A Gospel that Makes Us Cringe
This Gospel shakes me up a bit. It’s pretty gruesome: cutting off a hand, a leg—and to consider it in light that in Jesus’ time, there weren’t modern surgical instruments or anesthesia—it makes me cringe. I cringe when I think of the millstone and drowning under its weight; it’s not the way I’d “like to go.”
Why is Jesus using these “cringe-worthy” images today? I think it’s because He wants us to remember. We remember this passage well, don’t we? And what is it that He wants us to remember? That as painful as these things are, hell is much, much worse.
We find today that Jesus compares hell to Gehenna. What is Gehenna? Historically, it was a little valley outside of
where ancient cults offered sacrifice to the self-gratifying gods Molech and
Baal. Jesus’ disciples would have known this; they would also have known of the
horror that happened there too: the sacrifices that those cults offered
involved children—the cults would burn children alive. Yikes.
At the time of Jesus, the cults had since disappeared, but the Jews remembered what had happened there; and so no one wished to live in such an accursed place. Instead, the people used it as the garbage dump. They would throw their trash there and light it on fire. It was the place where the “worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.”
And it was this place—the burning garbage dump, the place of ancient human sacrifice—that Jesus used to described hell. Yikes.
No one really wants to go to hell. But some people argue that no one is going there these days. But if that’s the case, then why would Jesus need to be so stern with us today? Why would he have to warn us? If there were no hell and if no one was going there, then He wouldn’t have had to say anything about plucking your eyes out or being wary of leading children into sin or anything about millstones and doing everything in your power to avoid hell.
If no one was going to hell, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount would have been simply, “Do what you want. Believe what you want.” At which point, Jesus wouldn’t have had to build His Church to remind us about His Commandments or about hell, nor would He have had to promise Peter that the gates of hell would never prevail against the Church.
For me, personally, I would never have to warn you about movies like Magic Mike, books like Fifty Shades of Grey, or anything else that puts your souls in danger. I wouldn’t have to mention anything about the upcoming election. I wouldn’t have to mention anything that makes you cringe, nothing about the things that endanger you souls, because with no hell there is no danger.
And that’d be great for me, because then I wouldn’t have to worry much about homilies or about what people would say or do after Holy Mass. Shoot, I wouldn’t even need to pray for your eternal soul.
But then I read in Sacred Scriptures St. Peter exhorting us to wake up. “Be alert!” he says, “Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith.” In Ephesians, Paul says for us to put on armor, girding ourselves with the Truth. Why would we need to do that?
Some people say, “Father, how could a good God allow hell to exist?” I understand that. Hell is so horrible—it seems to offend God’s goodness. And, at best, it seems unfair. This is a matter of justice. Justice means to give someone their due; justice is connected with goodness. And so, we pride ourselves on being a just society—a society that gives people their due. Justice is connected to goodness.
That said, let’s say that we have a mass-murdering guy on my left and Mother Theresa on my right. Would it be just of God to say to both, “Sure, come on in!” Wouldn’t that offend justice? and thus goodness? In fact, it would seem to me that an evil god would be one that would treat evil and goodness indiscriminately, as if they were equals.
Some people tell me that the eternity of hell can’t possibly be a fair punishment to the “small” crimes that we commit. Well, we know here in the
US that crimes
against the most innocent and loveable—namely, crimes against children—demand
the severest punishment. They cry out for justice. And why? because they are
against those that deserve the greatest love. Now, if that’s our approach to
children, then what about our approach to the most loveable and the most
innocent of all? Namely, God? Wouldn’t crimes against Him be treated with the
And if this were all true, and if God were merciful and good, then wouldn’t we expect Him to give us fair notice?—telling us in severe and cringe-worthy terms the true consequences of actions for and against his laws? Isn’t that what Jesus is doing today?
One of our fellow parishioners said to me about the readings today: “I’m hoping to turn things in my life around before I get to the point of having to cut off my hand.” Good point.
At Heart: Relationship
When we discuss heaven and hell, we are discussing relationships. In human relationships, when we love someone, we get to know them better, we spend time with them, we talk with them, we listen, and we grow in love with them. On the other hand, when we take someone for granted, or dislike someone, we fail to spend time with them, we do other things, we don’t talk with them, we aren’t around them, we don’t learn about them, we might even take offense at them. We grow separated from them.
When it comes to our relationship with God, when we die that choice for relationship becomes eternal. How incredibly charitable and awesome it is that God would make the love we have here on earth and all the union and joy that comes with love—how awesome it is when He makes that love eternal—never to falter again! That’s heaven.
