Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
A priest was preparing a dying man for his voyage into the great beyond. Whispering firmly, the priest said, “Denounce the devil! Let him know how little you think of his evil!” The dying man said nothing, so the priest repeated his order. Still the man was silent. Finally, as the dying man was about to expend his last breath, the priest asked, “Why do you refuse to denounce the devil and his evil?” The man rasped, “Until I know where I’m heading, I don’t think I ought to aggravate anybody.”
Today’s sermon is based heavily on a sermon preached by the Rev. Barkley Thompson several years ago. I’m using a lot of what had to say in the sermon because a lot of it comes from ideas shared by author Rob Bell on topics like hell and judgment, something today’s gospel painfully addresses. So, some of what I will be sharing comes from Rev. Thompson, some from Rob Bell, and some of my own ideas associated with our challenging gospel text.
Gandhi in Hell?
In Bell’s book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, he says that he began thinking about hell when his Mars Hill Church hosted an art show on peacemaking. It included a photo of Mahatma Gandhi, and one of Bell’s congregants attached a sticky note to the picture that said, “Reality check: Gandhi’s in hell.” “Really?” thought Bell. Gandhi’s in hell?
He goes on to question whether God would make decisions about eternal salvation based solely upon whether or not one believes that Jesus is the savior of the world. Bell, to the surprise of many of his evangelical background, concludes that God wouldn’t. You might imagine that Love Wins has stirred great debate since its publication.
This heated conversation might pose two questions. The first is, “What do we make of hell?” and the second is, “Who goes there, and who doesn’t?” To the first question, many people find images of hell as a literal underground sulfurous pit full of writhing worms as outlandish as the image of God as a white-bearded old man in the sky. When they can no longer accept that image of God, they assume the only option is atheism. And when they can no longer accept the medieval artists’ devil-and-pitchfork renderings of hell, they give up the idea of hell altogether.
Images of Hell
But we must recognize that most details about hell are lacking in Scripture. In those passages that do explicitly mention it, the Greek word is Gehenna, which was an actual and well-known place to Jesus’ audience. It referred to the garbage pit outside the southwest corner of the old city of Jerusalem, which was forever smoldering and belching gas. It was a place where animals fought over scraps of food and gnashed their teeth. More importantly, Gehenna was outside the sustaining and protective walls of the city. It was the place where things were cast out, thrown away, forgotten. In our day and age, that association still resonates. What, after all, could conceivably be worse than being walled away from all that sustains us: from comfort, from empathy, from love? What could be worse than being utterly, completely alone? That is hell.
This resonates with a compelling image of hell presented by C.S. Lewis in his book The Great Divorce. Lewis imagines the damned as moving out further and further from all human and godly contact. They build solitary houses in the far outer darkness with only their own voices echoing off the walls to keep them company, detached and separated from all love. Total isolation.
A Parable for Whom?
Returning to today’s parable – to whom is it addressed? Is it non-Christians, those who have never heard the Gospel of Jesus or even those who have heard the Gospel but rejected it? No: “The kingdom of heaven is like a field sown with good wheat, but while everyone was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat…so when the plants came up and bore grain, the weeds appeared as well.”
Today Jesus focuses not on non-Christians at all but on professed ones. The problem, as Jesus presents it, is that not all who claim to know and love him actually do. They may cry his name loudly to the heavens, but their faith is inauthentic. And the problem is, it’s virtually impossible, by listening to their words, to tell the difference. Not to worry, Jesus says. Let the weeds grow alongside the wheat, lest you injure the good while trying to root out the bad. God knows the one from the other, and at the end of time God will deal with them.
Faith in Loving Action
What are we to make of this parable? I believe we are meant to draw the connection between faith and action. That is, authentic, life-giving faith is rooted in loving activity. We find this pattern in the gospel of Luke, when the Rich Man finds himself in hell because, in his apathy, he neglected the poor man at his feet. It is the same in the parable of the sheep and goats, when the goats—who claim to follow Jesus—find themselves in hell because they failed to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and give drink to the thirsty.
Faith includes first, foremost, and necessarily the passion to love the things God loves and to give ourselves to the things for which Jesus gave himself. Would it make any sense at all to say we love our children and then withhold all the actions that express that love? We’d call such a person sadistic. And when those who say they love Jesus do not act tangibly in love, they reveal themselves to be weeds among wheat. So, what happens to the ‘weeds’?
Love Requires the Freedom of Choice
I think most of us here believe that God doesn’t send these folks to hell. God loves everyone and wants more than anything in the world for those he loves to love. But love, by its very nature, does not coerce. God will not force any person to embrace God’s own passion for love. If, hiding behind the guise of being an upstanding Christian, one abuses others, takes advantage of others, and compromises others’ human dignity, God will, in love, allow that person to walk his own way. As C.S. Lewis says, God will say to that person, “Thy will be done.”
In other words, for Lewis, Bell, and many others, those in hell consign themselves there. They choose, as the greatest human tragedy imaginable, to live apart from the love of human beings and God. By a lifetime of decisions, they separate themselves from light and choose to live in darkness. It’s easy to see, then, that hell begins in this life, and whatever it may look like in the next life is merely an extension of the hell created here.
Hell as Eternal Damnation?
Does that hell last forever? Many, myself included, hope not. Today’s Gospel says that, in the end, “all causes of sin” will be burned away. My hope is that the fire of which Jesus speaks metaphorically is a refiner’s fire, and that through it even the worst tarnish can melt away and the image of God regain its luster. I see it as a fire of love, urging, provoking, irresistibly drawing all people into the divine embrace. It is a blessed thought: that eventually, if not in this life than somehow on the other side of the grave, God’s love would convince even the darkest soul, cracking through its hardened heart and welcoming it into God’s enveloping love. That can be our hope.
So, there is good news here, folks! It is good news that God will not, in the end, let hatred and evil have a place in God’s world. It is good news—the best news—that God is on the side of love and that all we need to do to grow strong and tall as wheat in God’s field is to be on the side of love, too, in our hearts and in our actions. No one who yearns to be loved by God and who has passion for the things God loves ever need fear hell (or condemn others to hell). So let us shine like the sun, cooperating with God to bring harmony where this discord, peace where there is conflict, and hope where there is despair. Both in this life, and in the next. Thanks be to God!