Saturday, October 31, 2015
Last time we discussed the problem of God's violence in Matthew's Gospel. In short, we find in Matthew's Gospel a clear and beautiful articulation of how we are to walk in Jesus' way of radical forgiveness and enemy love. However, the more we learn to walk in this way, the more we see how it is incongruent with the violent picture of God we also find in Matthew's Gospel. Rather than God looking like Jesus, God instead looks like an angry human king.
In particular, we looked at the parable of the wedding banquet in Matthew 22 where we read that the king (presumably representing God in the parable) was "furious" ordering his bond servants to "put those murderers to death and set their city on fire" (v7). We also hear about a man without wedding clothes who also outrages the king. The king again orders his servants to ‘Tie him up hand and foot and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth!’ (v14).
The typical way this parable is read is to see the authority figure making an "example" out of the man without wedding clothes. In other words, things like public beatings and executions have the intent of showing the justice of those in authority and sending a message of "that's what you get" to the populace.
We see this in the preceding chapter in the parable of the tenants where we find a related theme of tenants who have mistreated the master's servants and son. Jesus asks "When the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?" and the people answer, "He will bring those wretches to a wretched end" (Mt 21:40-41). So when the authority comes and sees that the people have been bad, what is the "right" thing for the authority to do? The people say the right response is one of violence. That is their expectation. That's why executions in the past were not done in secret, but in the public square where everyone would gather to watch the hanging or burning at the stake. Jesus was crucified at the top of a hill by the Roman authorities, left to hang naked for everyone to see.
This is somewhat reversed in stories where the "rebels" are the ones we relate to. The Jews had long been oppressed by foreign powers -- first by Assyria, then Babylon, then Persia, then Greece, and then finally— centuries later in the time of Jesus— by the Romans. Israel was passed on as the spoils of war from one successive occupying power to the next. So their messianic hopes revolved around the coming of a warrior-king messiah modeled after David, the warrior-king. Here the expectation was that instead of the Roman Gentile king violently punishing the people, things would be set right by the messiah violently punishing the Gentiles, and being set in place over them as the rightful king.
So the one who is king is changed, but the way a king acts with violence is the same. It's a reversal of power, but the means of power is unchanged. The "good" king is just as violent as the bad one. It's simply a matter of what team you are on.
This is not just how it was seen at the time of Jesus, it is equally how we see things today. Consider the plot line of stories like Star Wars or Lord of the Rings. It's about a little guy (a farm boy named Luke or a tiny Hobbit) who must take on pure evil, and the means to doing this ends up being violence. For example in Star Wars the movie ends with farm boy Luke blowing up the Death Star. Boom! This is followed by scenes of people cheering. But that "Death Star" was filled with humans. So why are we all cheering that? One reason is because all the "Storm-troopers" (who represent Nazis) wear masks covering their faces. So this is a story that is masked. The masks dehumanize them, and so it is okay to see them killed in mass. In the movie the heroes frequently grin or cheer when they kill one, like it's a fun game. The violence is seen as just and good by us.
So this is not just a story from a past primitive people, it is a story we still tell today. It is a story that has characterized how we see things for centuries upon centuries, and still does. Killing "bad guys" is what justice looks like. That's the story we believe. That's the story of our world, our culture, adopted and given legitimacy by our religion.
Until it is unmasked by the cross.
Here we have a story of a king (Caesar) who has a man (Jesus) publicly executed. This is supposed to show everyone the authority of Rome, shaming the crucified one, showing his sinfulness, weakness, and illegitimacy. As Paul says, Christ became "a curse" when he hung on the cross (Gal 3:13).
But the Gospels do not tell the story like this. They do not tell the crucifixion as a story of a just punishment of the guilty, but of the unjust punishment of the innocent. God is not seen in the punishing authority of the king, but in the weak and shamed victim--Jesus. "God was in Christ" Paul tells us (2 Cor 5:19).
The cross unmasks the illusion that the authority's violent show of power represents justice. The scapegoat is innocent. The authorities are in the wrong. This is not revealed by Jesus conquering the authorities by violence, but by suffering violence. Again, Paul writes "having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross" (Col 2:15). Rather than the authorities making a public spectacle of the scapegoat, the scapegoat makes a public spectacle of the authorities.
We see this with Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and today in places like Ferguson where the authorities' violence reveals their injustice to the world. We see that the one who we had previously seen as bad (the black man) is in fact the innocent victim of violent abusive power.
Once our eyes are opened like this, we see everything differently. Stories that before celebrated violence now are upsetting to us because they no longer seem just and good. Once we have stood at the foot of the cross, the story in Matthew of a king punishing a man without wedding clothes can never be the same. We begin to ask whether God in Christ would not identify with the man, rather than the king. The man was without wedding clothes, but Jesus "had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him" (Isa 53:2). In the Gospels we hear the story of a king who has his servants arrest, beat and crucify a man. When we then read a story of a king who has a man tied up and cast into darkness, it's hard not to see Jesus in that man.
Now, did Matthew see Jesus in the man in his telling of Jesus' parable? Was the intent of Jesus' parable to portray the king as unjust, rather than as representing God? Perhaps. But it is not necessary that it does. It is often the case that Jesus' parables begin with the common assumptions of the culture. Jesus begins there, and then pull us towards a new way of seeing. We have seen that the people assumed that it was good for a king to act in violent retribution, exclaiming, "bring those wretches to a wretched end!" We have also seen that our stories today still often are characterized by that same assumption where we cheer when the bad guys are killed. It is entirely possible that this parable begins with that pre-cross assumption that it is good when kings punish the disobedient. But reading it post-cross we need to question the goodness of the violence of the powers and authorities, and indeed we need to question whether God is like a king at all. In Matthew's Gospel Jesus says,
You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave — just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mt 20:25-28).
So if God is like Jesus, then God is like a servant, and not a like a king. When we read through the lens of the cross, this undoes all of our stories. It undoes and unmasks the stories that define us, including the stories we find in our sacred texts. We stumble over this parable in Matthew because we have had that story unmasked by this very Gospel. The cross has taught us to stumble. For we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block (1 Cor 1:23). As it is written:
May our stumbling at the foot of the cross lead us to fall into the arms of Jesus.
“See, I lay in Zion a stone that causes people to stumble
and a rock that makes them fall,
and the one who believes in him will never be put to shame.” (Rom 9:33)
May our stumbling at the foot of the cross lead us to fall into the arms of Jesus.