Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22
A few weeks ago, Karen preached a good sermon on Mark’s story of the Syrophoenician woman. But she indicated that initially she didn’t like the assignment very much, and briefly flirted with the idea of asking me to preach that Sunday.
Well, I wish she had, because maybe then I wouldn’t have to preach about today’s Gospel text. Mark 9:38-50, with its parallels in the other Gospels, is one of the New Testament passages from which the doctrine of the eternal punishment of the wicked is derived. In other words, hell.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Hell is all about revenge, and I like the theme of revenge as much as the next guy. I like the Die Hard movies, and the Dirty Harry films. When I was trying to get started writing this sermon, I also began to think about some of the early James Bond movies with Sean Connery — still, in my opinion, the definitive portrayal of Agent 007. Specifically, I began thinking about the end of Goldfinger. I couldn’t remember all the details, so I rented the film to rewatch the ending, and then of course I needed to put the ending in context, so I ended up watching the whole film. This was research, you understand, and if there’s anything I’m a stickler for, it’s good, hard, exegetical research.
The scene I was specifically trying to remember, and remember exactly, so I could recount it to you, was the death of the villain of the piece, a repulsive, obsessively greedy man named Auric Goldfinger. Having been foiled by Bond in his cunning plan to blow up Fort Knox with a dirty atomic bomb and therefore make his own gold holdings ten times more valuable, Goldfinger manages to escape. He does so by dressing up as a U.S. general and killing the soldiers guarding the small private jet that is to fly Bond to Washington to be congratulated by the President. The plane, as it turns out, is being flown by Goldfinger’s chief pilot, a woman whose name I cannot even mention in a family-oriented sermon. This woman had at first, strangely enough, seemed impervious to Bond’s charms.
She eventually succumbed, of course—no woman is a match for the charms of James Bond– and she then helped Bond foil Goldfinger’s plot. But now she seems helpless as Goldfinger holds them both hostage with his solid-gold gun as the plane flies through the air. Bond, however, manages to divert Goldfinger’s attention momentarily and grab for the gun, and in the melee that follows he shoots out the window on the plane and the evil Goldfinger, who has killed two of Bond’s girlfriends and several other people in particularly nasty ways, himself meets a horrible end—sucked out of the plane with a terrified look on his face. Bond, stumbling forward to the cockpit, is greeted by his new girlfriend with the words, “What’s going on? What happened to Goldfinger?” And Bond says, “He’s playing his golden harp,” as the plane goes into a nose dive, from which they escape just in the nick of time, I won’t tell you how, because I don’t want to spoil the movie for you.
But I love that line, “He’s playing his golden harp.” Isn’t it just so fitting? The man who has so cruelly dispatched others, even suffocating one of Bond’s lady friends by having her unconscious body painted from head to toe in gold paint—this terrible Goldfinger himself meets a horrible end, and the instrument of his destruction is his own golden gun. Doesn’t that make you want to stand up and cheer?
It’s actually the same principle of tit-for-tat retaliation that informs Dante’s phatasmagoric picture of hell in The Inferno. People are punished in ways that exactly match their crimes. The carnal sinners, who in their lives let the winds of passion carry them away, are now whipped about by actual, physical, cyclones. Those whose blood metaphorically boiled and who wrathfully murdered others are now submerged in a literal river of boiling blood. Dante’s The Inferno pictures a systematic fulfillment of the Old Testament principle, enunciated by God to Noah after the violence of the Flood has abated: “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed” [Gen 9:6]. Not coincidentally, in trying to track down the exact chapter and verse of that biblical quotation, I found it cited in the Legislative Report on the Subject of Capital Punishment Made in the House of Representatives of Ohio in 1853.
Is that principle of tit for tat retaliation just a barbaric holdover from our primitive past? As an opponent of capital punishment, I tend to think so, but a passage from Martha Nussbaum’s marvelous study of ancient theories of emotions, The Therapy of Desire, gives me pause. The passage appears in a chapter entitled, “Seneca on Anger in Public Life” and recounts a story from Elie Wiesel in the following words:
Wiesel was a child in one of the Nazi death camps. On the day the Allied forces arrived, the first member of the liberating army he saw was a very large black officer. Walking into the camp and seeing what was there to be seen, this man began to curse, shouting at the top of his voice. As the child Wiesel watched, he went on shouting and cursing for a very long time. And the child Wiesel thought, watching him, now humanity has come back. Now, with that anger, humanity has come back. (Therapy of Desire, p. 403)
Well, maybe this helps us understand a biblical passage that speaks of people who have committed grievous sins against others being thrown into hell, where worms eternally eat them and fire perpetually burns them — maybe Wiesel’s story helps us understand how such a passage belongs in a book that presents itself as a Gospel. What is the gospel or good news here? It is that God is angered by sin, that he is enraged by it enough to shout and curse for a very long time. And he does that because he cares about humanity.
