“Gnashing of teeth” has frightened me since I was a child. To be cast out “into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth,” as Jesus is quoted in Matthew 8:12, is terrifying. “Gnashing of teeth” occurs six times in Matthew and once in Luke, according to the footnotes in my Oxford Annotated NRSV.
I am re-reading Jesus’ words during my morning prayers, admittedly looking for comfort and inspiration as well as challenge. But these words were a sobering slap in the face the morning I write this. It reminded me of the monster god I’ve written of before, the one perhaps the global majority of Christians fear.
The contexts of the phrase sometimes include a “furnace of fire” or a “cutting in pieces” of an individual, and they are always about those who assumed they belonged as heirs of God’s kingdom or of God’s household. One seems anti-Semitic and others directed toward the self-righteous of any faith, the spiritually privileged. One is directed at a clearly abusive person, another at a mere under-achiever, and one has simply failed to wear the right garment. The fashion police would love that one!
I understand that prophets like Jesus used hyperbole, so you must cut off any body part that causes you to sin, and (I’ve been told) his Aramaic tongue did not include comparatives like “more,” so you must hate mother and father to love Jesus. That’s how I’ve dealt with Jesus’ harsher sayings in the past.
So why stumble on “gnashing of teeth” this morning?
Again, my footnote explained: “Gnashing of teeth, an indication of sharp pain or vexation.”
As someone who has ground his teeth in his sleep when anxious or clenched my teeth in anger or grit my teeth in frustration or metaphorically bit my tongue rather than weaponize it, the phrase absolutely incarnates sharp pain or vexation.
And I realize I’ve been “there” many times, that is, someplace outside of the kingdom of Jesus’ influence, outside of God’s commonwealth.
Though all these things are natural and necessary in the everyday world, the commonwealth of God is a place beyond anxiety, anger, frustration, and vitriol—and few there be that find it, to use another Jesus phrase.
So my fear of “gnashing of teeth” is a fear of what happens everyday for me as I face the news or traffic or people or schedules or the internet or health issues or—well, you get my drift. Gnashing of teeth is our contemporary lifestyle.
As much as I can let go of this in prayer, contemplation, kindliness, cooperation, activism and service, the closer I am to the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus followed his “gnashing of teeth” imagery by telling his petitioner, “Go; let it be done for you according to your faith.” And the loved one the soldier was asking for “was healed in that hour,” according to Matthew 6:13.
But I somehow also believe that God is to be found in our gnashing of teeth.
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