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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At 2:55 PM, Anonymous Robert said...

Very good follow-up to the first part derek. A few questions. What is Jesus meaning when He told His disciples they would end up like those killed by the falling tower if they did not repent?? When Jesus spoke of gehenna even though He did not mean a place of eternal conscious torment post-mortem, He did mean a punishment though right?? Just wanting to hear you speak more on these areas too see your take.

At 5:41 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

John the Baptist spoke of judgment coming, the Axe is at the root of the trees... Christ spoke of coming judgment as well on numerous occasions. Tells people to watch cause it will be sudden, it will be bad. We see Jesus grieving, how I longed to gather you under my wings...now your house lays desolate. The striking thing is that the great and terrible day of the Lord was supposed to come after John, the Elijah who was to come. But Jesus didn't come to condemn or bring judgment but He came to save. After Jesus was resurrected, are you now going to restore the kingdom to Israel? Jesus said it's not for you to know time. They may have been thinking, it's time for judgment and overthrow of Rome, it's time for some violence. And yet Jesus leaves, sends His Spirit to live in hearts and then time passes. Signs of bad things coming get worse and worse. Until 70 AD approx, Rome has had enough and in a short period of time slaughter on a scale unparrelled. The thing to note was, not in Acts or Paul's letters, or Peter, or John was their any talk of waiting to be made rulers over the heathens. And when the judgment came it was no benefit to Christians, but certainly gave them opportunity to practice showing compassion and mercy to those hurt the most by it.

So a few points to sum up:
-Jesus followed John but didn't bring judgment as expected
-Jesus was aware and warned of impending judgment
-Jesus continually surprised his followers by refusing to become king, as his kingdom is not of this world
-His followers experienced no benefit "of the king (Rome) bringing those wretches to a wretched end.
-But even as judgment came it came on all and only those who escaped were those who listened to Jesus warnings

Not sure how all that relates to today, just trying to piece it together little at a time. Brad

At 5:51 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

You think they were the bad guys cause they were killed by Pilate or God (that was their thought at the time nothing happens by chance). Jesus says to them, you are the bad guys. Your the ones that need to turn back to God and live. Or you will be cut off like they were. Could this be judgment 70ad or do you think Jesus is merely talking about their personal relationship with God and whether they will make it into heaven? I favor the former but I do see merit to the point Jesus is trying to tell the people, you are not better, more righteous, more favored because it didn't happen to you.

At 8:42 PM, Anonymous Phillip said...

Excellent stuff, Derek. I really would like to read your thoughts on Revelation, too. It was the only thing lingering in the back of my mind after reading Disarming Scripture.

At 5:50 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wept...so beautifullly and powerfully written. I know this Jesus alive in me, as me and we are broken-hearted for the world's suffering.

At 6:56 AM, Blogger Spiritual Drift said...

Good words today, Derek. Thank you.

At 11:09 AM, Blogger Pastor Gary Taylor said...

Thank you, Derek. I follow your blog because I like the way you read the Bible and how you explain it to us, your readers. I am a follower of Rene Girard's anthropology especially as articulated by many others such as yourself and I try as much as possible to share that with the congregations I serve as pastor. You and your work help me with that task. Thank you, again.

At 12:30 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Thanks for the kind and encouraging words guys, it means a lot.

At 12:42 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

"When Jesus spoke of gehenna even though He did not mean a place of eternal conscious torment post-mortem, He did mean a punishment though right"

No, I don't think he did. I think he's talking about a consequence of our actions rather than an action of God to hurt us. The point is to get those who are in the habit of pointing fingers to look at themselves and how they are hurting others in their religiousness.

However this still misses the much bigger and important point. The point is that when we focus on heaven and hell, we are focusing on the wrong thing:

Jesus primarily wanted to get people to not think so much about themselves (which is what a focus on one's eternal destination is -- a focus on myself). I think that what Jesus really really wanted was for us to learn to care for others and to care about how we can hurt others with our words and actions, and of course how we can heal others with our words and actions too.