Hell is when the separation which one has chosen and all its isolation and anger and pain—hell is when that is made eternal. And that is just. A good God does not force you to change your mind. But He tries His very best by giving you fair warning today.
So, Those Who Aren’t Catholic Are Going to Hell?
What I find interesting is that there are often three extremes when people talk about hell. On the one hand, no one is going—or, at the very least—many live as though there are no eternal consequences. On the other hand, there are some who preach that everyone is going to hell—and that’s just an outright lie. But a third extreme is when someone hears a hard doctrine that they aren’t following. They say, “Well, I don’t believe x, y, or z… so I guess I’m going to hell.”
It’s an unfair card to play. It’s a kind of cop-out. And, ultimately, it is not hopeful. Don’t be so quick to condemn yourself—or the teachings. When we do that in order to exempt ourselves from right living, we exempt ourselves from the hope of grace—and heaven. Such “card players” wouldn’t be going to heaven because they don’t believe x, y, or z per se. They wouldn’t be going because they are exempting themselves from the grace that helps them believe x, y, or z.
This brings us to a principle in today readings: grace is offered to all people, and mighty deeds can be done by Catholic and non-Catholic alike. And a second principle: you are responsible for what you are given.
Are Baptists going to heaven? Sure. Buddhist? Quite possibly. They must respond to that which they are given.
As Catholics, we are given much. We are given the fullness of Christ: body, blood, soul, and divinity. We are given the fullness of Truth. We are responsible for that. And to the degree that we fulfill our responsibilities as Catholics in the world is the degree that we will be judged.
Earlier this week, I was walking down a subdivision road and a couple youngsters were walking towards me. I was in my blacks and collar. One asked me as we were passing: “Are you a priest?” I stopped and said, “yes.” “Cool,” he said. (Immediately, I knew he wanted to talk). So I asked him: “Are you a Catholic?” He said he was. “Sweet!” I asked him where he went to Sunday Mass. He said he only went on Christmas and Easter. “Huh.” He seemed like a smart and good kid, so I asked him: “Do you know that Jesus commands us through the Catholic Church which He Himself built on this earth that we must go to Holy Mass every Sunday, and if we don’t, then we are in great danger?” He said he did not know that. I asked him: “Would you like to go to Holy Mass?” He said he did, but his parents don’t take him—they sleep in on Sundays.
Now, I know I’m preaching to the choir here. We’re all here at Sunday Mass. Obligation fulfilled (woo hoo!). But who is responsible for that kid? It’s his parents! How are they going to stand before Jesus and explain this to Him? Do they think their excuse is going to trump his command? Sure, they believe they can be “good people” without Holy Mass and without God. But it doesn’t take long for a generation without God to figure out that it can do whatever it wants: even be bad.
Whether they feel it or not, they are leading their children into sin. They are not teaching them the faith. They are gong to receive the millstone! And I weep for them.
Would that they were all prophets!
“Would that all the people of the Lord were prophets! Would that the Lord might bestow his spirit on them all!” This is a great prayer for our time when so few know the faith. This is why we need prophets today. A prophet isn’t one who tells the future. A prophet is one that proclaims the truth in season and out of season.
This is where we come in. You see, it’s not just the parents that are responsible. We are too. We have a duty to go out from here and talk to people about heaven and hell and the relationship which Jesus offers to us all—and how that’s life-changing and awesome. And sometimes, to warn and admonish the sinner. That is what is called a “spiritual work of mercy.”
And let’s be honest: prophets are tough to listen to. It is even tougher when that prophet is our spouse or our coworker or a teenager. We dismiss their message; it can’t be true; they cannot know; God can’t be working through them. They are unpopular. And so we cry out: “Moses, my Lord, tell them to stop!” or “Jesus, we tried to stop that man from casting out demons….”
To which Jesus responds: “Do not prevent them.”
I know that many of our parishioners do not go to Holy Mass every Sunday. I know how many of our day school children and PSR children are not here every week. We need to live out our baptismal call that we received there *point to baptismal font* to prophecy like Jesus and to invite our friends—encourage them—to come to Jesus.
This is “giving them a cup of water,” that Jesus talks about. He calls it a “mighty deed done in my name.” And He says about those who do this, that they will not lose their eternal reward.
As we come before the Eucharist today, I know that we are being called to beg our Lord for mercy for our sins. We don’t want hell. We want mercy and heaven. And not just for us, but for everyone. And so we ask Him for strength to be prophets in the world—a world which needs to hear His voice and His love and peace. Let us bring these petitions before our merciful Lord. Amen.