Jesus said, “If a part of your body causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better to go through life maimed than to be thrown into hell, where the worm will not die and the fire never be quenched.”
In Jesus’ day, hell was not a theological concept nor was it located in the center of the earth. It was a specific place known as the Valley of Hinnon, which is located just outside the walls of the old city of Jerusalem. Hinnon is a very deep, narrow ravine with a horrendous history. The bible records that some of the ancient kings of Israel used it as a place to make sacrifices to the idols of Moloch and Baal, including slaughtering and burning their own children. The prophet Jeremiah held these practices invoked God’s wrath and judgment, leading to the ruin and downfall of the nation. After Judah’s return from exile, the valley was used as a trash dump where, among other things, human corpses were brought to be incinerated.
It is easy to see how such a site came to be associated with great pain and suffering. It was a place to be avoided at all costs. Just like a professional athlete does not want to end up on the Injury List, so too people in Jesus’ day did not want to end up in the Valley of Hinnon. It makes sense to do whatever is necessary to avoid such a fate. If sin destines you to this place, do what you have to do not to sin, plain and simple.
Episcopalians, as a rule, don’t warm up to such negative thinking. If we wanted the hell scared out of us we would be Baptists, right. So let’s flip this coin around and look at it from the other side. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe puts Jesus’ teaching in a positive context: “Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least.”
Have I told you about the successful businessman who bought a 2015 Ferrari 458 for $250,000? The first day he owned it he pulled up in front of his business, parked the car, and opened the door to get out. Just then a bus came barreling down the street and tore off the car’s door. The businessman was livid that his beautiful Ferrari had been damaged and was distraught with the knowledge that no repairs would ever make it like new again. He was screaming at the moon when a tow truck arrived. The operator jumped out of the cab and listened to the man rant and rave on and on. Finally the operator broke in and said, “I can’t believe how materialistic you are. You are so wrapped up in your possessions you don’t notice anything else.” The businessman was indignant, “How can you say such a thing!” “Well,” the operator replied, “you haven’t even realized that your left arm is missing. If must have been torn off by the bus.” The man looked at his arm, saw that it was gone, and screamed out loud, “Oh no. Now I’ve lost my Rolex too!”
Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least.
What are your priorities in life? Listen to the counsel a veteran priest gave to a group of seminarians just prior to their ordination:
“There will come a day when you will stand before our Lord and Savior to give an account of your personal record as a priest.
First, Jesus will ask you to report on your relationship with your spouse. What did you do to add to your spouse’s joy, how did you provide help and comfort in prosperity and adversity, and how did you participate in nurturing your children in the knowledge and love of the Lord?
After this, Jesus will ask you to provide in-depth information on each of your children in order to determine the amount and quality of time you invested in them.
Next, Jesus will ask how you have developed and used the talents with which God gave you from birth.
Fourth, Jesus will ask about the churches you served. He will not be interested in their wealth or size, but will want to know how you cared for the people while you were there.
Fifth, Jesus will not ask you how much money you earned or how much money you saved. All he will want to know is if you were honest in all your dealings.
And finally, Jesus will ask for an accounting of what you did to make your community, your country, and the world a better place.”
Now, for you, the list of priorities might be a tad different, but not much. These are the things that matter most. How and when do the things that matter least get in their way? What do you need to do to cut them out of your life? Gandhi said that actions express priorities. What do your actions say about you?
Perhaps Jesus uses imagery as shocking as self-mutilation and eternal torment to get our attention, to impress upon us the need to identify what is important in life, and to force us to deal with all the lesser stuff getting in the way. Victoria Moran, in her book Lit from Within, writes this:
“A simple life is not seeing how little we can get by with—that’s poverty—but how efficiently we can put first things first… When you’re clear about your purpose and your priorities, you can painlessly discard whatever does not support these, whether it’s clutter in your cabinets or commitments on your calendar.”
Lest we think of this as a private and personal exercise intended to give each one of us a better and more rewarding life, notice what Jesus says about the millstone. Your priorities, when they are solid, are like stepping stones others can follow, but when they are skewed they become stumbling blocks that cause others to trip up in life. In other words, your actions (which reflect your priorities) affect others. If all you care about in life is getting ahead in your career, your partner and children will suffer. Your community will be a poorer place if all your free time is spent with a remote control in your hands. You cannot be the blessing for others God intends for you to be if your priorities are all out of whack.
I was in a grocery store on Friday. Two very active boys were pushing a cart and ran into their mother. “Owww! #$@%! That hurt.” She screamed so loud I heard her clearly three aisles away. Moments later we were in the same aisle when another incident promoted the mother to yell, “Leave the cart right there. We are going.” I don’t want to judge this mother. Who knows what her day and her life are like? But I can tell you if I had gone off like that I would do some serious soul searching to determine what I needed to change in order to get myself under control and in a position to be a loving, positive example for my children. Jesus says the place to start is to orient our lives around the right priorities.
It is an insight picked up years ago by a professor who stood before his philosophy class holding a cardboard box. He set the box on his desk and removed from it a large glass jar and a jacket of golf balls. He emptied the balls into the jar and they piled all the way up to the rim. He then asked the class if the jar was full and they said it was. The professor then took out a container of pebbles and began to pour them into the container where they fell into the open spaces between the golf balls. Again he asked and again the students said the jar was full. That is when the professor produced a bag of sand and poured it into the jar where it sifted into the cracks and crevices around the pebbles. “Is it full now?” he asked. “Yes,” the students said. From the box the professor produced a bottle of wine, which he opened and poured slowly into the jar until all the sand was saturated.
“This jar,” he said, “represents your life. The golf balls are the important things like faith, family, friends, and health. These are the things that make your life full and even if every else is lost you will still have great love and happiness. The pebbles are other things that matter, but are not as important – your job, your house, your car. And the sand is all the small stuff that fills up your day and drains your energy, but is not necessarily essential.”
“Now notice,” he said, “If you put the sand in first and then the pebbles there would not be enough room for the golf balls. The same is true with life. If you spend all your time and energy on the small stuff you will never have room for the things that are important. You must learn to pay attention to what is critical for true happiness. Spend time with your children. Spend time with your parents. Visit with grandparents. Take your spouse out to dinner. There will always be time to clean the house and mow the lawn. Set your priorities on what matters. The rest is just sand.”
With his point made, a student raised her hand and asked what the wine represented? “I’m glad you asked me that,” he answered. “It shows that no matter how full your life may seem, there is always room for a glass of wine with a friend.”
Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least. Jesus reminds us to do whatever we must do to make sure we do not lose hold of this simple but essential principle in life.