When I was in seminary, I had the privilege to take an extended bible study to the Holy Land. I was gone for three months, two of which were spent going to places mentioned in the Bible. There were several options for how much you take with you on a journey like this, and my choice was to travel light. It meant that I did laundry every day by hand, but it meant that I only had two bags to carry when we moved around, which meant I was very mobile. That’s how I’ve tried to travel ever since: superlight or as light as possible.
While I was there, I visited Sinai, where the first reading took place, and Jerusalem, which is referenced in the Gospel. There are three valleys that run east of Jerusalem: the Kidron Valley, where the garden of Gethsemane and many of the events of Jesus’ Passion took place, the Tyropean valley, which comes down from the Temple Mount, and the Hinnom valley. The Hinnom valley was a sacred place where the ancient Canaanites did human sacrifices, and when the Jews settled there it became the town garbage dump, where they was always a fire burning.
So when Jesus warns about being thrown into Gehenna, he’s talking about the garbage dump outside Jerusalem. Since many of Jesus audience had made the trip to Jerusalem and seen the sights there, they would have known about the place, which was probably the biggest garbage dump they’d seen. It’s a little bit different image that we might have, but being considered trash good for slow destruction by burning is hazard enough for me. But since most of us have all our appendages, I’m sure you’re not taking the instruction to cut off your hands or tear our your eyes literally. If we did, I imagine we’d all be called “Lefty” and be wearing eyepatches. After all, no part of your body has a mind of its own, as much as we’d like to think it does. Everything happens between our ears, nothing moves that causes us trouble unless we tell it to. The inclination to sin comes from between our ears.
So what do we have to cut off to lighten our load, so we can travel compactly through this life? Instead of wanting to cut off our hand, we should be thinking of cutting off what motivates our hand. But it’s hard to give ourselves a lobotomy, so we have to control how we think. Usually it’s an appetite we let rule us, usually it’s a kind of selfishness, a form of greed or pride or both. Even dwelling on our pain is a kind of selfishness: if we’ve been done wrong, then we have an excuse when we don’t want to do something.
It is selfishness that calls us to rewrite the rules to our satisfaction, that leads us to sin. Obey your thirst, says one ad, why go hungry, says another. We’re lead to believe that self gratification is the way to happiness, and it’s worth anything it takes.
The problem is: that never works for long. We get hungry, we eat and sooner or later we get hungry again. We do something for a cheap thrill, and the thrill only lasts so long. It’s like a character from an old TV sitcom said about taking a particular drug: “This drug has a terrible side effect: it wears off.”
It’s in letting go of our selfishness that keep ourselves free from sin. It’s about letting go and letting God. Moses has a chance to be selfish in the first reading: two guys are prophesying in the camp who shouldn’t be there. He says, it’s all right, would that everybody could do what I’ve done. Jesus never claimed a monopoly on what he was doing: you didn’t have to be one of the elite to use his power. It was for everybody, and the disciples had to get used to that.
Jesus’ power is here for everybody; we share it in the eucharist. We need to let go of what causes us to sin, to lighten our load, to see the world as Jesus sees it, to be what Jesus needs us to be. We can do it if we let go and let God. All we need to do is lighten the load.