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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At 1:00 PM, Anonymous Robert said...

Derek- you lay out a very good case for needing discernment always when interpreting. Some thoughts that came to mind after reading your post are- is violence of some sort just a necessary part of how God must allow because of human freewill?? The Old Covenant was done with bloodas Abraham *passed between the halves* and when Moses sprayed all the Isrealites with blood as they ran past him. Jesus foretold of His death burial and resurrection and rebuked peter as not having Gods interests in mind when he tried to forbid Jesus from doing this. THroughout the OT rival nations and armies were used as judgment on Israel like the Assyrian and Babylonian captivity and destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Also, Jesus tells any who would be His disciple to take up their cross and follow Him.

I give these examples to show, in answer to your questio nat the end, it seems to be a complex thing and one we all must wrestle with. Is violence done in a specific way for a specific purpose actually t he moral thing which God made so??? Talk about ciunterintuitive!!??!! Great post Derek

At 2:56 PM, Blogger Juan C. Torres said...

Moltmann talks at some length about thizon his christology, The Way of Jesus Christ.

Thanks for helping me deal with these texts before Moltmann did!

At 7:52 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Can you share some of what Moltmann says?

At 8:23 PM, Blogger Joel Kessler said...

What a raw interpretation of the gospel of Matthew, Derek. This is why I love reading you and your thoughts. It's a holds-no bar-type of read every time, but yet is still very logical, systematical, and consistent. Thank you.

At 10:22 PM, Blogger Juan C. Torres said...

The Gospel of Matthew presents the judgment in apocalyptic terms, the most detailed account being Matt. 25:31–46.34 It is impossible to overlook the contradiction between the divine righteousness which Jesus proclaims to the poor and to sinners according to Matthew’s Gospel itself, and the punitive law of retaliation which the universal Judge apocalyptically enforces. In the Gospel of John the apocalyptic judgment is present in the mission and gospel of Christ, so that it can be said on the one hand that God ‘sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him’ (3:17), and on the other that ‘he who does not believe in him is condemned already’ (3:18). In Paul too there is still tension between the Christ who pleads for those who are his, as their representative, so that there is no charge that can be brought against those who are in Christ (Rom. 8:33f.), and Christ the Judge in the final judgment, before whose judgment seat everything will be revealed, ‘so that each one may receive good or evil, according to what he has done in the body’ (2 Cor. 5:10). The one conception is the justification of the sinner, which runs ahead; the other is the judgment according to works, which follows after.35
The theological problem is not the relationship between the future and the present of judgment. The problem is the difference between the righteousness of Christ in the different passages. All the New Testament writing agree in saying that in his gospel Jesus proclaimed the justice of the divine mercy to those who have received no justice, and the justice of divine forgiveness to the unjust. That was the difference between his proclamation of the kingdom and John the Baptist’s. The divine righteousness which Paul makes the subject of his apostolic gospel is the creative righteousness which creates justice and justifies; it is not the penal law of retaliation
The love of God which Jesus proclaimed and embodied is not love in mutuality; it is prevenient and unconditional love. Its most perfect form is the love of one’s enemies. The reconciliation in whose light the Epistle to the Colossians sees the whole cosmos, took place through Christ’s self-surrender on the cross. Through his sufferings Christ has ‘slain enmity’, says the Epistle to the Ephesians (2:16). Through the prevenient love of enemies and by overcoming enmity, the messiah Jesus creates his kingdom of peace. That is what the gospel of peace is about.

At 10:23 PM, Blogger Juan C. Torres said...

Is it conceivable that in the final judgment the coming Christ will act in contradiction to Jesus and his gospel, and will judge according to the penal law of retaliation? He would then put Jesus himself in the wrong, and would be appearing as someone different, someone Christians do not know, and therefore a universal judge whom they would have to fear. Any such clash between the Christian faith and the Christian hope would be unendurable. It would destroy the consistency of the Christian message.
Unfortunately this tension has never been resolved in Christian tradition. On the one hand we have apocalyptic Christianity, which subordinates the saving gospel of Jesus—viewed as God’s last offer in history—to the ultimate law of retaliation in the Last Judgment. On the other hand we have Christian eschatology, which sees Jesus in the figure of the universal judge and expects that he will finally bring justice to those who have never received justice, and will make the unjust just; which expects that he will ‘slay’ enmity for ever—enmity, but not his enemies, whom he will transform through the power of his love, so as finally to set up his kingdom of peace without end. The purpose of Jesus’ judgment is not retaliation in all directions. Its aim is to set up the kingdom of peace, founded on the righteousness and justice which overcomes all enmity. The law which this judge applies, we might say, is a law whose purpose is rehabilitation.
The final judgment is at all events no more than the beginning of the new creation of all things, and must be viewed in this provisional character. It is not an end but a beginning. If it is seen like this, then it of course raises the question about universal reconciliation and the redemption of the devil. But this does not have to be affirmed in order to spread confidence about the judgment, any more than a double outcome of the judgment for believers and the godless has to be affirmed in order to emphasize the seriousness of the human situation. Whatever the outcome of Christ’s judgment of the living and the dead—whether all will be saved or only a few—this is Jesus’ judgment, and Christians can wait for it only in the light of the gospel of Jesus Christ which they know and believe. But this Jesus does not come to judge. He comes to raise up.36 That is the messianic interpretation of the expectation of Christ’s judgment.

