Mislabelling Social Justice as Foolishness

by Herb Montgomery | July 17, 2020

church steeple and social justice


“I find it alarming that there are Christian pastors or leaders who call fellow Jesus followers seeking social justice ‘fools.’ It is past time for those who bear the name of Jesus to see in the gospel stories Jesus’ calls for social change.”


In Matthew’s gospel, we read,

“But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the Gehenna of fire.” (Matthew 5:22)

Context is always important, and with this week’s passage, it’s vital. Jesus is warning his followers about mislabelling those who call for social justice “fools” or foolish.

He is not prohibiting the term “fool.”

After all, Jesus himself calls others “fools” in Matthew’s gospel:

“Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘Whoever swears by the temple, that is nothing; but whoever swears by the gold of the temple, he is obligated.’ You fools and blind men; which is more important, the gold, or the temple that sanctified the gold?” (Matthew 23:16, emphasis added)

Luke’s Jesus has God referring to someone emphatically as a “fool”:

“But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your soul is required of you; and now who will own what you have prepared?’” (Luke 12:20, emphasis added)

So the passage in Matthew isn’t about using the term “fool,” but about mislabelling as fools those who call for justice, inclusion, and systemic change as Jesus and Jesus’ followers did within their own society.

Consider what Jesus warned his followers about: a “Gehenna of fire.”

Contrary to many modern translations, Gehenna is not what modern Christians understand as hell. It is rather a deeply Jewish concept with a rich history.

Here is every passage where Jesus speaks of Gehenna (except for the two that we will look at in just a moment). To avoid misleading us, I have taken the time to “untranslate” each reference to hell where the original word is simply Gehenna:

If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into Gehenna. And if your right-hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into Gehenna. (Matthew 5:29-30)

And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into the Gehenna of fire. (Matthew 18:9)

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of Gehenna as yourselves. (Matthew 23:15)

You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to Gehenna? (Matthew 23:33)

If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to Gehenna, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into Gehenna. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into Gehenna. (Mark 9:43-47)

In order to understand what Jesus is referring to in each of these passages, we must look at three things.

The Jewish history around Gehenna
The political climate of Jesus’ day
How Jesus uses Gehenna in the context of both

Let’s dive in!

First, Gehenna was a literal place in Jewish history as far back as the time of Joshua:

“Then the boundary goes up by THE VALLEY OF THE SON OF HINNOM (Gehenna) at the southern slope of the Jebusites (that is, Jerusalem); and the boundary goes up to the top of the mountain that lies over against THE VALLEY OF HINNOM, on the west, at the northern end of the valley of Rephaim.” (Joshua 15:8)

This place became the site of Judah’s terrible history of child sacrifice.

“And [Ahaz, King of Judah] made offerings in THE VALLEY OF THE SON OF HINNOM, and made his sons pass through fire, according to the abominable practices of the nations whom the LORD drove out before the people of Israel.” (2 Chronicles 28:3)

“He made his son pass through fire in THE VALLEY OF THE SON OF HINNOM, practiced soothsaying and augury and sorcery, and dealt with mediums and with wizards. He did much evil in the sight of the LORD, provoking him to anger.” (2 Chronicles 33:6)

Gehenna, the valley of the son of Hinnom, was the cultic location where the Canaanites offered children as sacrifices to the god Moloch. At some point it became known as Topheth for the hearth where the child was placed: the Hebrew term has parallels in both Ugaritic and Aramaic that mean “furnace, fireplace.” Scholars believe Topheth was at the edge of the valley of the son of Hinnom, next to the Kidron Valley, and likely southwest of Jerusalem. An 8th Century BCE Phoenician inscription describes sacrifices made to Moloch before the Cilicians battled their enemies.

