Sometimes it takes a startling image to reveal the truth about our lives; especially the hard truths we would rather avoid. Among modern storytellers, perhaps no one understood this better than Flannery O’Connor. The characters in her stories are often physically deformed in some way, strange and ugly people who mirror what is strange and ugly in all of us. She used provocative, even violent, stories to express the depth of our need – and desire – for healing and redemption.
Commenting on her own work, O’Connor once said, “I use the grotesque the way I do because people are deaf and dumb and need help to see and hear.” Paul Nuechterlein helpfully suggests that we read these hard sayings of Jesus in the same way: an intentional use of grotesque imagery in an attempt to shock his disciples into understanding his teaching. The Gospel of Mark is full of metaphors of seeing and hearing, underscoring the irony that while Jesus heals those who are blind, deaf, and mute, his disciples remain unable to see and hear what he his about.
Jesus raises the stakes in this part of the narrative, invoking images of self-inflicted dismemberment and unquenchable fire to get through to his disciples – and to us. What is it that drives Jesus to such extreme language? Not to put too fine a point on it, what in the hell is he talking about? “Hell” is the interpretative key that unlocks the meaning of these hard sayings.
The word “hell” in this passage corresponds to the Hebrew ben Hinnom, rendered in Mark’s Greek as Gehenna. Ben Hinnom is not a metaphysical place of eternal punishment. It is a notorious valley (Valley of the Son of Hinnom) southwest of Jerusalem that abuts the Kidron Valley. It is notorious because it was the place where children were sacrificed to the god, Molech, as recorded in the Book of Kings (II Kings 23:10) The prophet Jeremiah also described the practice and its consequences.
For the people of Judah have done evil in my sight, says the Lord; they have set their abominations in the house that is called by my name, defiling it. And they go on building the high pace of Topheth, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire – which I did not command, nor did it come into my mind. Therefore, the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when it will no more be called Topheth, or the valley of the son of Hinnom, but the valley of Slaughter: for they will bury in Topheth until there is no more room. The corpses of this people will be food for the birds of the air, and for the animals of the earth; and no one will frighten them away. (Jeremiah 7:30-33)
Note that, for Jesus, “hell” refers to an actual place of suffering created by human beings. It signifies the final denouement of a violent culture that is consummated in the willingness to sacrifice even children to the false gods we worship. Note, however, that the true God, the Lord, has nothing to do with it – God did not command it, nor did it even occur to God. This consuming fire is of human creation. The threat of hell is not God’s punishment, but rather the inevitable consequence of the self-destructive cycle of human envy and rivalry.
Jesus evokes this grotesque imagery precisely in the context of his instruction to his disciples to welcome children and his warning not to put any stumbling block in their way. Earlier, Jesus had embraced a child as a counterpoint to the disciples’ rivalry amongst themselves to become the greatest of his followers. He lifts up the vulnerability of the child as an icon of God that is opposed to the disciples’ attempts to use God as the justification of their desire for dominance.
Now the action moves from the internal rivalry among the disciples to their rivalry with other factions within the Jesus movement. John wants to stop someone who is casting out demons in Jesus’ name, but who isn’t following them. Rather than condemning this unnamed rival, Jesus commends him for exercising power to set people free instead of using power to dominate others, and assures the disciples that even the simplest act of refreshing the thirsty, who bear the name of Christ, will have its reward.
The disciples remain focused on greatness, while Jesus continues to underscore the value of humble service. The disciples want invincible success. Jesus points the way to healing through accepting and honoring human vulnerability. He emphatically warns them against putting any stumbling block before the little ones who trust him.
Jesus understands the grave danger that comes with our desire to be number one. It leads to envy of those who possess what we want, and rivalry with others in pursuit of our desire. Envy and rivalry cut us off from God and from others, to the point that we becoming willing to sacrifice others – even our children – in the pursuit of our desire. We no longer see the other as bearing the name of Christ.
Here, Jesus touches on the root of the violence of our culture. When we come to see others as objects blocking the fulfillment of our desires, our greed and envy blind us to their humanity. No longer perceiving the humanity of the other, we willingly sacrifice them so that we can be the greatest or, at least, feel more secure. From the teasing and bullying that haunts our playgrounds and classrooms, to the risk taking with the economic well being of others that pervades our markets and boardrooms, to the global warming that undermines access to food and water, the god Molech goes by many names, to whom the lives of vulnerable children and adults are sacrificed daily. The fires of ben Hinnom have not yet been quenched.
Jesus rightly points out that those who practice sacrificial violence will finally be destroyed by it themselves. The fires of ben Hinnom are not limited to the vulnerable children; the poor; the disposable people. This cycle of violence threatens to consume the planet itself. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. prophetically recognized so many years ago, “It is no longer a choice, my friends, between violence and nonviolence. It is either nonviolence or nonexistence.”
Such apocalyptic violence is the consequence of human choice, and Jesus invites us to choose differently. Rather than sacrificing others, cutting ourselves off from them and God, he invites us to cut off the hand that grasps in greed, the foot that tramples on the vulnerable, the eye that envies what others possess. Jesus teaches us to sacrifice our distorted desires, to let go of the fear that drives our greed and envy, and instead, like little children, entrust ourselves to the care of God.
Hell is not inevitable. The valley of ben Hinnom can become a smoking wasteland, or it can become a blooming garden. It comes down again and again to whether or not we see vulnerability as something to exploit, or as an invitation to recognize our mutual dependency and intrinsic connection. This is, I think, why Jesus turns to the image of the child, because children represent so clearly both the risk and promise of our response to human vulnerability. Our fear and disdain of vulnerability is so great, our mechanisms for masking and exploiting it are so entrenched, that Jesus resorts to the grotesque imagery of child sacrifice to wake us up to the truth of both the risk and promise.
Vulnerability can be exploited; it can expose us to trauma and abuse. That is the real risk. Yet, even when its fragility has been dishonored, when the risk makes us want to close down and close off from God and the world, when we are tempted to repeat the patterns of violence that have formed us, there is that of God within us that desires connection.
I was poignantly reminded of this truth while watching the movie, The Perks of Being a Wallflower. The film beautifully captures the risk and promise of vulnerability in a coming of age story that is both grotesque and redemptive. Charlie, a painfully shy high school freshman, is deeply in love with his friend, Sam, a senior, who has taken him under her wing.
Sam, however, is unable to reciprocate his love. She re-enacts the victimization of a childhood trauma with a series of young men who reinforce her sense of inferiority. She seems unable to experience vulnerability as anything other than a threat.
Unbeknownst to her, Charlie carries his own dark secret; yet, he is slowly, painfully coming to see that vulnerability holds the promise of connection, that such connection can be a source of healing as well as means of violation. He desperately wants to share this healing with Sam, and cannot understand why she does not desire it too.
Charlie musters the courage to ask his English teacher, Bill, why people choose to be in relationships with people who don’t genuinely care about them. Bill wisely asks, “Do you have someone in particular in mind?” “Yes,” Charlie reluctantly admits. Bill considers Charlie’s question carefully before replying, “We accept the love we think we deserve.”
God comes to us in Jesus as one who has experienced fully the risk and promise of vulnerability. He wants desperately to share the healing power of love that makes the risk worth the promise. And he wants to share it with someone in particular – with you. Don’t settle for the love you think you deserve. God desires so much more for you and for me. The promise of vulnerability is that it opens us to give and receive the love that sustains the world: restoring even the ruins of the valley of ben Hinnom. The promise is worth the risk. Amen.