We need to break away from that self-focus, we need to lose fear and dare to love. Jesus did that. Jesus was unafraid. Jesus was not concerned with avoiding hell, but willing to go to hell for the sake of the least, for the sake of those who were in chains. We need to learn to be fearless for love like that.

At 12:49 PM, Anonymous Derek said...


Good thoughts. Let me throw a wrench into one of them, just for the sake of furthering thought:

"But even as judgment came it came on all and only those who escaped were those who listened to Jesus warnings"

Jesus did not escape the "judgement" of Rome, neither did Paul, neither did the persecuted early church. As Jesus said, "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."

At 12:59 PM, Anonymous Derek said...


Basically I think that Revelations is advocating for our practice of non-violence, but finding hope and comfort in God's violent punishment of our enemies. I can understand that, but I think it is a limited perspective that falls short on it's vision of who God is.

Secondly, because of its genre it is super weird, and it's frankly much easier to get it wrong than it is to get it right. So if it was up to me (and it's not) I'd take it out of the canon. I never read it myself.

There are others who I respect greatly who see lots of good in it. I really appreciate them, but for me it's kind of like people who like Twilight. I appreciate that they like it. But I don't want to watch it.

At 7:00 PM, Anonymous Phillip said...

Ha! Good stuff. Thanks!

At 6:19 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Derek I love your exposition of the parable and the way you real with the problems head on. This si a really refreshing read.

The only thing that jars with me is that it seems to me that the back story – as told in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures – is more complex than the story you tell here. In these powers that oppress the Jews are interpreted not only as oppressors but also as being empowered by God to punish them for their unfaithfulness. So there is a central ambivalence here. God is on the side of the oppressed but raises up powers of oppression to punish his people when they are unfaithful and when they reject God’s prophets. The narrative in the Christian scriptures is certainly a story of a king) Caesar via his representative Pilate) who has a man (Jesus) publicly executed. However, it is also a story of the Messiah who is rejected by his own people and handed over to Caesar for shameful public execution. And Matthews’s parable concerns this rejection and perhaps anticipates the handing over of Jesus – in the guise of the invited guests who murder the King’s messengers. The King puts the murderers to the sword and burns their city – which seems to allude both to the past of Israel when foreign powers decimated it and took it captive and almost certainly to the ‘future’ of 70AD.

I think you are right that a simple Girardian reading of the parable that sees the King as tyrant and the man without the garment as the scapegoat/Christ figure doesn’t work, and seems to be what you would term a ‘liberal’ reading (although I think there are more subtle Giraridan perspectives that don’t simply explain away the difficult details). The King for example is not arbitrary in exacting justice upon those who murder his servants and this detail seems to be a clear allusion to the murder of the prophets and an anticipation of the judicial murder of Jesus. However, I completely agree that this is ‘justice’ from the view of those times. To burn a city is to kill everyone within it – the guilty and the innocent too; it is the rough justice of ancient siege warfare. This is not the action of God as Abba that Jesus proclaims in the Sermon on the Mount nor the God revealed by the Cross.

At 8:35 AM, Blogger Billy North said...


Great post and conversation!

I would be curious what your take is on Matthew 11:12

"From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and men of violence take it by force"

At 8:42 AM, Blogger kent said...

I hesitate to comment and am unconvinced I will put my thoughts clearly into words, but I have reservations about resolving things in the bible that don't "fit" our theologies. In my time in evangelicalism, I was driven to find the right hermeneutic thus allowing me to understand the things of god because I thought the portal for knowing him was my intellect. Since having a revelation of god as love, my worldview has changed, and this change was not based on right understanding of the bible. Therefore, to now go back to arguments about what these parables could or couldn't mean is unproductive because from my experience truth about god is not based on intellect but intuition. I realize that we are fearful of intuition because we feel that it is too subjective, but in reality, the subjectivity only occurs because our worldviews, which control our intellects, cause subjectivity in the interpretation of intuitional knowledge. I guess what I'm proposing is that we don't come to know god as love until we experience him as love, and experiencing him as love is something that happens at a different level than intellect. Intellect only interprets this experience. It doesn't create or control the experience.

