Today’s Gospel is a lesson on how to go to Hell. We are being given a sermon by Christ Himself – and He is serious!
Have you deliberately insulted a fellow Christian by calling that person a fool? You will answer for it in hellfire.
Have you failed to restrain lust in your life? You will answer for it in hellfire.
I wish Our Lord hadn’t said those things. It would make my job as a preacher much easier. I could stand up here and say: “Don’t worry folks! God loves us all! We’re all going to heaven, and we’ll all live happily ever after.” But that wasn’t quite the message Jesus came to bring.
If we look later in St Matthew’s Gospel, in chapter 18, we find Our Lord repeating his warning that we must cut off our eye, hand or foot if any of these cause us to sin. He means, of course, that we should cut off the behaviour, rather than the limb, but the meaning is clear: If you’re going somewhere you shouldn’t go – if you’re touching something you shouldn’t touch – if you’re looking at something you shouldn’t look at – STOP IT! Stop it right now, and cut it off for good, or face the consequences.
In chapter 23, Jesus will warn us that those who teach one thing but do another – the hypocrites – deserve to be punished in Hell.
In chapter 25, Jesus will present us with the image of the sheep and the goats – with the goats condemned to eternal fire being those who never gave food, drink, clothing or comfort to persons in need. In St Luke’s Gospel, Jesus will illustrate the same theme in the parable of the rich man who went to Hell because he did not feed the beggar, Lazarus, at his gates.
Are we feeling uncomfortable yet?
There are four kinds of sin which Our Lord is explicitly warning us about, because they put us on the fast-track to Hell.
First of all, there is expressing our anger against our brother or sister. It’s no sin to feel angry – but it is a serious sin, to let the anger dominate our reaction. Indeed, we must make the first move to bring peace, even if the fault is not ours. That’s why I devoted a whole sermon, a couple of weeks ago, to the importance of forgiving our enemies.
Second, there are sins connected with the lustful look. With modern printing, television and computer technology, there’s now a whole industry based on treating people as objects, an industry which satisfies lust on demand – for a price. As Christians, we can have no part of it. Jesus is warning us there is no room for compromise here; any answer other than a resounding NO sets us on the road to Hell.
Third, hypocrisy. No Christian should ever need to dismiss a child or an underling with the message “Do as I say, not as I do.”
Fourth, the sin of the goats, a total failure to love those who need our charity.
But take heart!
The picture becomes less bleak when we realise that Our Lord often uses exaggeration to get his point across. If the goats sent to Hell are those who never helped the needy, and the sheep taken up to heaven are those who always helped, where does that leave the rest of us who have offered charity at least sometimes?
There’s clearly a big warning about Hell in today’s passage. But we must read it in the context of the greater message which Jesus came to bring, an invitation to repent of our sins and be carried, by his grace, all the way to Heaven. Any warning from God is an invitation to turn our lives around while we still can. If any of these kinds of sin which Jesus identifies are present in our lives, we can choose today to reject them. We can set out on the road of conversion, the road of virtuous living.
We may need to ask help from a trusted friend so we are not alone in the struggle against temptation. We are invited to make use of the great Sacrament of Reconciliation, through which God forgives our sins and gives us strength to struggle against temptation. We need to fix our eyes not on the warnings of Hell, but on the great teaching that we have a Forgiving Father who welcomes us whenever we come to our senses and return to him.
The direction we choose determines the destination where we shall dwell. We are called to be people of virtue – passionately committed to living the right values. To behave faithfully is within your power. If you wish, you can keep the commandments. Always seek to repair broken relationships, avoid lust at all costs, shun hypocrisy, and be as generous as you can to the poorest of the poor. But be careful with the next move of your foot, your hand or your eye – for if you set out in the direction of Hell, you can be sure where you will end up, unless you turn around on the way!
Acknowledgment is due to Revd Ifor Williams for an inspiring Bible Study on “Hell in the teaching of Jesus” which I attended some years ago.
This sermon does not intend to imply that the sins listed above are the only ones which can consign a person to Hell. The Catholic tradition has evolved a broader understanding of what constitutues a “mortal sin”. My intent above is to identify those sins which Jesus explicitly linked to hellfire.
Bonus material for the web:
St Paul knows that God’s wisdom is different from that of the world. The psychologists will give us reasons why it is healthy to vent out our anger, and why we should move on from broken relationships. The adult entertainment industry wants to persuade us that everything is permissible between consenting adults. But the wisdom of Ecclesiasticus is as valid today as it was thousands of years ago. We can choose cooling water or searing fire, eternal life or everlasting death for our souls.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus dangles hope in front of us, too: if we’re in dispute with another Christian, we must make it our business to make peace, even if the dispute wasn’t our fault in the first place. If we fail to make peace, says the Lord, we may be “in prison until we have paid the last penny”. That doesn’t sound good, but it’s not as dire as being condemned for eternity. Could that be a hint about Purgatory?
When Our Lady appeared to three children in Fatima nearly 100 years ago, she warned them: “You have seen hell where the souls of poor sinners go. To save them, God wishes to establish in the world devotion to my Immaculate Heart” – and she taught them to add a prayer to each decade of the rosary for the conversion of sinners. Let’s pray for the conversion of sinners – and act for the conversion of the sinner called “me”!