I was hoping the missile launched by James today might whiz by me and skewer some other hapless target. After all who’s rich? Bill Gates. David Beckham. Queen Elizabeth. Not me. Not you.
But here’s James’ description of the rich: they have stuff enough to store; they have enough to live in comfort; they have enough economic clout to drive a hard bargain; they have blood on their hands.
The first three make me wriggle a little. The last shakes me to the core. Because globally speaking I know I am rich and I know I’m part of a world economy that coolly sacrifices the distant poor for my sake. I’m not bringing in the big bucks but I’m wound into the web of it all. And I don’t know a way out. I do have blood on my hands. And James sees that double tragedy: first the sacrificed poor and the world we ravage for profit and fear; and second we who buy our safety only to find we have bought a corrosive fire to eat at our souls.
Gehenna. Gehenna or life, says Jesus: choose. Gehenna is hell. Where the fires never go out. That was meant literally because Gehenna was the Holy City’s dump where all the rubbish was taken for burning and burial. A perfect image for a Jewish hell—the stink, the flames, the sheer un-kosher-ness of it all. Yet after all a city’s commerce has to make some waste, every economy has its costs… There’s a darker memory to disturb us though, buried layers deep, from generations ago when the valley of Gehenna was where Jerusalem took its children to sacrifice to satisfy a hungry God. Past and present, the prosperity of Jerusalem was built on the bones of its slaughtered children, the little ones, the expendable, the poor.
That’s indeed an image for hell. But it’s an image for our daily life and trade too. Just beneath the surface of our struggle and our comfort, our prudence and our profligacy, underneath our economic life there is a sacrifice. A price we pay—or let others pay—for our security.
Is there no way out of that? No way to live justly? No way to wash the blood from our hands?
Jesus seems to say there is. At least he offers that choice: Gehenna or life…
Security and sacrifice both stand on fear. But James and Jesus seem to see differently: what we think makes us safe is what we should be fearing. And what we do fear— a threatening future or a God who wants sacrifice —is all an illusion. Let go your hold, Jesus seems to say, and trust the God who holds you safe. He even did it for us first—let go and lived free—even to the point of death.
What would the world be like if we took him at his word?