But its history does not end with those histories. It also resurfaces in the message of the prophet Jeremiah:

“And they go on building the high place of Topheth, which is in THE VALLEY OF THE SON OF HINNOM, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire—which I did not command, nor did it come into my mind. Therefore, the days are surely coming, says the LORD, when it will no more be called Topheth, or THE VALLEY OF THE SON OF HINNOM, but THE VALLEY OF SLAUGHTER: for they will bury in Topheth until there is no more room.” (Jeremiah 7:31–32)

Jeremiah is saying that Babylon is coming with such devastation on Jerusalem that the valley of the son of Hinnom (Gehenna) will become a burying place overflowing with corpses, not of children this time, but of the population Babylon devastates. Notice that Jeremiah is warning not of a postmortem experience, but of a distinct this-life and this-world experience that would truly be “hell” for anyone caught in it: the literal destruction of Jerusalem by a Gentile kingdom—Babylon:

“The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD: Stand in the gate of the LORD’S house, and proclaim there this word, and say, Hear the word of the LORD, all you people of Judah, you that enter these gates to worship the LORD. Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you in this place. Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD.’ For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever. Here you are, trusting in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are safe!’—only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight? You know, I too am watching, says the LORD.” (Jeremiah 7.1–11)

This passage in Jeremiah 7 is also the very passage Jesus quoted as he demonstrated against his own temple state’s exploitation of the poor. Jesus stood in Jeremiah’s prophetic lineage and quoted him directly:

“And he said, ‘It is written, “My house shall be a house of prayer”; but you have made it a den of robbers.’” (Luke 19:46)

Jeremiah used Gehenna in specific ways:

“And go out to the VALLEY OF THE SON OF HINNOM(Gehenna) at the entry of the Potsherd Gate, and proclaim there the words that I tell you. You shall say: Hear the word of the LORD, O kings of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem. Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: I am going to bring such disaster upon this place that the ears of everyone who hears of it will tingle. Because the people have forsaken me, and have profaned this place by making offerings in it to other gods whom neither they nor their ancestors nor the kings of Judah have known; and because they have filled this place with the blood of the innocent, and gone on building the high places of Baal to burn their children in the fire as burnt offerings to Baal, which I did not command or decree, nor did it enter my mind. Therefore the days are surely coming, says the LORD, when this place shall no more be called Topheth, OR THE VALLEY OF THE SON OF HINNOM, but THE VALLEY OF SLAUGHTER.” (Jeremiah 19:2–6)

For Jeremiah, Gehenna had an end. It was not the equivalent of being eternally forsaken by God and the fact that Jeremiah thought of it as temporary suggests a restorative hope rather than a retributive one.

“The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when the city shall be rebuilt for the LORD from the tower of Hananel to the Corner Gate. And the measuring line shall go out farther, straight to the hill Gareb, and shall then turn to Goah. The whole valley of the dead bodies and the ashes (Gehenna), and all the fields as far as the Wadi Kidron, to the corner of the Horse Gate toward the east, shall be sacred to the LORD. It shall never again be uprooted or overthrown.” (Jeremiah 31:38-40)

“See, I am going to gather them from all the lands to which I drove them in my anger and my wrath and in great indignation; I will bring them back to this place, and I will settle them in safety. They shall be my people, and I will be their God. I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear me for all time, for their own good and the good of their children after them. I will make an everlasting covenant with them, never to draw back from doing good to them; and I will put the fear of me in their hearts, so that they may not turn from me.” (Jeremiah 32:37)

“For thus says the LORD: Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart. I will let you find me, says the LORD, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the LORD, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.” (Jeremiah 29:10-14)

Now let’s address the political climate of Jesus’ day very briefly. Jesus repeatedly called for wealth redistribution, for the community to prioritize economic equity and justice, and for the centering of marginalized people. He repeatedly warned that if the people did not embrace a more distributively just society, no matter how much the elite named it foolish, they would all face Gehenna.

Looking back at their history we can see this beginning with the poor people’s revolt that grew into the Roman Jewish war of 66-69 and ultimately resulted in Rome’s violent destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE.

Jesus picked up Jeremiah’s warning about Jerusalem being destroyed by a foreign oppressor, and the gospel authors connected Jeremiah’s passages, Jesus overthrowing the Temple tables, and Rome’s destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. Jeremiah shattered a vessel on the Temple floor, symbolizing how Babylon would shatter Jerusalem, and said they had turned the Temple into a “den of robbers.” Jesus overturned tables and scattered livestock in the Temple, and the gospel authors use this to foreshadow the result of their turning the Temple into a “den of robbers.”

Jesus adopted Jeremiah’s Gehenna meaning as well as his language. Jesus was not warning about the postmortem experience described by Dante or Jonathan Edwards. He was speaking of Gehenna as a horrific devastation that would be wrought on Jerusalem by a foreign power. It would not be Babylon this time but Rome.

Luke’s Jesus quotes the battle cry of the militaristic Maccabean revolt, which the religious leaders of Jesus’ day romanticized. But Jesus subversively turned it on its head. Here is the original passage Jesus used as recorded in the Apocrypha:

“Each of them and all of them together looking at one another, cheerful and undaunted, said, ‘Let us with all our hearts consecrate ourselves to God, who gave us our lives, and let us use our bodies as a bulwark for the law. Let us not fear him who thinks he is killing us, for great is the struggle of the soul and the danger of eternal torment lying before those who transgress the commandment of God.’” (4 Maccabees 13:14-15)

Note two things from this passage. First, the Hellenistic idea of postmortem, eternal torment had already crept into Jewish thinking at this stage. Scholars agree this was a product of the Jewish dispersion around the Greek empire and was not a part of the pre-diaspora Jewish worldview. Second, Jesus quotes the passage from 4 Maccabees with a twist and transitions into the words of Jeremiah:

“But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into Gehenna. Yes, I tell you, fear him!” (Luke 12:5)

The him here is not God, but a violent messiah leading the poor people’s uprising sure to come if the elite power brokers continued to refuse a path away from societal inequity.

Matthew’s version (Matthew 10:28) is even more telling:

“Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul”
Jesus began with the words of 4 Maccabees, which were very familiar to the Jewish leaders of his day, and then transitioned into Jeremiah.

“rather fear him”
He is the person or people who will lead a poor people’s revolt if things did not change

“who will destroy both soul and body”
Soul and body suggests not eternal torment after death, but complete annihilation in this life

“in Gehenna“
Jeremiah’s term referred to destruction by a foreign power.

Jesus’ warning was of an even worse fate than what Jeremiah warned about. For Jeremiah, destruction by Babylon would be temporary. But for Jesus, destruction from Rome would be absolute.

What does this have to do with us today?

We are faced with the same choices today. Our present system is not sustainable. Tensions are building, and our path is trending toward social eruption. People are suffering as a result of the systemic inequities of our society, and today we also have those calling for social justice, both among Jesus followers and those who do not claim him. I find it alarming that there are Christian pastors or leaders who call fellow Jesus followers seeking social justice “fools.”

It is past time for those who bear the name of Jesus to see in the gospel stories Jesus’ calls for social change. We should not focus solely on his work on changing individuals. Both kinds of change are needed. And those who call for social change, seeking a more just, safer, compassionate, inclusive society, are not fools. Whether they claim his name or not, they are traveling in the footsteps of Jesus and all those who have gone before them.

To Christians today who would label social justice work as foolishness, Jesus offers these words, “If you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the Gehenna of fire.”

HeartGroup Application

We at RHM are continuing to ask all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time. Please stay virtually connected and practice physical distancing. When you do go out, please keep a six-foot distance between you and others, wear a mask, and continue to wash your hands to stop the spread of the virus.

This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us. How many ways can you take care of each other while we are physically apart?

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. How do you wish your own faith tradition, local faith community, or your denomination if applicable, would support and work alongside societal justice movements? Discuss with your group and list any social justice movements you believe would be worth supporting and why.

3. What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for all? Discuss with your group and pick something from the discussion to put into practice this upcoming week.

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week