Saturday, October 24, 2015
There are several places in the New Testament which seem to endorse God's violent retribution. This creates a conflict with the way of Jesus which is focused on enemy love, reconciliation, restoration, and forgiveness. Are we called to love like Jesus did, but God is not? How can we make sense of this apparent contradiction?
This is hard enough when it appears in New Testament books like Revelations, but what about when we see it expressed in the very words of Jesus himself, recorded in the Gospels? Consider this passage from Matthew 22, known as the parable of the wedding banquet,
Jesus spoke to them again in parables, saying: “The kingdom of heaven can be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to summon those who had been invited to the banquet, but they would not come. Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited, “Look! The feast I have prepared for you is ready. My oxen and fattened cattle have been slaughtered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.”’ But they were indifferent and went away, one to his farm, another to his business. The rest seized his slaves, insolently mistreated them, and killed them.
The king was furious! He sent his soldiers, and they put those murderers to death and set their city on fire. Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but the ones who had been invited were not worthy. So go into the main streets and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ And those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all they found, both bad and good, and the wedding hall was filled with guests.
But when the king came in to see the wedding guests, he saw a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. And he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without wedding clothes?’ But he had nothing to say. Then the king said to his attendants, ‘Tie him up hand and foot and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth!’ For many are called, but few are chosen.” (Matthew 22:1-14)If we see the king in this parable as representing God, then we see a picture of God's violent retributive judgment, both for the "city" (likely a reference to Jerusalem) "The king was furious... put those murderers to death and set their city on fire." (v7) and for the one without "wedding clothes" ‘Tie him up hand and foot and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth!’(v14).
Now it is worth noting that in Luke's telling of this same parable, the violence is completely absent,
But Jesus said to him, “A man once gave a great banquet and invited many guests. At the time for the banquet he sent his slave to tell those who had been invited, ‘Come, because everything is now ready.’ But one after another they all began to make excuses. The first said to him, ‘I have bought a field, and I must go out and see it. Please excuse me.’ Another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going out to examine them. Please excuse me.’ Another said, ‘I just got married, and I cannot come.’
So the slave came back and reported this to his master. Then the master of the household was furious and said to his slave, ‘Go out quickly to the streets and alleys of the city, and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.’ Then the slave said, ‘Sir, what you instructed has been done, and there is still room.’ So the master said to his slave, ‘Go out to the highways and country roads and urge people to come in, so that my house will be filled. For I tell you, not one of those individuals who were invited will taste my banquet!’” (Luke 14:16-24)
Someone asked him, “Lord, will only a few be saved?” So he said to them, “Exert every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to. Once the head of the house gets up and shuts the door, then you will stand outside and start to knock on the door and beg him, ‘Lord, let us in!’ But he will answer you, ‘I don’t know where you come from.’ Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets.’ But he will reply, ‘I don’t know where you come from! Go away from me, all you evildoers!’ There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and all the prophets in the kingdom of God but you yourselves thrown out. Then people will come from east and west, and from north and south, and take their places at the banquet table in the kingdom of God. But indeed, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.” (Luke 13:23-30)Note above that not only do we have the phrase "weeping and gnashing of teeth" but also a reference to a "banquet table in the kingdom of God." Is it possible that Matthew has merged these two stories from Luke into his version of the parable of the wedding banquet?
Scholars have lots of theories about the sources for the synoptic Gospels and how to account for their parallels and differences, but one thing is clear: We are not dealing with anything like a direct quote from Jesus. In the Gospels we always see Jesus as he is presented by the particular Gospel author.
That means that Jesus might be off the hook for having a violent image of God. One can make a very strong argument that Matthew has added the violent pictures of God's judgment parts to Jesus' stories. Still, we are left with the hard reality that at least some of the writers of the New Testament seem to endorse a violent image of God, while at the same time maintaining that we as humans should practice nonviolence, forgiveness, and enemy love.
It's telling that we have four Gospel accounts, not just one. The goal seems to have been a richer picture through a diversity of perspectives, rather than an attempt to find the one right perspective. Matthew, in contrast with the other Gospels, tends to focus on God's violent retribution. At the same time, Matthew's Gospel also focuses on our life of radical forgiveness and enemy love. The Sermon on the Mount is from Matthew's Gospel!
That's the really hard part: It would be easy if we could simply write off a particular author, saying "I don't like Paul" or "I don't like Matthew" But what are we to do when we find some parts of what they write to be amazing and wonderful, and other parts disturbing and wrong? That's exactly what I experience when I read Matthew. I find things in Matthew's Gospel that are really disturbing and seem to conflict with the vision of God in Jesus I have embraced, and at the exact same time I find some of the very best pictures of Christlike love in that very same book.
I also don't think we can explain these violent passages in Matthew's Gospel away. From an honest reading of the text, I must conclude that Matthew did not see any problem with the violent picture of God's judgment that he was painting. In fact, Matthew seems to relish in the violent imagery. It is presented as good, just, right, and even as a source of comfort, knowing that God will "pay back" those who have hurt you. I understand that pull towards wanting revenge when we have been hurt, but I still think it falls short of the vision of Jesus... the one I find in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew(!)
Note here that I am neither taking a typical conservative approach, nor am I taking a typical liberal approach to biblical interpretation.
A typical conservative approach would be to explain how God's violence is good. A typical liberal approach would be to explain how we have misread the text, and how it is not actually endorsing God's violence. I am instead am taking a different approach which acknowledges that the author is indeed presenting God's violence as good, but disagrees with the author's view. That's harder to do. The conservative approach is based on an authoritarian reading. The liberal approach actually is too, it just tries to argue that we are misreading it, but it is still assumed that the text is perfect--so long as we can read it right. It is thus still an authoritarian approach, and I find that all authoritarian approaches are morally unhealthy because they stagnate our moral development. I therefore insist that we need to learn to morally deliberate. It's okay to disagree with what we read, and in fact we all do this. In fact, unless we ask questions, seeking understanding, we cannot learn or grow. So the question is how we can do that faithfully?
My take on Matthew is that he does see God's violence as good, and I think Matthew's understanding of God is lacking. That does not mean I don't like the Gospel of Matthew. In fact, I love it. I very much appreciate Matthew's take on how we should live as followers of Jesus. I have grown in Christ tremendously because of it. I still look to it as I continue to work out how to live in that way of Jesus. But the more I learn to walk in that, the less I relate to the violent image of God I also find in Matthew. I feel that my walk has taken me beyond this understanding of God, and as my understanding of how we humans should live has grown to be ever more in line with Jesus, my understanding of God has also changed to likewise be more and more in line with Jesus, taking me beyond the view of God that Matthew presents.
So how do I deal with that? Can I embrace some things in Matthew and reject others? If so, how can I tell which to reject and which to embrace? On what basis can I make that call, separating the "wheat from the chaff" so to speak?
Is this "picking and choosing"? Yes, it is. As I have maintained, we absolutely must pick and choose. It is not possible to read the Bible morally without moral discernment. To read the Bible and not pick and choose is to read immorally. Picking and choosing is a mark of moral maturity that we must develop as we grow morally. So there is no question whether we should pick and choose. To fail to do this will lead us towards an immoral reading, and hurtful and immoral application. The only question is how can we pick and choose well? How can we pick and choose faithfully?
READ PART 2