30As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ Matthew 25:30
Weeping and gnashing of teeth closes the lectionary year of Matthew in November. Lines like this make me glad to welcome the year of Mark soon. “Weeping and gnashing of teeth” occurs seven times in scriptures. Six of them are in Matthew. It’s Matthew’s version of “You’ll be sorry!” My version of Matthew’s version “If you can’t be a good example, you get to be a horrible warning. or a sermon illustration, or a character in my novel. So cut that out!” Aunt Tilly could find a disaster looming in a cream puff, so she was full of cautionary admonishment. “You’ll poke your eye out” was among the mildest of these.
We have purged the Grimm brothers’ tales, and don’t teach much Mother Goose anymore either. They were rich cautionary tales. It’s a wonder our children grow up at all without these tales to teach them how scary the world is. Now we just leave the broadcast news on the television for them to overhear. That is scary enough. Jesus, it seems, was not above a good cautionary tale. All six times teeth get gnashed in Matthew are at the end of parables. I hear my Aunt Tilly’s voice chiming in with Jesus every time.
Cautionary tales are the stuff of scary stories told around the autumnal camp fire with dead leaves rustling in the wind. After a really good tale one must fortify one’s self with s’mores before walking back inside. Someone is sure to jump out from the darkness on the walk back, just to demonstrate bravado. “That didn’t really happen, do you think?” one says to one’s self, or anyone walking alongside.
There is a guy in my community who drives a nearly wrecked pick-up truck with a billboard balanced in the open bed. The truck is covered with caution. The billboard warns of impending judgment, describes the decor of hell and gives a running census of the population there. A loudspeaker blares his messages of warning and coming disaster as he drives through the neighborhoods like an ice cream truck. I cringe when our paths cross. “THAT is not my Jesus,” I say to myself and anyone in the car with me.
Weeping and gnashing of teeth, bah. The words are blunted on ears that hear today’s news. There is so much of that in today’s news already, that fear of more of it has lost its cautionary power over me. “Hell is Real!” the mobile billboard screamed recently. Sure it is. I don’t have to wait to know that. Neither did Matthew’s audience. They also saw plenty of it in their time. So did Jesus.
The last person in Matthew’s gospel who gets hauled naked into the outer darkness, with weeping and gnashing of teeth, is Jesus. Of what good were all
those cautionary tales, that he would himself be bound hand and foot and arrive here in the outer darkness, abandoned even by God? Is there a pickup truck with a billboard mounted in back, driving through hell like an ice cream truck, proclaiming “I told you so!” while it plays an eternal mind-numbing music box loop ?
At the end of Matthew, we are fished out of the gnashing jaws of outer darkness in the same manner Matthew promised at the beginning: Emmanuel. God is with us through this Jesus. In the end, it is this Jesus who promises to be with us to the end of the age, weeping and gnashing of teeth in the outer darkness or not. Jesus is the one who can speak to us with authority on the subject. He went there before us, and can testify that God fished him out of the gnashing jaws of outer darkness.
Those who have ears, listen. That is what Jesus cautions. Listen, because this way of discipleship you’re on just might take you into the outer darkness if you dare.
Feed the hungry. Clothe the naked. Visit the prisoner.Expect to see Jesus in the eyes of your neighbor. Go to the nations and tell them the good news so that they want to be disciples too. Don’t forget that some doubted (and were not thrown into the outer darkness.) Expect the unexpected: the outer darkness could not hold onto one who dared to live such a life. This is real. The faithful disciple trusts. Do not be afraid.