Reflections on the Readings
Twenty-Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time - September 30, 2012 - Year B
The Final Damnation
It is better to enter into life missing a hand, or an eye, or even a foot that is causing you to sin than to be thrown into hell, (with all of your body parts) where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched. (my translation)
There is a child's chorus that almost any Christian of any stripe probably knows. Some of you may remember singing it as a child at VBS or Sunday School. The chorus will help us understand the exaggerated words of Jesus in today's gospel. If you haven't read the readings yet, please click on the convenient link above and read at least the Gospel.
The chorus I mentioned is the one that begins with: 'Oh, be careful little ears what you hear' as the children point to their ears. The verse concludes with: 'For the Father up above is looking down in love, so be careful little ears what you hear.' And then you start over pointing to the eyes singing, "Oh, be careful little eyes.' No part of the obvious anatomy is left out. The next verses will include the mouth, hands, and feet. And then with a little imagination other verses include, 'Oh, be careful little mind what you think,' or 'little heart what you love.'
Jesus talks about taking drastic measures to avoid sin. Cutting off the hand or foot or plucking out one's eye means to take seriously the sin that seeks our cooperation and participation. "It is better," Jesus says, "Living with one less eye, foot or hand, than to go to hell with all of your bodily parts intact."
What does Jesus mean?
He means we should take the Christian way of living seriously. I remember a Pentecostal evangelist of some fame say years ago, "There's no such thing as a little sin, just as there is no such thing as a little pregnancy." That little seed of misbehavior or wayward look or desire is deadly if it takes root. In his book, James talks about temptation and how it does not come from God. God cannot be tempted with evil and he does not tempt anyone. He is pure love and that means he will do no one any harm. But evil is real. And when anyone is tempted he or she is lured and enticed by an inner desire. "No one will see me," or "No one will ever know," we say to ourselves, little considering that God knows. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin; and sin when it is full-grown brings forth death. (James 1:13-15) Sometimes we find out too late that the Ten Commandments apply to everybody.
Sin damages us deep inside. It also brings destruction and separation from those we love. And most of all it separates us from God. Nothing has changed about how sin and the passions unleashed affect our relationship with God. Nothing has changed since the Garden. We, like Adam and Eve, hide from his presence. We might avoid parishioners or resist the Love calling us to be reconciled to God. The voice of God heard on that dreadful day in the Garden echoes to this day, "(insert your name,) Where are you?"
The Catholic Church teaches that the chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs. Anyone who dies in a state of mortal sin will descend into hell to suffer the punishments of hell, a place where the fire is never quenched.
What can we do?
The Church teaches us to make use of our God given freedom in view of our eternal destiny. We are called to 'work out our salvation with fear and trembling.' (Phil. 2:12) Cooperating with God and calling on his help and trusting his love is the work of grace. It's important business. It's important if you're a husband and a wife and have a family to help get to heaven. It's not automatic. We have an obligation to live our lives and lead our homes with an awareness that there is a Heaven to gain and a Hell to shun. Some folks believe once saved, always saved, and that it makes little difference what role faith and obedience to God plays in life afterwards. That's a kind of spiritual fire insurance not likely to hold water!
Christian life begins in baptism and makes us alive in God and to the things of the Lord. It is truly a spiritual transformation. I remember Brother Melvin testifying when I was a kid in the Pentecostal church. I can still see him in the rich memory I have of those days. He always sat on the east side of the church on the front slat bench pew with other men of the church. Standing up he would hold his hands behind his back. And then he would remind us all, "If I go to hell, I'll go as an intruder." He meant that if he were to turn away from the love of God and die in a state of mortal sin, it would not be God's fault or intention for him.
Brother Melvin recognized sinning deliberately, that is, to spurn the Savior of his soul would be to profane the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified and to outrage the Spirit of grace. That's taking faith and one's eternal destiny with an appropriate measure of humility and fear of the Lord worthy of the life scripture calls 'Christ in you'. (see Hebrews 10:26-31; Galatians 2:20)
Gehenna is a valley southwest of Jerusalem. Jesus refers to this place 11 times in the Gospels as indicative of hell. Originally, in Old Testament times it was the sight of a Canaanite cult where the worship of Baal and Molech occurred. This idolatrous worship included the sacrifice of children. In the time of Jesus and the New Testament it was a seething garbage dump where refuse burned constantly. Jesus used the imagery of this dump to highlight the fact that Hell is permanent separation from God accompanied with punishing fires like Gehenna. It is important to understand when speaking of this that God does not wish that any one should perish. Nor does God predestine any one to go to hell. Quite the opposite is the truth. He desires that all should find repentance and know his friendship within the Holy Trinity of Love. (see Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraphs 1033-1037)
In the Catholic Eucharistic Prayer #1 we hear this important reference to our eternal hope:
Therefore, Lord, we pray: graciously accept this oblation
of our service, that of your whole family; order our days
in your peace, and command that we be delivered
from eternal damnation and counted among
the flock of those you have chosen. Through Christ our Lord....
And everybody said, "Amen."
Dennis Hankins is a parishioner at Sacred Heart of Jesus Cathedral, of the Diocese of Knoxville, TN. Prior to his uniting with the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil 2006, Dennis served as a priest in the Charismatic Episcopal Church. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org His website is: www.dennishankins.com