Moltmann, J. (1993). The Way of Jesus Christ: Christology in Messianic Dimensions. (M. Kohl, Trans.) (pp. 336–338). Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.

At 3:13 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Hi Derek,
I totally agree with your approach to this. I agree that Matthew seems to endorse violence (especially in the endings to his parables) but there is so much else that contradicts that. Your emphasis on readers making moral judgments--and , in fact, allowing and encouraging that--when we read scripture is not only enlightening, but freeing for anyone that felt they had to accept the views of authors in both the OT and NT. I think that especially thoughtful and Jesus centered Christians can work their way around these things in Matthew. George MacDonald's story "The Gray Wolf" is an example of using the "weeping and gnashing of teeth" phrase in a redemptive way. Anyone interested in MacDonald and this can take a look at this thread from a couple years ago---but read the story first! http://evangelicaluniversalist.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=28&t=4868

In any event, I appreciate your thought and in that group discussion I saw recently regarding this, yours was what resonated most with me. Oh, and have you read any of David Sim, the biblical scholar's stuff on this? I've only read a bit of his work, but this short paper is interesting regarding Matthew and violence.http://www.hts.org.za/index.php/HTS/article/view/860/1416

All the best,

At 8:27 PM, Blogger Pastor Gary Taylor said...

Why do you assume that the king in the parable is God? While Jesus begins the parable with "the kingdom of heaven can be compared to a king . . ." it might just be that the kingdom of heaven is suffering the violence of the king. Perhaps the one closest to God in this parable is the one who's hands and feet are bound and who is tossed out into the darkness. Isn't this God/Jesus who suffers the violence of the kingdom by dying on the cross? I refer you to Paul Neuchterlein's page at http://girardianlectionary.net/year_a/proper23a.htm where he discusses this alternate understanding of the parable.

At 10:10 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Thanks for those links. What is the group discussion you are referring to?

At 10:11 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

I think I can go one better than that, but you'll need to wait for part 2.

At 5:58 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Hi Derek,
It was a this article that Brad Jersak linked to on FB a couple days ago.http://www.clarion-journal.com/clarion_journal_of_spirit/2015/10/unchristlike-images-of-god-in-matt-22114-b-jersak-b-zahnd-d-flood-a-klager.html

At 8:28 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

Neat, I did not realize that was up yet.

At 5:09 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Hi Derek –

(I used to be Sobornost at EU and we’ve chatted before ). Here are my scatter brained responses.

I have found this parable very disturbing and still do for all of the reasons that you give and more – and how can we imitate Jesus who shows us that God is merciful and all forgiving is at the same time we have to entertain fantasies of God pouring out his destructive wrath upon the wicked like an aggrieved all powerful earthly King -because that imaginative construct is going to insinuate itself into our dealings with others. I very much approve of John Cassian’s warning that Brad Jersak cites in the Clarion mini symposium – to ascribe anthropomorphic wrath to God is to utter blasphemy.

If the parable is in some sense about 70 AD – and that seems a reasonable inference. I find the whole idea that God punished ‘the Jews’ in this way deeply problematic – and I know that you do too; but I will expand on my reason for disquiet. I note that according to Josephus the different Jewish sects with conflicting ideas about ideological and ritual purity slaughtered each other within the besieged City of Jerusalem in sectarian violence. Even the Roman besiegers looked on filled with pity and fear at the great distress this caused. In this sense I can see Jesus warnings being rejected and then people acting out the script of their own violence and therefore bringing upon themselves and upon others caught up innocently in their violence a terrible fate that could have been prevented. Yes that makes sense to me. And it seems to me that this exclusionary sectarianism was part and parcel of the exclusionary violence that marginalised the Jewish – lost sheep - that Jesus reached out to and healed and ate with

However, the problem here is that some Christians have always spoken about this as being part and parcel of the vindication of Jesus and therefore a ‘good’/providential outcome. But the Jewish Wars and the Fall of Jerusalem were a tragedy in which the innocent and the violent perished alongside each other with Rachel weeping for her children as ever (I cannot think that Jesus’s words to the weeping women on his way to his crucifixion telling them to weep for themselves and for their children were taunting words; rather I hear them as lamentation at an impending tragedy). It is disquieting how later generations of Christians looked upon the desolate City of Jerusalem in triumphalist ways. Even Origen taunted a Jewish interlocutor with this as a sign that God had withdrawn his favours from the Jewish people because of their rejection of Christ. Luther saw it as the first of the signs of God’s rejection and all calamites suffered by the Jews from that time onwards as further instalments of the same divine judgement.

