Once I was running through the valley of Gehenna…true story! I actually did go running through the valley of Gehenna. This place whose name was synonymous with hell is a real place – today it is a pleasant park in Jerusalem, just outside the walls of the Old City. In seminary my classmates and I spent several weeks studying in Jerusalem, and I would go running through this fabled valley of Gehenna. It was a little weird to think, “Right now I’m running through the valley of Gehenna.”
It hasn’t always been a nice park however. Thousands of years ago, it was a barren valley, where children were sacrificed to pagan gods. It was a fearsome place of death. Later the Jews ended this practice of child sacrifice, and the place became a garbage dump, filled with rotting carcasses and constantly burning piles of refuse. To the Jews at the time of Christ, because of its horrible history and its status as a burning garbage dump, it became an image of hell.
Jesus refers to it several times in our Gospel today, within the context of a very serious warning. He uses very strong language in this Gospel: if your eye causes you to sin, he says, pluck it out. If your hand causes you to sin, cut if off, and so on. These warnings are impossible to ignore. They jump out at us. Jesus uses these striking examples because he really wants to drive the point home: don’t put your own salvation at risk with anything that will keep you away from God! Your immortal soul is worth too much! Jesus is speaking here using hyperbole, or exaggeration. This was a common rhetorical device among Jewish teachers. He is of course NOT speaking in literal terms: he is not saying that we should disfigure or dismember ourselves in order to get to heaven. But he is referring to anything in this world that acts as an obstacle to us in our journey on the path toward salvation. Jesus isn’t telling us that if we encounter a boulder in our path that blocks our way that we should move it or climb over it or walk around it; no, he’s telling us we should put dynamite all around it and blow it up! Get rid of it completely!
So what is a modern day equivalent to this? Plainly speaking, ask yourself what keeps you away from God? What keeps you from following Christ? What are the bad habits or sinful patterns of behavior that prevent you from advancing further on the path he has put you on. There are all kinds of things; I’ll just mention some big ones. For example, is money in the way of your relationship with Christ? In our second reading, St. James uses very strong language to warn about how wealth can get in the way. There is nothing wrong with wealth per se; after all, much good can be done with it. It becomes an evil when it gets between us and Christ, when it becomes an end in itself, when we look to it for happiness. St. James makes it clear that the money we earn, the things we have, have not been given to us to be hoarded and stored up for ourselves, but rather for us to share with others, especially with those in real need.
Is the internet in the way of your relationship with Christ? Does it lead you into sin? Believe me, this is a huge one for many, many people. The internet has made pornography extremely accessible; I don’t think that’s news to anyone. Anyone who goes on the internet can stumble across it. And it is hugely addicting. The younger you are when you are exposed to it, the more damaging it is and the more difficult it is to break free from. If we don’t actively try to protect children from it, they’re going to see it, and they are seeing it at younger and younger ages, and they’re getting addicted to it. Studies have shown the average age of exposure now is 10 or 11. It is also hugely damaging to present and future relationships. It distorts the reality of human sexuality. It creates unrealistic ideas about sex and what the human body should look like. And it is a tremendous obstacle to Christ.
What about alcohol or drugs? If we are talking about illegal narcotics, then as with pornography, there is no positive. Drugs are deadly to both body and soul. And if alcohol leads you to get drunk on a regular basis, or if you have to have it everyday to feel normal, then it has become an obstacle between you and Christ. Is there a toxic relationship that keeps you from Christ? Somebody that acts as a “bad influence” in your life? Do you have friends that lead you into temptation, or that bring out the worst in you? The thing with all of these examples, some of which are neither good nor bad in and of themselves, and others which are intrinsically evil, is that they poison not only our relationship with Christ, but ALL of our relationships.
So Jesus tells us, whatever is keeping you from me, then cut it off, pluck it out, get rid of it. Take the steps starting today to eliminate it from your life if it is serving as an obstacle in your journey to Christ. But even though Jesus used the examples of the hand, the foot, and the eye as things that could potentially lead people to sin, of course those things do not cause anyone to sin. The source of sin is found in our human will, in our ability to choose between good and evil. The hand, the foot, and the eye can be USED for evil, but they can also be used for good. So the eye can be used to see what are the needs in the world around us. The foot can take us to those who are in need of our help. The hand can give food to others; it can help others get up when they have fallen; it can be used to give comfort.
So it is not enough merely to cut out what is bad, but to replace it with what is good. Cut out of your life whatever keeps you from God, and then replace it with the things that will lead you closer to him: prayer, study of Scripture, spiritual reading, visits to the Blessed Sacrament. Replace it with interactions with real people. Replace it with spending time with family and with true friends. Replace it with service to others, acts of charity, of justice, and of love. Our eternal relationship with Jesus is the most important relationship we will ever have; it is the greatest gift we have been given. Let us receive and treasure this gift the Lord give us.