Some of the stories from the Gospels are ‘feel-good’ stories. They give you a warm, happy feeling inside. Others are unsettling, even a bit frightening. They cause you to stop and reflect on the life you’re living.
Today’s Gospel is one of the latter types. It’s also one of the few times in the Bible when Jesus uses the word ‘hell’ (properly, I might add!). Jesus speaks of it as a place as well as a description of a condition.
How did the concept of hell come about? How did it get changed from ‘Sheol’—the place of the dead—to a place of eternal suffering and torment? And the big question, ‘why don’t a lot of people like to talk about it, or see it as a real place?
The best-known Biblical image for hell relates to a deep, narrow gorge southeast of Jerusalem called “the Valley of Ben Hinnom.” Various places in the OT talk about this valley as the place where rebellious and unfaithful Israelites once offered up child sacrifices to the pagan gods, Molech and Baal. Because of this, it is a place that is forever condemned by King Josiah, a faithful, Godly King, as an eternally unholy place.
Later the valley was used as a garbage dump by the citizens of Jerusalem. Thus, the Valley of Ben Hinnom became known as a dump, a place where trash was tossed, a place of constant fire to burn the trash that was discarded. The Greek word, gehenna, or ‘hell,’ the place of final punishment for sinners, is derived from the Hebrew name of this valley. It became a place where the bodies of those slain in battle by God’s judgement were disposed. Jeremiah prophesied the valley would be used as a mass grave for the corpses of the people of Judah killed by an invading army. It became associated with a place of burning, horrible stench, smoke, and unquenchable fire.
Not a good, wholesome place! What a visual! Jesus used this knowledge of ‘gehenna’ to develop the vision of ‘hell’ that is found in the gospels. It was something they could relate to. Hell has become a place of revulsion and fear, not a place where anyone would want to end up for all eternity!
Following this uplifting discussion where Jesus teaches the disciples about the fear of gehenna, He says that everyone will be ‘salted with fire.’ Then Jesus talks about salt saying, “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”
It’s another saying that to us may not make much sense. Where is Jesus going here with this teaching? Salt is used for seasoning food. Some of us use too much salt which is not good for our heart and our arteries. Some of you will use salt today on your baked potato at the Spuds for Studs 4 fundraiser.
So, Jesus can’t really be talking about the unhealthy qualities of salt, can He? After all, Jesus said salt is good, and we need to have salt in ourselves…
One of the dictionary definitions for salt states that it is used as a catharsis. Catharsis is an act of purging or purification. It’s also the elimination of a complex by bringing it to one’s consciousness and giving it a means of expression.
Okay, so what does this mean in the context of this difficult passage? Jesus must not be talking about food, here, right? Most likely Jesus is saying that the salt we need is the salt of purging, or purifying, ourselves. Coming on the heels of the ‘gehenna’ teaching, Jesus is saying that we need to be in the business of purging ourselves from the sin that dwells within us. Obviously He isn’t talking literally when He is referring to the removal of body parts that cause us to sin. He is saying that those things that cause us to fall away from God and God’s love are things we need to purge away from our lives. If certain things lead us to sin, then we should stay away from those things. Change the things you see that are leading you away from God, and get help for things that you aren’t able to change on your own. If your friends are getting you into trouble, then find different friends. If going to a certain place begins to lead you in the wrong direction, don’t go there. If you think you might have a problem with something—say alcohol, drugs, or gambling—and you have tried to quit but can’t do it yourself, seek out trained counselors. Jesus says don’t continue to live in sin, but have salt in yourselves. Let the salt (of Christ) purge your sins and free you from guilt and help you live a Christ-filled life.
We are constantly involved in an inner battle with the forces of evil. Jesus has addressed this a number of times in the Gospels. Sin is a part of our existence that we are born into and we need the purging, purifying salt of Jesus Christ to cleanse us from our sin. When we feel guilt over things we have done, or have failed to do, turn to Jesus Christ in repentance. You will be forgiven. You will find strength, hope, and courage to meet the challenges you face, and you will find grace to lift you up. You will be accepted and loved.
Sin and the resulting guilt are erased through the blood of Christ. Our guilt and helplessness in our sinful existence has been overcome through the death of our Lord. In our baptisms we are made new—heirs to the Kingdom of God and the life that Jesus has won for us.
The sad thing is that we often fail to come to Jesus when we are in the throes of sin and guilt. We hide like Adam and Eve in the Garden because we fear God’s wrath. Gehenna and its ever-burning fire trap us in fear. But the reality is that God does not desire to punish us eternally. God calls us to turn to Him and live. Hell is a reality for those who defy God, but for those who turn to Him in repentance there is grace.
As God’s children, we are salted in the blood of the Lamb—the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. We are purified by Christ’s death and given new life in His resurrection. Through Jesus we are given the grace and the wherewithal to find help and healing, forgiveness and new life.
Christ’s purifying salt is good. It will never lose its saltiness. It’s power to purify souls is endless, and it is meant for everyone. Let us then, rejoice in our salt and be salt to others—here at home, and through our love, prayers, and presence—to the rest of the world.
Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”