The Seduction of Certainty

Deuteronomy 10.12-22

Psalm 119.1-8

1 Corinthians 3.1-9

Matthew 5.21-37

    ©Suzanne Grimmett

Often when I am confronted with someone who is insistent that God is a judge who one day will condemn some people (often certain groups of people) to eternal conscious torment, I wonder how they can ever sustain a belief that their God is a God of love, whose Word is ‘good news’.

And yet in today’s Gospel, we find quite a lot that seems like bad news- on Jesus’ lips we have three references to hell, repeated emphasis on judgement, some uncompromising condemnation of lust and adultery and some pretty harsh words about divorce.

It may seem that the good news is in short supply today.

But let us have a closer look. First of all I think we need to realise that when we hear hell we are associating it with a concept far removed from Jesus’ meaning. While it is a place for the condemned, there wasn’t even a word for hell as we understand it until the eighth century CE – Jesus actually refers to a place called Gehenna, which was a valley near Jerusalem.

In Jesus’ time it was where people threw their rubbish, to be burned in fires, but also a place which was referenced in scripture as a place of violence, and as far back in the book of Joshua, as a place of child sacrifice. It was also the place where in 70 CE the Romans threw the bodies of the Jewish people to be burned after the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple- a very graphic image of hell for the first gospel communities.

While scholars may disagree on why Jesus chose this image, it is clear that when his 1st century audience heard Jesus speak of Gehenna, they thought of a physical place where there were associations with horror and violence- particularly the kind of human violence that was abhorrent to the God of Israel. 

The images of the torments of hell that we have in our heads are a medieval construct which owes a lot to the art that was produced to illustrate such fearsome horrors.

Hell has become a word for us with specific linguistic and cultural connotations that just didn’t exist in first century Israel. 

Perhaps we would be wiser to look at the hell human beings create for themselves through all forms of violence if we are to understand what Jesus was referring to when he said that if we follow the violent impulses of our hearts we are liable to finish in the fires of Gehenna.

Why then has the Christian church been so hung up on these visions of eternal torture and punishment? I would say one reason was to maintain control and power- having the ability after all to threaten people with a lake of eternal fire is effective, but it has also been a way instilling certainty and confidence. See, if you do these things, say the right prayers, attend church, follow the right rules then you can earn the harp and the clouds of heaven. But disobey and you will get eternal conscious torment.  It simplified things. You knew where you stood and you could get on with life- if you slipped up and disobeyed any of the rules, you could always confess, or contribute more to the building fund.

Of course desiring this kind of certainty based on outward appearances is nothing new. In this passage Jesus addresses it directly, using examples of murder, adultery, divorce and oath-taking. “You have heard it said…” he begins, and then offers, “but I say to you…” thereby disputing the certainty with which good followers of the Law have been living their lives. As we heard last week, this is not Jesus doing away with the law, but rather following it to its natural fulfilment in a transformation of the heart. In doing this, Jesus extends and strengthens the law. Not just don’t murder, but don’t be angry or ridicule others. Not just don’t commit adultery, but don’t look upon another human being with lust. This is a higher righteousness- and one, that if we are honest- we will see that it is impossible to achieve.

We can no longer sit comfortably in the certainty of our righteousness in the eyes of the law because Jesus points to the condition of our heart where evil actions originate. When we nurse anger against another or when we degrade another by making them an object of lust, we kill the divine love that seeks to transform our relationships.

While we remain within our comfortable certainties that we are fulfilling the requirements of good living, we remain in an ego-centred, outer-directed focus that keeps us from attending to the divine movement of the Spirit to transform our hearts.

And Jesus knew that it was only in the transformation of hearts that true justice and compassion can be made manifest in the world. For you see, the ultimate fulfilment of the law is found in relationships transformed by love. This is why Jesus seems so hard on divorce.

But of course, for those who have suffered the pain of an unhappy or abusive marriage. These words are still confronting. Jesus offers an exception of porneia in the Greek – often translated as unfaithfulness or unchastity. However, the term is actually not that clear and could encompass a host of problems, with the result that the couple were not in a marriage made in heaven but were held in a partnership that actively does harm to one or both and to those unfortunately in proximity around them. The church in the past has done great harm in putting the institution of marriage before real people, making it an idol and doing untold harm to real lives. Loveless or abusive marriages do no honour to the parties involved nor to the community of Christ which depends on authentic relationships of integrity and truth.

I find it interesting that the apostle Paul, knowing Jesus’ teaching on divorce stated in Corinthians that, “If the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so; in such a case the brother or sister is not bound. It is to peace that God has called you” (1 Corinthians 7:15). Amy Jill Levine comments that, ‘A marriage that looks like a battlefield is not a marriage sanctioned by God’.[1]

Jesus calls us to relationships characterised by the same love and justice found in God’s relationship to us. We need to remember that just as Jesus holds up this high ideal, his teachings remind us that God is always close to the broken-hearted and the crushed in spirit. No one, after all, gets married with the intention of being divorced. We are reminded also, that all of us are guilty in our hearts of the same anger, lust and envy that destroys and poisons relationships.

Jesus’ condemnation is reserved for those who rely on outward conformity to rules while acting with cruel injustice;  those who judge others whilst harbouring violence in their own hearts. This is exactly why the reading from Deuteronomy talks about a circumcision of the heart- not just an outward physical circumcision in accordance with the law, but an entire life surrendered to the love of God and love of our neighbour.

Christianity then, invites us to embrace the complexity of living out the relationships of our lives with love and integrity. To conform to outward forms and rely on a checklist of ‘do’s and don’ts’ is the seduction of certainty.

The good news, however, is not about having all the answers. Rather, we are called to open our hearts to the Spirit’s work, bringing our darkness to light and the motivations we would prefer to keep hidden even from ourselves.

This makes us desperately unsure and vulnerable, but Jesus is telling us that this is the way. Just keeping up appearances can still lead us down the road to the hells we are so good at creating for ourselves.

The good news is that we can let go of our frenetic pursuit of outward perfection and rely instead on the righteousness of God in Christ.

We can be worried by hell and judgement, urgently striving to create our own worthiness by our actions, and obsessed with our own failures. But once we recognise that we have nothing to bargain with, nothing to trade for our salvation, then we can come with empty hands and discover the God who is already and always waiting to receive us with joy. 


[1] Levine, Amy-Jill. Sermon on the Mount (p. 37). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition.