Stories that Shape Us

Herb Montgomery | September 23, 2022

To listen to this week’s eSight as a podcast episode click here.


“This story might have spoken to those in Luke’s culture, but it would not work to threaten people in our culture with a burning afterlife. It’s much more realistic to focus on the gains and losses we experience in this life when we practice this kind of indifferent exclusion.”


Our reading this week is from the gospel of Luke:

There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich mans table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ He said, Then, father, I beg you to send him to my fathers house—for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’” (Luke 16:19-31)

Folk tales about reversing circumstances in the next life were a staple in Jesus’ world, in Hellenistic, Roman, and Jewish culture. The author of Luke choosing to contrast the lived realities of the rich and the poor is consistent with the theme of economic justice in this version of the Jesus story.

I love the cultural diversity and richness in this week’s story. The influence of Hellenism comes through in an eternally burning Hades, yet this folk tale is also thoroughly Jewish with the poor person being whisked away, not to a Christian heaven, but to the bosom of father Abraham.

J. Jeremias reminds us,

In order to understand the parable in detail and as a whole, it is essential to recognize the first part derives from a well-known folk material . . . This is the Egyptian folk-tale of the journey of Osiris, the son of Setme Chamois to the under-world . . . Alexandrian Jews brought this story to Palestine, where it became very popular as the story of the poor scholar and the rich publican Bar MaJan.” (Parables, p. 183)

In Luke’s gospel, the author drops the focus on tension between a scholar and a tax collector and replaces it with the tension between the rich and the poor.

I also want to say something about the Hellenistic idea of flaming torment in the afterlife in this story due to its abuse by Christians throughout history.

This week’s story is a folk tale, but the 1st Century historian Josephus does tell us that some Pharisees taught of an eternal punishment after death:

“They [the Pharisees] say that all souls are imperishable, but that the souls of good men only pass into other bodies while the souls of evil men are subject to eternal [aidious] punishment [timoria]. (Josephus, The Wars of the Jews, Vol. II, Chapter 8, Paragraph 14; words in brackets added.)

The Pharisaical schools weren’t monolithic: they had a rich diversity of ideas about afterlife and resurrection. Josephus’ report could not have been true of all Pharisees, then, but there must have been enough for Josephus to describe their beliefs this way.

The words Josephus used to communicate what these Pharisees were teaching are also interesting. The Greek word he used for eternal is aidious and the Greek word he used for punishment is timoria. According to Louw and Nida’s Greek–English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains, aidious meant Pertaining to an unlimited duration of time.” Timoria, on the other hand, meant to punish, with the implication of causing people to suffer what they deserve.” Thayers Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament explains that the nature of this word ispenal and has reference to the satisfaction of him who inflicts.” Timoria, then is a retributive punishment to satisfy something in the person inflicting the suffering, who feels the offender must experience punishment.

But every time the gospel authors write about Jesus speaking of some type of punishment or reversal of fates either in this life or the next, they use the Greek phrase aionion kolasis for eternal punishment (see Matthew 25:46).

Aionion kolasis was a known phrase among Hellenistic Jews, many of whom populated the region of Galilee where Jesus travelled and taught. Philo, a Hellenistic Jewish philosopher who was a contemporary of Jesus, wrote, It is better not to promise than not to give prompt assistance, for no blame follows in the former case, but in the latter there is dissatisfaction from the weaker class, and a deep hatred and eternal [aionion] chastisement [kolasis] from such as are more powerful.” (Philo, Fragments)

Mounce’s Concise Greek English Dictionary of the New Testament tells us that aionion is an indeterminate adjective, indeterminate as to duration.” Thayers Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament tells us anionion gives prominence to the immeasurableness of eternity.” In other words, it’s not that it lasts forever, but that it takes forever for whatever this adjective is describing to accomplish its purpose. We have as much time as it takes, no matter how long that is.

The meanings of the word kolasis are why this topic pricks my interest. Thayers Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament confirms what we learned earlier about timoria and compares this with the difference of kolasis, The noted definition of Aristotle, which distinguishes kolasis from timoria is that kolasis is disciplinary and has reference to him who suffers, while the latter timoria is penal and has reference to the satisfaction of him who inflicts.”

In Protagoras, Plato writes, If you will think, Socrates, of the nature of punishment, you will see at once that in the opinion of mankind virtue may be acquired; no one punishes [kolasis] the evil-doer under the notion, or for the reason, that he has done wrong—only the unreasonable fury of a beast acts in that manner. But he who desires to inflict rational punishment [kolasis] does not retaliate for a past wrong which cannot be undone; he has regard to the future, and is desirous that the man who is punished [kolosis], and he who sees him punished, may be deterred from doing wrong again. He punishes for the sake of prevention, thereby clearly implying that virtue is capable of being taught.”

The purpose of kolasis, then, is to deter others and to discipline or transform the one who experiences it. This implies that the gospel authors using this term want us to imagine a Jesus who taught a restorative punishment rather than a retributive one. If this discipline is to take place in the afterlife, then the people receiving it have all the time that it will take. This kind of punishment is intended to be something that someone passes through and is changed by, not an inescapable fate people are abandoned to.

Even though we’ve been considering Hellenistic sources so far, the idea of using fire to symbolize removing something considered harmful, like fire removes dross from gold, is also a Jewish idea and part of the Hebrew scriptures:

“The sinners in Zion are terrified; trembling grips the godless: ‘Who of us can dwell with the CONSUMING fire? Who of us can dwell with THE EVERLASTING BURNING?’ Those who walk righteously and speak what is right, who reject gain from extortion and keep their hands from accepting bribes, who stop their ears against plots of murder and shut their eyes against contemplating evil.” (Isaiah 33:14, emphasis added.)

In this passage, those who dwell with “the everlasting burning” are the righteous. From this we might understand that the righteous are those those who go through this kind of experience and are transformed.

Back to our reading. This story might have spoken to those in Luke’s culture, but it would not work to threaten people in our culture with a burning afterlife. It’s much more realistic to focus on the gains and losses we experience in this life when we practice indifferent exclusion in the ways of the unnamed rich person in this story.

Gustavo Guitierrez writes,

“The poor are a by-product of the system in which we live and for which we are responsible. They are marginalized by our social and cultural world. They are the oppressed, exploited proletariat, robbed of the fruit of their labor and despoiled of their humanity. Hence the poverty of the poor is not a call to generous relief action, but a demand that we go and build a different social order.” (The Power of the Poor in History, p. 44)

How this week are you being called to prioritize those our present system marginalizes or disenfranchises, politically, socially, economically, or in all three ways?

HeartGroup Application

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

2. What stories have shaped you in your journey? Share one with your group.

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 everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

You can find Renewed Heart Ministries on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. If you haven’t done so already, please follow us on your chosen social media platforms for our daily posts.  Also, if you enjoy listening to the Jesus for Everyone podcast, please like and subscribe to the JFE podcast through the podcast platform you use and consider taking some time to give us a review. This helps others find our podcast as well.

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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



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Social Justice, Jesus and Hell

flames

Herb Montgomery | September 24, 2021


“I want to be clear: I reject the common Evangelical doctrine of eternal torment, including a belief in a literal, eternally burning hell. If we take all the descriptions of a post-mortem ‘hell’ that we find in the scriptures, they are filled with internal incongruencies and contradictions, let alone with each other. So I want to offer an alternative, especially for those attracted to the ethical teachings of Jesus but who rightly have no tolerance for the evangelical Christian belief in a literal, eternally burning hell.”


Our reading this week is from the gospel of Mark,

Teacher,” said John, we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.” Do not stop him,” Jesus said. For no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us. Truly I tell you, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to the Messiah will certainly not lose their reward. If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where “ ‘the worms that eat them do not die, and the fire is not quenched. Everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can you make it salty again? Have salt among yourselves, and be at peace with each other.” (Mark 9:38-50)

There is a lot in this week’s reading to unpack.

First, this week’s passage is connected to the debate among Jesus scholars about whether or not the historical Jesus actually believed he was the Messiah and ways Christians have long used that title for Jesus in damaging and destructive ways toward the Jewish community.

Second, the passage references a curse against those who cause “little ones” to stumble. This title could apply to children, the most subjugated and marginalized population in many of our social systems. And yet limiting this phrase only to children enables those who benefit by oppressive systems to escape the scrutiny of this passage as well. In truth, children in 1st Century Mediterranean societies lived at the bottom of the political, economic, and social hierarchical system. We have to ask whether Jesus simply loved children and thus spoke in their defense, or whether he stood in solidarity with all who were at the bottom of their social structures and all those pushed to the edges or margins of his society, of which children were the foremost. If this second option is right, then this passage warns everyone who structures society to push some people to the bottom or edges, and those who make life even more difficult for those on the bottom or edges after they have been pushed there. Much to ponder here.

Third, the passage uses the deeply ableist language about entering into the kingdom “maimed,” “crippled,” or having “one eye.” This is more than a translation problem, and more than language that was once acceptable falling out of vogue. It has always been damaging to deem people with disabilities as less than abled people. Jesus’ overt argument is that righteous disabled people are better off than unrighteous abled people. Passages that provide a subtext of a hierarchy lead us into territory of interpretations that are ableist. We can do better than this today. We don’t have to repeat ableist language as we tell the Jesus story and we can also find better ways to tell the story than to imply anyone is inferior because of their differences.

Lastly there are the verses about being “thrown into” or “going to hell.”

I want to be clear: I reject the common Evangelical doctrine of eternal torment, including a belief in a literal, eternally burning hell. If we take all the descriptions of a post-mortem “hell” that we find in the scriptures, they are filled with internal incongruencies and contradictions, let alone with each other.

So I want to offer an alternative, especially for those attracted to the ethical teachings of Jesus but who rightly have no tolerance for the evangelical Christian belief in a literal, eternally burning hell.

First, the language that the gospels used here would not have conjured a vision of post-mortem, eternal torment for the original Jewish audience. The word translated into English as “hell” is the Greek word, gehenna. That word already had a history and association for Mark’s original Jewish audience. Gehenna is the Greek form of the Hebrew/Aramaic valley of Gehinnom, or Ge Ben (son of) Hinnom. It named a valley on the south and east of Jerusalem, which was so called from the cries of the little children who were thrown into the fiery arms of Moloch” (Joseph Henry Thayer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. American Book Company, 1889; read stories about Gehenna in 2 Chronicles 28:1-4, 2 Chronicles 33:1, and Jeremiah 7:31-32).

In the Hebrew scriptures, Gehenna evolves from the location of horrific atrocities to the symbol of the destruction of Judah and Jerusalem at the hands of foreign, Gentile powers. Consider these examples:

Thus said the LORD: Go and buy a potters earthenware jug. Take with you some of the elders of the people and some of the senior priests and go out to the valley of the son of Hinnom 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. And in this place, I will make void the plans of Judah and Jerusalem and will make them fall by the sword before their enemies, and by the hand of those who seek their life. I will give their dead bodies for food to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the earth.” (Jeremiah 19:1-7)

But if you do not obey me to keep the Sabbath day holy by not carrying any load as you come through the gates of Jerusalem on the Sabbath day, then I will kindle an unquenchable fire in the gates of Jerusalem that will consume her fortresses.’” (Jeremiah 17:27)

Edoms streams will be turned into pitch,

her dust into burning sulfur;

her land will become blazing pitch!

It will not be quenched night or day;

its smoke will rise forever.

From generation to generation it will lie desolate;

no one will ever pass through it again.” (Isaiah 34:9-10)

The voice of the LORD will shatter Assyria;

with his rod he will strike them down.

Every stroke the LORD lays on them

with his punishing club

will be to the music of timbrels and harps,

as he fights them in battle with the blows of his arm.

His Topheth [the Valley of Hinnom or Gehenna] has long been prepared;

it has been made ready for the king.

Its fire pit has been made deep and wide,

with an abundance of fire and wood;

the breath of the LORD,

like a stream of burning sulfur,

sets it ablaze.” (Isaiah 30:31-33)

“‘As the new heavens and the new earth that I make will endure before me,declares the LORD, so will your name and descendants endure. From one New Moon to another and from one Sabbath to another, all mankind will come and bow down before me,says the LORD. And they will go out and look on the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; the worms that eat them will not die, the fire that burns them will not be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind.’” (Isaiah 66:22-24)

Jeremiah uses the phrase unquenchable fire” to refer to destruction by an outside empire. In Isaiah, the language of Assyrias Topheth” focuses on events happening in this life. In light of this, both Jeremiah’s language of eternally burning fire and Isaiah’s language of worms not dying (quoted in this week’s reading from Mark’s gospel) are highly metaphorical and to be taken seriously, not literally.

These prophetic warnings about Gehenna pointed to Gentile empires destroying people in this life, not after death. This destruction was consistently threatened as punishment for systemic injustice, oppression and violence done to the vulnerable and marginalized.

No wonder it was to be taken seriously.

It makes sense that Jesus would use this language taken from his Hebrew scriptures to speak to those who cause “little ones” to stumble. It is also quite possible that the author of Mark used this language to be connected to the destruction of Judea and Jerusalem by the Roman Empire in the 1st Century. Again, Jerusalem was being destroyed by a foreign, Gentile power.

I’ll end this week with some thoughts on Jesus’ command not to forbid people outside of his own disciples and followers from doing things in his name. Just because they were not part of the community of Jesus’ disciples didn’t mean they were to be stopped. I want to go a step further, though.

Within the Jesus story we find universal values that have proven life-giving. These values and ethics are in many more cultures and religions than mere Christianity—including those with no connection to the historical Jesus whatsoever. I encourage Christians to honor those traditions and values because of their intrinsic, life-giving quality. I’m reminded of a statement we at RHM shared as a meme a few weeks ago now:

“There was an ancient prophetic tradition in which God insisted not on justice and worship, but on justice over worship. God had repeatedly said, “I reject your worship because of your lack of justice,” but never, ever, ever, “I reject your justice because of your lack of worship.” (Borg and Crossan, The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Final Days in Jerusalem, Kindle Location 767) (cf. Amos 5:21-24; Hosea 6:6; Micah 6:6-8; Isaiah 1:11-17)

For me, it’s not about making sure that we attach “Jesus” as a label to things, but that I value those things the Jesus of the Jesus story has taught me in my life. These things are valuable to me, and not merely because Jesus taught them but because I’ve experienced their intrinsic fruit for myself. Again, I don’t believe these things are valuable simply because Jesus taught them. Instead, I believe Jesus taught them because they were intrinsically valuable. We can honor these values when we see them in others without trying to make them somehow “Christian” and so worthy of our approval. We can simply honor the good they do in our world.

Something is good, remember, based on the kind of fruit it produces, whether it is life-giving or death-dealing. And that fruit is either enough of an argument in its favor, or a sign of something it’s time for us to leave behind.

HeartGroup Application

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

2. However one interprets Jesus’ words on Gehenna, how does Jesus’ teachings on social justice impact your own Jesus following? Discuss with your group.

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 everyone?

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.



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