The Valley of Hinnom, south Jerusalem, Israel.
[Jesus said] And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out.
Better for you to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye
than with two eyes to be thrown into Gehenna,
where ‘their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.'” Mark 9:47-48.
This September I made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. It was my first visit, and I could find no-one to go with me. Everyone thought I would be shot or bombed or finished off in the first few days. They were wrong. But one thing was right. I took that picture above a few weeks ago when I had started walking down from the top of the Mount of Olives into a very hot valley called Hinnom in the baking hot sun and laboriously climbed up the other side. The temperature was in the 90s. It was, in a word, horrible. But clearly I survived both it and the guns and bombs. Only shortly after, when I was reading a guide book, did I find out that the Valley of Hinnom was the model for Gehenna, or, more simply, hell. I wasn’t too surprised: I had just walked through it! Not only was this place extremely hot, it was also the location for child sacrifices to pagan gods, some even performed by the Hebrew kings, over 2500 years ago. It is thought that children were thrown into the fiery statue of the god Moloch in an effort to get the god’s protection. In the eyes of devout Jews, then, it was a cursed place, the opposite of God’s presence in the Temple on top of the hill to the right. And Jesus used this cursed place three times in today’s gospel to talk of the punishment of being thrown into Gehenna for eternity. For the Prince of Peace to talk like that must mean he is referring to something really evil in the sight of God, and an utterly clear warning to us all. What on earth would make us liable to be thrown into this hell?
Just as the contrast between God’s presence in the Temple and absence in Gehenna, Jesus pits the contrast between supporting and living his message of peace and love with a contrasting message of someone tempting us who believe in him to sin, to deliberately go against his message. He even resorts to hyperbole to express the depths of his feeling of revulsion for such as they. Be aware, he warns, that anything causing us to sin should be dealt with lest it lead to terrible consequences. Be aware, Jesus tells us, of anything we might be doing directly contrary to God’s will. Deal with it directly and swiftly, lest it lead to something more terrible. It reminds me of the teaching I received in primary school, namely of venial and mortal sin. We were told that little sins can grow into the sin that destroys – kills – our spirit and soul, the real meaning of “mortal”. So the little sins must be dealt with directly and swiftly, eradicated without delay. They are the seeds that grow into monstrous evil. Minor though they be to begin with, they have the potential of turning us into the pathway that leads to Gehenna. Today’s second reading shows in practice what such behavior leads to.
Then there is the first part of today’s gospel. The apostles were outraged that someone they didn’t know was doing what they thought only they should be doing, or what they thought only they could do, namely drive out demons, restore people to health and happiness. Jesus, in supreme wisdom and acceptance, has no problem with such people, “for whoever is not against us is for us” he said. This also prompted a memory from childhood, when growing up Catholic in a protestant country was a challenge. Why? Because, as I recall it, only we Catholics were on the way to heaven! The others would be lucky to get into Purgatory. This was a challenge for me as my mother wasn’t Catholic…. We weren’t given Jesus’ wise words from today’s gospel, or the same message of the first reading. Even the protestants can be holy people, intent on loving God and neighbor! Today, we even have a pope who attended a World Council of Churches meeting in Switzerland, unthinkable when I was a child.
So today’s Scripture is a rallying cry to remember who and what we all are, children of God and Christ to the world. In looking into our souls, is that what we see there? Are there things we have done, thoughts we have had, words we have spoken which do not fit into that identity and vocation? Then a spring clean is demanded by the Lord (even if you are in the northern hemisphere). Bad words, not holding a door open for someone (even in an elevator), all those little things that can grow almost without our knowing it, into really evil behavior. We have to take the axe and cut those out of our mind and actions. We even have a sacrament to help us do it, where the Lord himself will hold the axe with us, destroy the evil within, and then comfort us and lead us into the right pathway. So we have no excuse!
“Father Forgive Them”, The Crucifixion, Chartres Cathedral, Chartres, France.