She said, ‘You’re cheating. You’ve left out all the bits about weeping and gnashing of teeth. About being thrown into the fiery flames. About hell.’
‘The piece for the holocaust was quite hellish,’ he replied. ‘Some fiery flames there.’
‘That’s not the same thing at all,’ she pointed out at once. ‘The holocaust is us throwing each other into the flames. Hell is where God does the throwing.’
‘All right then,’ he conceded. ‘The fiery flames – the weeping and gnashing of teeth – the whole thing. A harvest reflection.’
Matthew 13: 24-30, 36-42, 47-50:
He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’
Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, ‘Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.’ He answered, ‘The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
‘Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
There are some facts about Christianity which show it quite objectively to be different from most other religions, and really rather extraordinary. Unfortunately one of those facts is that every autumn somewhere near you in Britain there will be an act of divine worship which includes a tin of supermarket own brand peas.
In an act almost of cultural hooliganism, what would be a natural and colourful pagan celebration of harvest and of the powerful annual cycle of life – all reds and golds of autumn fruit and leaves – has been sacrificed by Christians to no very good end. First, it has been domesticated. Then, with just a subtle shift of attention towards man’s rather than nature’s activity in the harvest, what is left is a ‘religious’ celebration of the principles that you-reap-what-you-sow, that God-likes-people-like-farmers-who-get-up-very-early-in-the-morning-and-work-hard and, for good measure, if-there-are-a-lot-of-nice-things-around-it’s-best-to-store-them-away-because-hard-times-are-doubtless-coming.
These harvest principles are very potent. Most organisations depend utterly upon them; even countries try to run on them. Some people call them the Protestant work ethic. However that may be, Jesus spent much of his time pointing out that these principles have very little to do with the kingdom of heaven. Jesus called men and women to a heaven which is a far more reckless place where prodigal children are fêted, where a woman pours out precious ointment on Jesus and does not sell it for the poor, where labourers who only work in the afternoon are paid the same full day’s wages as those who worked from the morning, where earth is not a wise place to store up treasure and where lilies of the field which neither toil nor spin are clothed in glory greater than Solomon.
Jesus does have things to say about harvest. The harvest which exercises him is the day of judgement – the harvest of souls at the end of time, to be sorted according to whether they have brought forward good or bad fruit. About this harvest he says two things – insistently, vividly, melodramatically, indeed in any way in which he can capture his hearers’ attention. First, that the moral quality of what each of us does, thinks and says day by day is a matter of urgent and lasting importance. We need to be awake, judging the good and bad within ourselves with discernment and vigour, mending our ways but also trusting with confidence that God’s love and forgiveness are available to us. We must not sleepwalk through our lives. And second, that the seat of judgement over others is never ours to sit on. Never. Jesus puts this directly in the sermon on the mount and elsewhere: do not judge, so that you may not be judged; first take the log out of your own eye; forgive one another without limit.
In the harvest parable quoted above from Matthew, Jesus makes the same point in a different way. In this life, the good and the bad must grow together. Judgement is reserved to the divine realm at the end of time. For us to take that part now is tantamount to blasphemy. The only teeth about whose gnashing God invites us to muse are our own.
The following story borrows from John 8: 2-11 but is fictitious.
It was early on the day of judgement, and some angels brought to Jesus a man who had been caught judging other people. They asked whether they should cast him into the furnace of fire. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. After a while Jesus heard deep weeping and gnashing of teeth, and he looked up. Of the angels there was no longer any sign. Jesus said to the man, ‘Has no-one condemned you?’ The shaking of his teeth made it hard to hear the man’s reply. Then Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go and do not judge again.’