Wrestling with God's Violence in Matthew's Gospel (Part 2)

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:
“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.

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Wrestling with God's Violence in Matthew's Gospel (Part 1)

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)
The phrase "weeping and gnashing of teeth" attributed to Jesus above in Matthew's telling of the parable is a phrase found often in Matthew's Gospel (Mt 8: 12; 13: 42, 50; 22: 13; 24: 51; 25: 30). It is not found in Mark or John, and only once in Luke,

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?


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Jesus and Empire: Two Ways to Read the Bible

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Let's consider two approaches to the Bible, both of which are found in the Bible. 

The Old Testament Approach

The Old Testament approach is about being protected and loved and cared for. The message of Moses was that as long as you follow the Law, you will be protected and cared for by the Provider, by any means necessary. There is of course debate within the OT about this. Many of the prophets claim that the reason the people were suffering famine and sickness and the ravages of war was because they were unfaithful. Other books such as Job or the Psalms claim that the system was not working as they were being faithful and were not being protected. Those same Psalms therefore call out for God's violent retribution, saying in essence "Protect me, the righteous victim, and give the bad guys what they deserve!"

Now, I want us to notice that this is not simply a story-line found in the Old Testament. It is one that has endured for centuries across many cultures, and one that we still largely embrace today. You could say that this is our national narrative in America. You will find it rehearsed over and over again in our movies and TV shows, and proclaimed by our politicians both red and blue. The focus is on us and our safety, and if the "bad guys" need to suffer in order for us to be safe and happy, well they must deserve it.

The New Testament Approach

In contrast, instead of a focus on self--a focus on our safety and well-being--the focus of the New Testament is on others, and especially on those who we esteem as the least deserving and the least valuable and the least moral. Especially how we treat our enemies, especially how we treat sinners, especially how we treat the "bad guys" reveals how we treat Jesus. 

To some extent this focus on care for the widow and orphan can be found among the OT prophets, but usually with the idea that God would violently destroy the oppressors, thus protecting the victims, rather than claiming, as Jesus did, that God is our example of enemy love. Here Jesus takes the message of compassion begun by the prophets to a place they never went.

That is, the NT is a response to the OT, acting as an inner-religious critique which Judaism had a long and healthy history of, a call by Jesus to reformation of his Jewish faith, taking it to a deeper level not focused on the welfare of one people or nation vs. others, but a message of redemption for all people.

Paul's expression of this good news for all people in the book of Romans can by summed up like this: His religious audience, seeing themselves as victims,  longs to see the bad guys (the Gentiles) receive God's wrath and retributive punishment. This is the Old Testament narrative, and the focus is on avenging the righteous victims. Paul's argument is that we are all bad guys, and so what we all need is restoration rather than destruction. Destruction is not something you should wish on others, because since we are all equally guilty, we would be wishing that on ourselves. Instead, what we need to wish upon everyone, including ourselves, is God's restoration. That, Paul argues, is the justice of God--not a justice of destroying, but a justice of restoring. That's what God was doing in Christ. That's the way of reconciliation. That's the gospel.

Now, we might be tempted to think at this point we could just read the New Testament and disregard the Old. In some respects this may be true. The NT does take things higher than the OT, in the way 2.0 goes beyond 1.0. 

However, what is far more important than what we read is how we read it. We need to learn how to read with the social focus rooted in compassion that Jesus taught. If you instead read the New Testament with a focus on self, with a focus on you being loved, and you being forgiven, as opposed to you forgiving others and you loving others, you can end up missing the entire point of the New Testament.

Despite how pious it may sound, the focus of Jesus is not on my salvation, my  forgiveness, or on me being accepted.  Yes, all those things matter, but I am loved so that I can in turn love others the same way Jesus has loved me. My forgiveness needs to result in me repenting of my self-focus and learning how to love. It is vital that we learn to love ourselves, but we can't stop there, and if we do, we stop at a place where it is all to easy to justify violence towards others. That was Luther's mistake, and Augustine's. It has been the mistake of many good people.

What's crucial to understand is that this focus on self is not about being a selfish hedonist sinner, it is at its heart a pious focus. It is a focus which sees itself as good. Because of this pious focus on self, Christians can read the New Testament and see it as focused on personal salvation, ignoring its core focus on enemy love and social justice. This pious self-focus leads people to read the New Testament in a way that makes Christianity the impotent chaplain to empire, missing the radical challenge to empire found in Jesus' message of the kingdom of God and in the very act of proclaiming Jesus as Lord (this applies not just to the Roman empire, but also to American empire).

