This reading comes from what we call The Sermon on the Mount. Matthew starts off this
piece with the Beatitudes, the blessings of those who society thought were beyond
blessing. Jesus blesses the poor and grieving, the hungry and merciful, the
peacemakers and the persecuted. Then Jesus moves into the longest teaching
discourse we have. Jesus teaches about anger and about lust and about divorce and
about swearing, and he teaches about retaliation and loving enemies and giving to the
needy. He teaches about prayer and fasting and worry and money and forgiveness.
Three times in the whole of his teaching his language includes a warning against being
thrown into “hell.”
From today we hear the first one,
“if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment;
and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council;
and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.”
Hell of fire for saying, “you fool”? Wow, that seems a bit strong don’t you think? What’s
up with that? Part of our problem we have with hearing this verse is this notion of ‘hell’
has been hijacked by the Christian church. When we hear this, we hear a very different
meaning than what the first century Judaism of Jesus knew. Predominant Christian
concept of hell and damnation that we think of today developed with Augustine four
hundred years after Jesus. Jesus wasn’t talking about Augustinian notion of hell that
most people today conceptualize. We have to go to his context to understand his words.
The Hebrew texts (Old Testament) that Jesus knew refers to Sheol; it is the place of the
dead. It’s the place where the dead sleep. It is not a place of punishment for all eternity
and not a judgment from God. It’s what happens; it’s the Jewish concept of death since
the afterlife was not part of their theology.
In the Christian scriptures written about Jesus (New Testament: some 40-70 years after
Jesus’ death), there are two words that are translated as “Hell” in the English version:
Hades and Gehenna.
Hades is the place of the dead or death – again, not a place of punishment for all
eternity and not a judgement from God.
Gehenna is literally a place ,but it’s not in the underworld. It’s on the map. It is the valley
just to the south of Jerusalem. In the Hebrew scriptures (2 Kings 23,) it’s called the
Valley of Ben-Hinnom. The Valley of Bin Hinnom (Gehenna) was an ancient place in
Israelite history where people sacrificed their children as burnt offerings on altars. When
the Israelites later determined that sacrificing their children was not pleasing God, Gehenna was condemned as an unclean place because it was defiled by the blood of
By the first century, Jesus time, tradition has it that the same place, south of Jerusalem
had become the town dump and crematorium. It was rumored that this valley was so
deep, the pit was bottomless and the fires burned always to consume the dead
carcasses and trash of Jerusalem.
Gehenna became a metaphor. Gehenna was outside the city gates; it was outside the
community. So talking about people being in Gehenna was talking about being outside
community, outside the place where God dwelt (temple). People in Gehenna were in a
living Hell separated from community and separated from God. In rabbinical teachings,
the maximum time anyone would be sent to live in the valley of impurity was one year
(even then, they were always to be released on Sabbaths for worship). Gehenna was
not a place of eternal punishment – certainly not a damnation from God.
Jesus doesn’t teach that God sends naughty people to hell fire for all eternity. In
context of this Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is reinterpreting Jewish law. He says over
and over “you have heard it said to the people long ago .. do not murder, do not commit
adultery, do not break your oath, and eye for an eye, love your neighbor and hate your
enemies.” (Matt 5) Jesus recites the common laws and expectations of his culture.
Each time, he offers a new interpretation a new understanding when he contrast the old
with “but I say to you” sayings. He goes from a focus on the letter of the ancient laws, to
a focus on how our actions affect our hearts. He asks people to look at our behaviors
not just by what is permitted by law, but by what our behaviors do to our hearts, how our
behaviors shape our relationships, how our outward actions reflect our core identity.
You’ve heard it said, ‘ do not murder’, but I say don’t even harbor anger in your heart.
Don’t use words that insult and harm others for those words reveal the nature residing
within you. Don’t demean others with curses or disrespect for not only do those words
hurt others- they spring out of you; therefore, they hurt you as well. Jesus was so much
more concerned about the groundedness of our being in love and compassion and
care for one another than he was about just following a rule.
Jesus isn’t threatening people with God who is waiting or eager to send people to a fire
of hell for all eternity- that was nowhere in his theology. Jesus is admonishing people to
live grounded in the God who loves and the God who lives within all in love.
I don’t believe in a theological hell of God’s making, but there are plenty of hells we
humans have fashioned for ourselves. Gehenna is that place where we are distanced
from one another, separated from Creation and withdrawn from our Creator. There are
plenty of people who live in Gehenna on earth. There are those who live with addictions
that are so great and so strong they fall into destructive behaviors bringing hell upon
themselves and those who love them. There are those who live with anger so deep with
in them, that they lash out and hurt those they love. The there are those who live in the
hell of relationships of abuse and violence, of disrespect. There are those who live in the poverty of spirit and those who live in the poverty of this world who do not know
where or when they will eat again. There are those who do no do not have warm beds
and safe places to lay their heads at night. There are hells alright, the hell that we’ve
created out of societies of injustice and inequalities and oppression and violence and
disrespect for the earth.
We can all live in our personal hells, and we can inflict them on others, and we can
create them in our society as well. We have seen plenty of them over the news. The
racial discrimination that has come to the forefront in national news is a hell of our
society. Closer to home, last Sunday, the Islamic Center of Omaha was vandalized
when two men threw a large stone through their glass doors. It was a stone of hatred
and fear and ignorance. People forget that the God of Jesus, is the God of Moses and
Jacob, is the God of Abraham, is the God of Ishmael and the God of Muhammad, is the
One God of all. In our tribal divisions of language and culture, we have forgotten that we
are all of one family. A stone of hatred thrown at any one of us hurts all of us and tears
at the fabric of God’s family. Jesus warns that we cannot hurt others without hurting
ourselves also. Racism, violence, anger, hatred, hells are not of God. It is God who
sees us through them. It is the Divine which works through us to transform the places of
Gehenna we humans have created for ourselves and one another filled with suffering
Our culture is filled with voices. Voices that claim to speak on behalf of Christians who
erect walls of separation from our neighbors. Voices that claim to speak on behalf of
Christians who point fingers and ostracize and threaten fires of hell to those who do not
believe as they do. Those same Voices endorsed slavery, and subjugated women,
Those voices carried swastikas and burned crosses, those voices persecute Muslims.
Those are voices that the world hears as “Christian”.
That is why your voice is needed. The world needs you to be a voice that shares a
message that God is not trying to send people to hell, and the Christian church is not
the holder of the magic words that all must recite to stay out of hell, and that our
brokenness does not make us unacceptable to God. The people you know, your friends,
your co-workers, your family, the people on your child’s soccer team, your neighbors
need to hear a new message of Christ that is nothing but love. Your voice is so
important because the voices of violence and revenge, of prejudice and hatred, of
divisions and fear are shouting so loudly in our culture. Our voices must shout out just
as loudly for justice and peace and mercy integrity and care for all people and all
Our voices must become as loud as strong. Our voices must be strong enough to
overcome hundreds of years of other voices pronouncing privilege and hate. Our voices
must be the voices that all can hear when they’re living in these artificial Gehennas of
this world. Others that you know need to hear the message of Grace and love. That’s
the message that Jesus taught. That’s the message that Jesus lived. That’s the
message that Jesus died proclaiming. Your voice can be the voice to offer hope into the
world. May it be so.