I started teaching at Duke Divinity School in late August, 2001, a few weeks before the 9-11 attacks. When those attacks came out of the blue sky on a beautiful, crisp September day, the first question that many around the Divinity School immediately began asking was, “What did we do to provoke these attacks? What sins did we commit to make these people hate us so much?”
I thought that was a good question, but not the one that we should be asking while the buildings were still smoking. I felt trapped by the spirit of premature forgiveness that prevented anyone from expressing rage that so many innocent lives had been snuffed out by people who gloried in the carnage they had inflicted. I think this is similar to the feeling voiced by a minister in Charleston, which was quoted in this week’s New Yorker article about the aftermath of the massacre there a few months ago. This minister expressed irritation at what he called “all the kumbaya stuff” he was hearing about forgiving Dylan Roof. I saw his point. What if that soldier at Buchenwald, instead of shouting and cursing, had immediately fallen down on his knees and asked for forgiveness for the perpetrators of the crime? I don’t think Elie Wiesel would have said to himself, “Humanity has come back.”
And I also remember how good it felt, a few weeks after the 9-11 attacks, when my choir put on a special performance of the Mozart Requiem in Duke Chapel. I remember the purging anger I felt as we sang the dramatic opening bars of the Dies irae, the second movement of that great piece. At the beginning of that section the music breaks open with incredible speed and volume and drama after the slow, sedate, opening of the Kyrie. The music breaks open, and the chapel itself seemed to break open, as we shouted out those cold and angry words about the coming day of God’s retribution against human sin: “The day of wrath, that day that will change the world to ash…What a great shaking will arrive when the judge comes, examining everything strictly.” And it felt so good to sing that. And I’m looking forward to seeing the strict accounting that will happen when Dylan Roof and the 9-11 hijackers and the architects of the gulags and Nazi death camps and of our counterproductive war of choice in Iraq and of the present slaughter in Syria stand before the throne of the Lord God Almighty and have to answer for their crimes.
But here’s the rub: I also know that, if a strict account book is kept, I may be in trouble too. Because not even I am sinless. For example, I know how to feel righteous indignation on behalf of others–but I also know how to feel less attractive forms of indignation. “Rejoice with those who rejoice, mourn with those who mourn,” says St. Paul (Rom 12:15). But I also know how to mourn when others rejoice, for example when colleagues have gotten the grant I had applied for–even if this happened several years after my own unsuccesful application. I remember reading the email from our Dean, the last sentence of which ran, “Join with me in contratulating Professors X, Y, and Z for this well-deserved honor,” and all I could think of was that I wished Professors X, Y, and Z were dead. I may not have killed anybody, but I sure have wished a lot of people dead. And Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount that that’s as bad as killing them. Well, if thoughts were deeds, it would be hazardous to be my colleague. And there are a few other things that I’ve done and felt in my life that I’m not very proud of. “If thou, Lord, shouldest count iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand?”
Perhaps it is fortunate, then, that the last word in our lectionary passage from Mark is not one of retribution. Because, in the last two verses, the text makes two surprising shifts.
First, Jesus caps his prophecy of retribution against human sin by saying, “Everyone will be salted with fire.” The fiery judgment, then, will come, not just to some heinous sinners, as the previous verses might have led us to suspect, but to us all; “everyone will be salted with fire.” We will all be salted; we will all be in the same soup. That seems at first, not like gospel, but like bad news: no one will escape God’s fiery judgment. But that leads us into the second surprise: Jesus calls this salt of judgment “good.”
How can the salt of God’s judgment be good? I find this puzzling, but here’s the best I can come up with: every one of us, not just Dylan Roof, not just the Nazis, harbors the same sickness inside our souls, and every one of us needs to have that sickness excised and our souls rearranged and cured. We all have the same diseased flesh that needs to be cauterized, we all share a basic distortion handed down from our parents and grandparents and great-great grandparents — just like guilt, which Erma Bombeck calls “the gift that keeps on giving.” We have all received this and other gifts that keep on giving, and we can’t get rid of them–including the primal warp in our soul that prevents us from loving God and our neighbor. But God has decided not to leave us entirely to our own devices, with our primal warp drive intact. And that is why he seasons us liberally with the bitter, corrosive, medicinal salt of his searing but salvific judgment, in this world and the next.
And so, I would like to conclude by quoting the words of Pope Francis in his address to Congress last Thursday:
“But there is another temptation which we must especially guard against: the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners. The contemporary world, with its open wounds which affect so many of our brothers and sisters, demands that we confront every form of polarization which would divide it into these two camps. We know that in the attempt to be freed of the enemy without, we can be tempted to feed the enemy within. To imitate the hatred and violence of tyrants and murderers is the best way to take their place.”
Or, to quote the final half-verse of our lectionary text for today: “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”