Jesus is talking to his inner circle and continuing to challenge their assumptions about leadership and its privileges. We heard some of that last week. This week he says some pretty harsh sounding, frightening things, but we need to remember that all of these are addressed to his future Apostles, to people who might easily abuse their status as leaders.
First, he tells them that they can’t prevent “outsiders” from acting out God’s beloved community (aka, the reign or “kingdom” of God) on their own terms. God is not working exclusively through just one faith community.
Then he warns them of dire consequences if they use their authority to abuse the “little ones” in their own community. Think of all the stories of clergy abuse coming to light almost every day. How angry do you feel about ministers who abuse children? Or what about ministers who take emotional advantage of adults who turn to them fore care and guidance? Why shouldn’t we be outraged at these abuses? Surely we can appreciate Jesus’ outrage here.
Yes, he uses exaggerated language in his warnings: better to cut off limbs, to tear out eyes, so as not to stumble. If he had meant that literally, all the disciples would have needed wheelchairs and seeing-eye dogs within the week. The college-level term here is “hyperbole” (not to be confused with a geometric curve; that’s a hyperbola—the different spelling matters). It’s like the Zen saying, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” (If you’ve never heard that one, here’s more about it.) But hyperbole aside, Jesus IS saying that, if you find yourself tempted to abuse power entrusted to you, do whatever it takes to put a stop to it. Be unsparing. It’s that serious.
And he’s implying that the rest of us have every right to put a stop to abuse too. Whatever it takes. You should know that nowadays our sponsoring Episcopal and Lutheran Churches have established channels for safely reporting clergy abuse. So if you see it happening to you or to somebody else, you can contact the offices of either Bishop (in my Diocese contact the Title IV Intake Officer). Yes, they will investigate quietly at first, but they are required by canon law to ensure that justice is done. (We also have canons for removing abusive Bishops—nobody is exempt from accountability.)
One more issue this passage raises is the popular perception that Jesus is threatening people with hell. In fact, that’s how most English translations read here.
But actually, there’s no word in the Bible that means “hell” as most of us understand it today. There’s Sheol (Hebrew) and Hades (Greek), the shadowy realm of the dead. There’s Tartarus (mentioned only once in 2 Peter 2:4), where the Greek gods imprisoned the Titans. And then there’s the word Jesus uses here: Gehenna. This literally refers to a fiery garbage dump outside the walls of Jerusalem.
Here’s what evangelical New Testament scholar N. T. Wright says about Gehenna:
“The most common New Testament word sometimes translated as ‘hell’ is Gehenna. Gehenna was a place, not just an idea: it was the rubbish heap outside the south-west corner of the old city of Jerusalem … The point is that when Jesus was warning his hearers about Gehenna he was not, as a general rule, telling them that unless they repented in this life they would burn in the next one. As with God’s kingdom, so with its opposite: it is on earth that things matter, not somewhere else.” (Found here)
So in other words, Jesus is warning of dire consequences for those who abuse power and harm the most vulnerable. But the consequences are this-worldly, not other-worldly. And in a way, they’re self-fulfilling. If you would-be leaders care for and empower the most vulnerable among you, you have already entered into life, into God’s beloved community. If you use your power to abuse them, you are already in Jerusalem’s city dump, “where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.” You are blocking the love of God, hindering the new life this love brings.
Leaders are accountable to the most vulnerable. Myself included. Let’s hold them, and us, to no less than that standard.