The Messianic banquet refers back to Isaiah’s universal/inclusive vision of course. Here the Jews and the Gentiles share in the meal together. Many texts from just before and around Jesus’ times reveal a revisionist tendency in Second Temple Judaism regarding this vision. The Rabbinic Targums in Isaiah from the time of Jesus has the Gentiles being invited to the feast and then killed. The Book of Enoch (that Jude counts as ‘inspired’) has the Gentiles incited to the feast and then slaughtered by angels of God. So these were the pious expectations of at least come Jews during Jesus’ day – they were expecting apocalyptic vindication from a God of wrath against the Gentiles; and I think this is an important part of the context of Jesus’ warnings.

At 5:17 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Part 2

James Alison in ‘Raising Abel’/ Living in the End Times looks at Matthew’s parable of the Wedding Feast in terms of what he argues are Jesus’ subversions of the apocalyptic genre from within. It’s a complex argument but in stuttering summary I’d say –

He points out that in Jewish apocalyptic writing of the time we have hard and fast dualisms – between the righteous that are vindicated and the wicked that are destroyed and between time that is to be eliminated and eternity too. However, Jesus using the language of apocalyptic problematises who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’ in the Kingdom and shakes up all apocalyptic certainties. Also by speaking of the Kingdom as both something that is coming but also is already here he collapses dualisms of time and eternity too; it is in time that the Kingdom is rejected or embraced in our response to victims. Alison sees this as Jesus vision but as a vision which the New Testament writers only gradually came to grips with as they unhooked themselves slowly from apocalyptic imagination.

Alison points out that the Parable in Matthew before the Wedding Banquet is the Parable of the Tenants. This is also found in Luke but whereas in Luke Jesus supplies the information that the Landlord will punish and destroy the wicked tenants in Matthew he asks his ascended what the landlord should do and they supply this information. So it is they that imagine God as being that wrathful judge. Then in the Parable of Wedding Feast he give a piece of information – which unfortunately he does not give a reference for; that it is common knowledge that at Wedding Banquets in the Middle East in those times the host would actually supply the tunics for all guests to wear over their clothes. As we known both the good and the bad are invited to this feast so – Alison argues the guest who is without a tunic is the one who has imagined that they are in place of judgment rather than at a feast and all that this entails. Alison then goes on to say that in the Parable of the Talents the same vision is there – the ‘sin’ of the grudging steward is concerned with who they have erroneously imagined to be.

That’s James Alison for you – summarised in a cack handed way. However, I can still see the appeal of the other Girardian interpretation. The person without a garment – and it is notable that this is a single person – the one who opens not his mouth before the powers and is cast out also is redolent of Christ who is soon to appear before Pilate. Perhaps it is possible to see the parable as working on two levels . On one level the person excluded is the one who has imagined God as sectarian, grudging and violent. On another the person excluded is Jesus who is about to be excluded so as to unmask the powers and lead them in triumph. Not very clear on this – but perhaps...

At 7:25 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

Lots of good stuff to chew on, thanks. I can certainly see how the parable of the sheep and the goats functions in this way -- taking a familiar story of the judgement and turning the tables of who is in and out. I'm not convinced that this particular parable can be seen to function in that way however. I'll share my own reading of it in my next post.

At 7:26 AM, Anonymous Derek said...


Thanks for posting the Moltmann quote! Good stuff.

At 8:25 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

I’m not convinced by James Alison’s analysis either Derek – although it’s part of a far bigger argument and I’ve not it justice. I very much look forward to your interpretation.

At 8:25 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

I’m not convinced by James Alison’s analysis either Derek – although it’s part of a far bigger argument and I’ve not done it justice. I very much look forward to your interpretation.

At 8:49 PM, Anonymous Phillip said...

All of my favorite theologians love The Sermon on the Mount. I mostly do too ... But it's confusing! ... Examples: I didn't come here to cancel a single period of the law. (Less than a chapter later.) I'm cancelling this part of the law ... Be perfect like God, but don't worry about a thing (Trying to be perfect makes me worry a lot!) ... Thinking angry thoughts about the dude who cut me off in the traffic is the same as murdering him in my heart??? ... Seriously, though, I love it but I find the Sermon on the Plain more accessible and inspiring ... Sorry for the tangent!

At 12:24 PM, Anonymous Ryan Moyer said...

Hi Derek,
Long time reader but first time poster. As I wait anxiously for part 2, just wanted to second, or third the alternate interpretations I've read on these parables in Matthew: The one I've held on to the most is similiar to what Gary posted above: https://zdbu.files.wordpress.com/2011/04/the-blessedness-of-being-left-behind-e28093-zach-dawes2.pdf Here, Dawes argues that " the one’s who are excluded, who are cast out, who are
left behind, are the blessed ones who embody the kingdom of heaven."

At 1:27 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Thanks Ryan, good stuff!

Looks like a lot of folks are proposing Girardian readings. I have just posted PART 2 where I give my stab at a Girardian reading. I think it avoids the pitfalls of these other readings which rely on the parable being intended as subversive. Go check it out, and let me know what you think!


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