The call of Jesus is a call to turn from a self-focus (including a nationalistic focus of "us" as opposed to "them" which characterizes much of the OT, and characterizes our country's national rhetoric), and to instead embrace a relational social focus that especially cares for those we love the least. It is a focus of compassion.

If we can read the NT with that social focus rooted in compassion, then we will find a feast. However, it is equally possible to read the NT with a focus on self and us/them thinking (which we naturally gravitate towards),  and miss the whole thing. You will end up underlining and highlighting just the parts that are about your comfort and assurance, and skipping over all the hard parts that show us how to walk in grace and forgiveness and love like Jesus did.

When we think the whole point is about us, then it is extremely easy to justify hurtful actions as "collateral damage" on the road to our happiness. I've said that we need to learn to read the Old Testament like Jesus did, focusing on the parts that call us to compassion. But we all the more need to learn to read the New Testament, and the words of Jesus, with the focus of Jesus, which is a relational focus rooted in compassion. We need to learn to view all of life through that lens. It's not so much what you read, but how you read it. Lord, give me the eyes to see myself and others as Jesus did.

Let me end with a song by one of my favorite bands, Switchfoot, which I offer as a prayer,

Until I die I'll sing these songs
On the shores of Babylon
Still looking for a home
In a world where I belong

Where the weak are finally strong
Where the righteous right the wrongs
Still looking for a home
In a world where I belong

Feels like we're just waiting, waiting
While our hearts are just breaking, breaking
Feels like we've been fighting against the tide

I wanna see the earth start shaking
I wanna see a generation
Finally waking up inside

This body's not my own
This world is not my own
But I still can hear the sound
Of my heart beating out
So let's go boys, play it loud

On the final day I die
I want to hold my head up high
I want to tell You that I tried
To live it like a song

And when I reach the other side
I want to look You in the eye
And know that I've arrived
In a world where I belong

In a world where I belong

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How do you know God is like Jesus?

Thursday, October 08, 2015

A reader asks, "How do you know that the New Testament version of God embodied in Jesus is closer to what God is truly like?"

Let's consider how we know things: In the traditional approach we know based on authority. We know it's true "because the Bible says so." But this is a circular argument, meaning it is a logical fallacy, and does not prove anything.

Really what we are saying is not that this proves it (which a circular argument certainly does not), but simply we are affirming our trust. To someone who does not share that trust, this is not compelling of course. Trust needs to be earned.

We know most things based on trust. We trust the Bible, and so we believe it. We trust our pastor and so we believe them. It's not a matter of certainty based on independent verification (which is a modernist quasi-scientific model), but of trust (a relational model).

There's nothing wrong with trusting what is trustworthy. The question is how we come to believe that it is trustworthy or not. Trust is learned based on positive experience. So the reason I trust that the New Testament version of God embodied in Jesus is closer to what God is truly like (to return to the question posed above) is because I have experienced God's love, and have experienced that it is wonderful and life-giving. When I read the Gospels I recognize that the same "Someone" whose love I have known looks like the person of Jesus who I find in the Gospels. My heart cries out "it's you!" recognizing that the same Jesus described in the Gospels is the one I have met through the Spirit.

I trust that picture of God because I experience that it is good and life-giving, and have experienced this in relationship over a long period of time. I also observe (through hearing other people's stories of their lives) that the not-Jesus-like understandings of God are harmful (harming both the one who holds it, and how they treat others). In other words, I look at the fruits of a not-Jesus-like understanding of God and see that it is rotten, and I look at the fruits of a Jesus-like understanding of God and see that it is good.

That is how I "know" in the biblical sense of the word, which has to do with intimate trust (aka faith). This is the kind of relational "knowing" Paul is speaking of when he prays,

"I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God." (Eph 3:17-19)

As Paul says, through experiential trust we can know (personally through experience) this love that surpasses knowledge. That's pretty awesome, and it's all about relational trust, or to use the word the NT uses for trust, it's about faith. Faith=trust.

Now this immediately brings up another issue. Anyone who, having experienced Christ's love and trusting him sought to follow Jesus more, knows that while his way is indeed good, it is certainly not easy. The Disciples all knew that, and as we become Christ's disciple we find it too.

This is because the way of Jesus is not self-focused, but socially focused. This is good for us because we are social beings made for relationship, but it stretches us as we grow out of self-focus (which is the focus we begin with as infants born into the world), and mature to become social and empathetic towards others.

In short the way of Jesus is good, but it is more than that. It is good but also hard. That's why this way is not about simply following what "feels good" or what we "like" (as so many fear), but rather about following what is truly good for us and for the world, even if doing that is hard. And let's face it, good things are hard.

Next time we'll dig into this a bit more, looking in more detail at what the good/hard way of Jesus looks like practically.

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