Homily for February 23rd, 2017: Mark 9:41-50.
AIf your hand causes you to sin,@ Jesus says, “cut it off. ... And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. ... And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out.@ How can Jesus say such things? He is not encouraging us to maim ourselves. He is using hyperbole: deliberate exaggeration for the sake of effect. We use hyperbole all the time. In my early childhood a dearly loved aunt used to say to me, when she thought I was over-eating: AJay, if you eat any more, you=ll burst.@ At age five I had never heard of hyperbole and couldn’t have told you what the word meant. I knew I wouldn=t burst. But I had no difficulty understanding that my aunt wanted me to ease up on the food intake.
What is Jesus= real point? He is telling us that if we are serious about being his followers, our commitment to him must be total. We must be willing to sacrifice even things as dear to us as hands, feet, and eyes. Taking Jesus= language literally would make God into some kind of sadistic monster. The God whom Jesus reveals is a God of love.
But this raises a further difficulty. How could a loving God condemn people to the eternal punishment indicated by Jesus= words about going Ainto Gehenna, into the unquenchable fire@? Gehenna was well known to all Jesus= hearers. It was a deep ravine outside
previously the site of idolatrous rites in which children were made to pass
through fire. It thus became a symbol for hellfire. Hence the difficulty B Jerusalem
How can a loving God condemn anyone to eternal punishment B to hell? The answer may surprise you. God does not condemn anyone to hell. If there is anyone in hell B and the Church does not tell us whether there is, while firmly insisting, with the Bible, that hell is a possibility and a reality B then it is because they have freely chosen hell for themselves. The Catechism is clear on this point: ATo die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God=s merciful love means remaining separated from him for ever by our own free choice. This definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called >hell.= ... God predestines no one to go to hell; for this, a willful turning away from God (a mortal sin) is necessary, and persistence in it until the end.@ (Nos. 1033 & 1037, emphasis supplied.) The judgment that God will pronounce on each one of us at the end of our lives is not the adding up of the pluses and minuses in some heavenly account book. It is simply God=s ratification of the judgment we ourselves have pronounced by the fundamental choice we have made throughout our lives.