Continued from Part 2.
5. What the Hell
As he entered Caper’na-um, a centurion came forward to him, beseeching him and saying, “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, in terrible distress.” And he said to him, “I will come and heal him.” But the centurion answered him, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, `Go,’ and he goes, and to another, `Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, `Do this,’ and he does it.” When Jesus heard him, he marveled, and said to those who followed him, “Truly, I say to you, not even in Israel have I found such faith. I tell you, many will come from east and west and sit at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.” (Matthew 8:5-12)
Why it’s mean
This is one of many, many times in the Gospels where Jesus talks about hell. Hell might be just about the meanest thing ever ever in ever, and the more you think about it the meaner it gets. I can’t even fully blame preachers for avoiding the topic. But the thing is, Jesus didn’t avoid it. So I can at least partially blame them, as if my blame means a damn thing to anyone. In the passage I chose, Jesus brings it up himself, completely out of nowhere, while he’s complimenting the centurion.
The most poignant detail in the image Jesus uses to describe the “outer darkness” is that there, men will “gnash their teeth.” I’ve always wondered why they gnash their teeth, and what that means. Is it out of fear? Are their teeth chattering, like cartoon animals caught in a hilariously large mousetrap? Or are they grinding their teeth like me on a stress-filled night where my insomnia won’t let me sleep because I’m too anxious about when the next season of Ozark is coming out? Or is it even worse, like the pain is so bad that their teeth-gnashing is somehow a reaction to their suffering?
Anyway, whatever it is, it sucks.
What it means
To really write this section, I’d need to have a full understanding of the depth of God’s Justice as well as his Mercy, which means I’d need to be God, and if I were God, the last thing I’d be doing is writing a blog post, so that logic just defeats itself.
So I’m back to guessing. Here’s the thing. Decent people do decent things because they’re decent people. There’s no reward in their mind, and no punishment they’re afraid of if they fail. That’s what John means when he writes:
There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and he who fears is not perfected in love. (1 John 4:18)
So ok, if you’re perfect, you do perfect things because of your perfection. But what if you’re kind of an @$$#0!&, like I am? What if perfection is far beyond the horizon? Do you just give up and accept your lot, and continue your life as the selfish bastard you are, becoming a more selfish bastard every day? Or should you try to change? But if you’re a selfish bastard, what would motivate you to change? If you had that motivation, you wouldn’t be such a selfish bastard to begin with. So again, the logic defeats itself.
Maybe fear of hell is the @$$#0!&’s temporary motivational fill-in for decency. Maybe at the beginning, when the selfish-bastardness is up at 99%, it’s the only thing that would work, but then gradually the @$$#0!&-meter moves down to 95, and there’s room for 5% decency. Another few months and maybe you’re reaching Batman v Superman levels on Rotten Tomatoes. After that, the sky’s the limit.
I might be totally wrong about this, and about everything I’ve ever said. But this is how laws are supposed to work, and even if fear of prison or punishment doesn’t always make people more decent, it does prevent plenty of crimes. And maybe that’s not so much ideal as necessary. And perhaps those preachers who shy away from the idea of hell, or water it down, or wonder (out loud) if maybe hell is empty, are doing us all an injustice, and ignoring something Jesus knew we, as a society, need. Or maybe they just love us all more than he did.
Jesus is realistic about human nature.
4. You are evil
“Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For every one who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. Or what man of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:7-11)
Why it’s mean
It’s one thing for Jesus to pick on the Pharisees who pretty much earned whatever was coming to them, or to condemn liars, or use a tree as a symbol. It’s another thing to call everyone evil. And yet, that’s exactly what Jesus does.
Let me repeat: Jesus said you’re evil. Matthew 7:11. The most convenient of verses.
What it means
I guess there are two possibilities: either Jesus wants to forever wreck the self-esteem of everyone who reads Matthew’s Gospel, or he wants us to trust God. Since Matthew’s Gospel also shows us Jesus saying “you are the light of the world,” there’s little evidence for the former.
Compared to God’s goodness, yeah we’re evil, just like compared to God’s Existence, we’re nothing. But why put ourselves and God in the same category at all? Isn’t that just a bad idea in general? We aren’t the same kind of thing God is. It’s like comparing apples and Omnipotent Creators of the Universe.
But Jesus isn’t the one who’s doing that – we are. When we are anxious about things in God’s control, or pray as if he needs convincing to take our side, or talk to him as if he just hasn’t quite yet figured out what’s best for us, we are not only putting God into the same category as ourselves, we’re putting him lower. That’s the wrong way to pray, and the wrong way to live.
