the Old Testament, that’s where people sacrificed their children to the fire of the pagan god Moloch. Later, it’s also where the people of Jerusalem threw their sewage.
Here’s another way to think about it. Without Jesus, hell is inevitable. In life we live among those who throw their children as sacrifices to Moloch—in abortion, yes, but also in all the ways that we tear one another apart. The world worships Moloch. Making peace with the violence of this world doesn’t change that it promises only endless hatred and destruction.
And then we die, and are thrown on the trash heap. And yet our soul, the form of that dead body, lives forever. After death is not some happy soul-world apart from the body. Without Christ, after death we face only the eternal decay of the bodies which are ourselves.
What a wretched man I am, says St. Paul. Who will save me from this body of death? Who but the crucified.
Interwoven with these threats of Gehenna—which Christ does not create, but from which he alone can liberate us—are warnings about us causing little ones to sin, and our hand, our foot, our eye, causing us to sin. Notice first the parallel: just as our hand might cause us to sin (or more literally, cause us to stumble), so we can cause others to sin. And death is better than that. Because Christ can save us from death, but not if we choose to embrace sin instead.
This is a classic passage where people say Jesus exaggerates—and therefore claim we can ignore various other things he says. “Oh, he doesn’t mean that, he’s an exaggerator! You don’t cut your hand off, do you!”
But notice, “If your hand causes you to sin.” Does your hand cause you to sin? In fact, no, it doesn’t. You as a person might be able to cause another person to stumble, but it is never your hand that causes you to sin.
There is hyperbole in this story, but it’s not that Jesus doesn’t want us to cut off what causes us to sin. It’s that he wants us to find what really causes us to sin—like the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life. Cut those off, says Jesus, or face the eternal death of worm and fire.
But what is sin? The first half of our Gospel, and the first two readings, say sin is not about team spirit. “Teacher, we saw someone driving out demons in your name, and we tried to prevent him because he does not follow us.” In your name, but does not follow us. Jesus says, focus on me, not on your team.
So too, anyone who gives you a cup of water because you belong to Christ will be rewarded, anyone who causes little ones to stumble would better die. The focus is on Christ. Back off of all your secondary concerns, and ask what leads to or away from Jesus.
So too in the first story, from Moses’s Book of Numbers, the elders receive the Spirit in the tent—but if the Spirit comes to those outside the tent, Moses says, don’t oppose them. Yes, seek the Spirit in the tent, in the Church—but don’t oppose those who somehow receive it before they’ve reached the tent. Your salvation is in the Spirit and in the tent, not in your hatred of those outside.
And James warns us that riches are “impending miseries,” because if we live for this world and not for Christ, we will die as this world dies. Instead, we should treat the people around us as we would treat Christ: always look to Jesus, see no one but Jesus alone, even in this world. Never look to the world.
What violence in your life threatens eternal death?