s049g11 Sunday 16 17/7/2011
'weeping and gnashing of teeth' Matthew 13.42
I must admit that I don't believe in hell. I find it inconceivable for a God of love to have any interest in punishing those who do not measure up, those who do not call the divine by the correct name, or do not worship in the manner to which I personally have become accustomed. Simply inconceivable!
One of the iconic 20th century songs is the 1989 hit of Cher, singing 'If I Could Turn Back Time' and the video of her, scantily clad, sitting astride the barrel of gun on the battleship USS Missouri, surrounded by adoring sailors. I confess some of the allusions escape me, but as the title of the song tells us, it is primarily a song of regret, regret that the singer didn't see love when it was so plainly in sight.
So also for me, weeping and gnashing of teeth primarily is a sign of regret, a realization that the person didn't see love when it was so plainly in sight. Weeping and gnashing of teeth is regret that a person didn’t see that they were loved along with complete outsiders who are also accepted, included and loved.
There is no question that the most over-used of psalms is psalm 23, which finds its way into almost everything from marriages to funerals. Yet I wonder how many consider the words: 'You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies' to be a sure recipe for those enemies to weep and gnash their teeth as they gaze on God waiting at the table of the marriage feast of the Lamb. The orthodox and the devout will indeed weep and gnash their teeth having to see God wait at the table of the ungodly. They have missed out on something, and they had missed out on something precisely because it was offered to all and not just to themselves. The weeping and gnashing of teeth, is for me not something God intends for anyone, but those who think that blessedness is restricted to them and the members of their holy huddle, weep and gnash their teeth that others are there too. The psalm speaks of the delicious revenge that those admitted will enjoy seeing their enemies having to behold their exalted status. This does not seem to me to be an especially 'christian' or charitable wish!
And if eternal life, if it really is actually something useful for people, is something that is here and now – not ‘pie in the sky when you die’, so hell is not ‘fire and brimstone’ when we die, but weeping and gnashing of teeth in this life when those in their holy huddle realise that they are not the only ones who are loved.
I think it is interesting that weeds are just a normal part of creation, except that they are especially hardy and prolific and so they push more delicate plants out of the way. And cancers are the same, just ordinary human cells that for some reason become rampant, and so, life threatening to others, and consequently to the whole body.
And we have to contend with the possibility that humanity is having this effect on our creation. So many other species on this planet have become extinct because we have become so prolific. I do not know the answer to the question of how we can redress the balance, but simple human intelligence makes us start to consider the sort of world we will be bequeathing our children and grandchildren.
But when we look at this in the religious sense, and the frequent clashes Jesus had with the orthodox and the devout, we see that these are the weeds – precisely those who want to sideline others and take over the world with those of their own holy huddle. So we don't have to speculate what eternal life looks like – Jesus lived it freely associating with, welcoming and accepting all, the tax collectors, prostitutes and sinners – all from Simon the Pharisee to Simon the leper. And neither do we have to speculate what hell looks like, for it is precisely the state that the devout and the orthodox brought upon themselves as they were scandalised by what Jesus did and who Jesus was.
Weeping and gnashing of teeth is a refusal to see that love is not something that is ever at the expense of someone else. The devout and the orthodox believed that the love of God for them was at the expense of the poor and the outcast. 'Of course' God must love them more than others because they spent their lives fulfilling the proper religious devotion. And this is as true for many 'christians' who believe that 'no one comes to the Father but by their interpretation of who Jesus is' – which interpretation is fundamentally exclusive rather than inclusive.
Religion ('christianity' as much as any other) that divides people into camps is inherently demonic. Religion that brings people together is inherently of god.
And we can see this being played out again and again. In Christchurch following the earthquakes and the damage to both the Catholic Basilica and the Anglican Cathedral, people have been asking why do we still need two Cathedrals. I know that the Anglican one was always a place of prayer for all people and I am sure that the Catholic Basilica was not a place where others were ever excluded. But some years ago all hell broke loose when a gifted artist made a fabulous red Altar frontal for the Anglican Cathedral for Pentecost with some Sanskrit writing woven into the design. Some of the devout and the orthodox were scandalised and I believe threatened to secede from the diocese if it was used. So I can well understand the reticence of the diocese if such a multi-faith building was actually seriously considered – all hell would break loose! Sadly, of course, people bring it on themselves – and they think that this is God's doing – they have all the scriptural warrant to back up their belief.
And so what is our task in this? It is simply to follow Jesus and to demonstrate by our lives and actions that God loves others as much as God loves us. I was fascinated to meet a member of the Subud community here in Christchurch. His motto is 'Row, row, row your boat gently down the stream.' While I know nothing more about Subud teaching, this seems a good goal for a healthy life. Such contentment is an acquired skill however, and like all good things, comes only with practice.
Unfortunately some lectionaries miss out the verses 31-35 where Jesus compares the kingdom to the yeast the woman uses to leaven the flour. This is such a homely allusion until we realise that for his audience (and remember these words are directed towards the orthodox and the devout) leaven is the unclean contaminate. During the Passover celebrations the house had to be swept and cleaned to remove any taint of yeast. From Exodus 12: 'In the first month, from the evening of the fourteenth day until the evening of the twenty-first day, you shall eat unleavened bread. For seven days no leaven shall be found in your houses; for whoever eats what is leavened shall be cut off from the congregation of Israel, whether an alien or a native of the land. You shall eat nothing leavened; in all your settlements you shall eat unleavened bread.' (18 – 20) So Jesus turns this completely around and says that the kingdom is the leavening, the making unclean of that which is pure. And once done, the yeast cannot be removed. The flour cannot be made pure ever again. No wonder there was weeping and gnashing of teeth, for the entire religious perceptions of the devout and the orthodox were being contradicted and nullified. They were indeed in a hell of their own making and they could not extricate themselves from it, for the only means of escaping the prison was to accept that others were loved as much as themselves, and that they would not do. They would, and indeed did, kill rather than do that!
And it seems that our receiving the Holy Communion, to eat human flesh and to drink the blood is nothing an orthodox and devout person would actually ever contemplate doing. It goes against the whole teaching of the holiness code of Leviticus. Any pretence that we as 'christians' are special – is ruled out.
Jesus invites us and all people to live lives without regret, to accept ourselves and others, because we and others are accepted on precisely the same terms, we are just fallible human beings. This seems to me to a far more happy invitation to accept than the invitation to a façade of separateness that inevitably will lead to a life of recrimination and regret.