Gehenna! … Gehenna! Like ourselves the citizens of Jerusalem were careful to dump their rubbish out of sight and out of mind. Do you know where your daily refuse goes? All those embarrassing reminders of consumption and packaging and waste? Rotting and un-rot-able alike. As far away as possible we hope. Out of nose range.
Jerusalem’s trash went to Gehenna. At least it did once upon a time. To Gehenna, just down the hill from the Holy City’s heights. Gehenna where the fires smoldered constantly. No wonder God-forsaken, un-kosher, Gehenna became the image for hell.
So here’s Jesus getting all riled up over justice again. “Better to live missing an eye than go open-eyed into Gehenna. Better be crippled in the kingdom than go leaping and dancing into hell.” And the sin he’s giving out over: giving scandal to the little ones. And by that he doesn’t mean making children blush. He means all we do that makes it harder for the little ones—the poor, the hungry, the hidden, the hurting—harder for them to believe that God is good, that God cares.
It is so hard to listen to James condemn the rich because by his standards we all are condemned. Just living here in California condemns us. We might be poor here and still out-eat the world’s starving. We might be scorned here but still outrank the world’s despised. Without trying we make it harder for the little ones to believe God cares. Do they even get a mention in the race for president? War does, security and prosperity do. But the ones we waste?
And all the time there’s Gehenna, the world’s dump, the world’s hell. The waste we have to discard to keep on growing. The expendable poor our great nation is built upon. The bargains we have made for our livelihood.
But we don’t remember making those bargains. We didn’t mean to harm anyone. And—God help us!—we don’t know how to undo the damage. That’s the scandal. “Scandal” used to mean the thing you fell over that sprung the trap, the trigger, the trip-wire. We are trapped by our own desire for life. And we are snared because we do not know how to be free. The price of freedom seems too steep: “better to cut your foot off and than be trapped in Gehenna.”
Enough of the melodrama, already! The Jews may be obsessed with cleanliness and kosher laws but isn’t it going a bit far to make the town dump into hell?! I mean why get guilty over a natural process, over ordinary waste, over the inevitable cost of human living?
There is a reason. Gehenna haunts the imagination for more than being a garbage pile. Gehenna holds a guilty secret. Before it was a dump for a city’s refuse it was a place of sacrifice. Once upon a time it was where the children were taken and offered to the flames to satisfy a hungry god. Not that long ago. Among the ashes of rot and refuse the bones of little ones. Not that long ago.
And there’s the echo for us, the accusation. Are our dreams are built on a graveyard? All the sacrificial victims of our security and prosperity. All the little ones.
At the centre of Rosh Hashanah is Abraham’s scandalous sacrifice of Isaac. Who is more trapped in that story? Isaac bound to the altar with rope… or Abraham bound to murder by his fear of a hungry god?
All Abraham wanted was the prosperity promised him—the descendants as many as the stars, the lands, the flocks, the renown. All we want is what think we need.
Once upon a time the citizens of Jerusalem sacrificed their little ones because they thought it would win prosperity from a hungry God. We still don’t know a way out of that trap, that scandal.
Or maybe we do. In Jewish tradition you can only seek forgiveness from the person you have wronged. But how can the little ones forgive us when they are out of sight and out of mind, when they are buried? We believe there is one little one who will not refuse us. Jesus himself. Somehow Jesus frees us from the economy of wasted lives. But only by becoming the ultimate child-sacrifice. The little one to end all little ones. We wasted him. His bones are in Gehenna. And because he is there we never need to be there ourselves. On behalf of all the wasted little ones he sets us free once and for all.
But it does take some action on our parts. A Jewish custom for these days of Rosh Hashanah is to go and find a pool of water, a river, an ocean. Somewhere the fish swim freely. And there to empty your pockets into the water. It’s a double symbol. You throw away all the year’s sin, all its wasted hopes, all its unnecessary sacrifices. The fish carry them away. But you also leave with empty pockets. Poor with the poor. Little with the little ones. And you say thank you to God for all you have been given in giving it all away.
Add comment October 29th, 2000