We who are evil know how to take care of our kids. We wouldn’t give our son a snake when he asked for a fish, or a stone when he asks for bread, unless we wanted to be part of a hilarious Jimmy Kimmel Christmas prank, and even then only for the YouTube reaction video. In comparison to us, God is no comparison. We’re sort of good some of the time, and if even we wouldn’t have anything but the best interests of our kids in mind, why do we live with so much anxiety so much of the time?
Well, maybe it’s because we’ve gotten some snakes and stones before. That’s why the verse ends “how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him.” He gives good things, not what you ask for. That’s where trust becomes hard. If God were just a faithful butler bringing us whatever we want whenever we want it, maybe then we could trust in his loving Providence more easily. But that wouldn’t be much of a God – in fact, that would again be placing him equal to us or below us. So if we’re going to trust him, we’ll have to trust him as God, not as a butler.
Yes, there’s an Alfred joke in there, but I want to be respectful both of God and of Batman. You have to draw the line somewhere.
Jesus likes when we trust God.
3. You’ve had five
So he came to a city of Samar’ia, called Sy’char, near the field that Jacob gave to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and so Jesus, wearied as he was with his journey, sat down beside the well. It was about the sixth hour. There came a woman of Samar’ia to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” For his disciples had gone away into the city to buy food. The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samar’ia?” For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans. Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, `Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have nothing to draw with, and the well is deep; where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well, and drank from it himself, and his sons, and his cattle?” Jesus said to her, “Every one who drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, that I may not thirst, nor come here to draw.” Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come here.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, `I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and he whom you now have is not your husband; this you said truly.” (John 4:5-18)
Why it’s mean
First of all, I’m not even sure how well a man telling a woman “get me a drink” instead of “hello” would go over nowadays. But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that our culture isn’t the only culture that has ever existed, and that that wasn’t a sexist or rude way to begin a conversation.
Let’s also assume that the woman’s reply isn’t completely racist: “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” As usual, Jesus takes this opportunity for some theological reflection, and entices her with…super-water. Then she asks for some of that water so she doesn’t have to go to the well anymore. I, for one, find that supremely reasonable, since I often curse the day I was born when I have to walk 10 feet to the kitchen to get a drink.
Then it gets mean. Go, call your husband, and come here. Uhh… I have no husband? Right. You’ve had five. Also now you’re with a guy who isn’t your husband at all.
So having five husbands either means:
1. She had the worst luck in guys EVER.
2. She wasn’t the nicest gal to live with maybe.
3. She murdered her previous husbands.
Either way, Jesus is digging up her past and slamming it in her face. Pretty mean.
What it means
You might not believe this after reading this blog post, but the guy who thought about it and still decided to write “The 10 Meanest Things Jesus Said” actually has a couple friends. And I’m pretty grateful for the friends I have, for a lot of reasons. But one of the best reasons I have for being thankful for my friends is that they keep me grounded. Any time I get the temptation to think: “Yeah I’m a bigshot philosophy professor. PHILOSOPHY: THE MOST RESPECTED OF ALL DISCIPLINES TODAY,” all I need to do is talk to one of my friends and they’ll take the chip off my shoulder and shove it firmly up my @$$ where it belongs.
I remember one time we were in high school (is that still a thing?) and we were smoking cigarettes (is THAT still a thing?) in a Ford Ranchero (not a thing anymore) while driving to the park (?), and we got pulled over. So, being the brilliant moron I am, I panicked and put the cigarette out in the ashtray of the Ranchero. Unfortunately, my friend was doing the same thing at the time, so I ended up putting out the cigarette on his hand.
I am a moron.
And it’s a good thing for me to realize I’m a moron. Because the truth will set me free. So in order to keep me free, my friends enjoy reminding me of such incidents. And I remind them of the time three of us went to Pittsburg and drank a lot and one of them tried to do a backflip off a loading dock while the other one cheered him on.
Samaritans, Jews, Christians, priests, professors, Californians, Detroiters, presidents, hobos. All of us have a past where we did stupid garbage because of how stupid we were. All of us have a present where we continue the same garbage at least once or twice a week. All of us have a future that may or may not be any better. And God knows it. And he loves us anyway. And he gives us super-water (grace?). Even when we’re morons (always?).
So stop pretending to be all fancy-pants and better than the rest of us, Your Eminence Princess Fancy-Pants McGee, PhD.
Jesus likes when we stop being pretentious.
NEXT TIME: NICODEMUS AND PETER