At 8:41 PM, Anonymous Derek said...


Yes there is certainly a repeating narrative throughout the OT that, as you say, the foreign powers that oppress the Jews are seen being used by God to punish them for their unfaithfulness. However, I think it gets even more complex than that...

First there is protest against that narrative in books like the Psalms and Job where it is claimed that they are not suffering and being oppressed for their sin, and that they are innocent and the punishment is unjust.

A big shift occurs however around the time of the Second Temple and the Maccabees where the idea of the suffering righteous comes into play. This is of course seen in Isaiah 53. The idea here is that instead of assuming that if you are suffering you must be guilty, there is the idea that one can suffer for righteousness. That idea can be seen a lot in Matthew, in particular on the Sermon on the Mount.

Of course it is never the case that a culture shifts completely from one idea to another, so we see both of these ideas expressed by people in the NT. However, the idea of the suffering righteous obviously plays a big role in how they understood Jesus as messiah. If there is a big shift it is that while it was common to see the people as suffering righteous, no one had proposed before that the messiah himself would suffer for righteousness. That was a shocking idea. The expectation was that the messiah would come as a warrior-king to end suffering by violent conquest.

At 8:43 PM, Anonymous Derek said...


Sorry, that verse has always baffled me. I don't know what it means :)

At 8:48 PM, Anonymous Derek said...


I think I agree. What I am saying here in essence is that once we have love open our eyes, and we see people with the eyes of compassion, it's really impossible to see people in black and white good guy/bad guy terms. That impacts how we see things, including how we see the Bible.

I'm no arguing therefore that Matthew did or did not intend the parable to be read the way I am reading it. I'm saying that since my eyes have been opened by grace, by the one I encounter at the cross, I cannot see it the way I did before.

At 5:34 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Thanks Derek - an excellent clear answer and this a great discussion. You've still got me thinking :-)

At 5:54 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Hi again Derek – I actually don’t think I can add anything new to what you have already said so clearly here. However, since I’ve tied myself into knots over this one in the past I just thought I’d say it again in accordance with my own concerns here (hope that’s OK).

I think that where some of the more simplistic Girardian attempts at exegesis fall down is that they can view the Hebrew Bible as a varied text containing parts that endorse the myth of scared violence, parts that are ‘text in travail’ where we do hear the voices of victims but these are resentful victims demanding vengeance and parts in which the voice of the innocent and forgiving victim begins to emerge; however, the Christian Testament, especially in the Gospels, is seen as one of clarity in giving voice to the innocent and forgiving victim. I think this view is behind exegesis of the Parable of the Wedding banquet in Matthew that would argue that the man without a garment that is cast out represents Christ and it was Matthew’s clear intention that we should read the parable in this way. The more realistic approach which you are taking I think – and which seems right to me - is to see parts of the New Testament as also being a ‘text in travail’ that clash with the parts in which the innocent and forgiving victim is revealed in fullness. Is that fair as another way of expressing your hermeneutical principle here?

At 7:40 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

"Is that fair as another way of expressing your hermeneutical principle here?"

Yes it is.

It's hard to see the NT this way because I think all of us wish it were not that way, But we need to deal with the Bible we actually have. I firmly believe that we can use the Bible as a sacrament leading us to Christ, and that it is thus "inspired." I also see in it the seeds of a morality that is earth-shatteringly amazing. But the NT simply does not present us with a final and finished moral vision (think: endorsement of slavery, etc). It gives us a floor rather than a ceiling.

We need to honestly, humbly, and fearlessly face that, and then from that point work out how we can read it faithfully, so that we grow more and more in the love of Christ it points us to. Our focus needs to stop being a defense of the Bible we wish we had, and instead a focus on letting the Bible we do have lead us to be more moral and loving. We need to be defending Christ-shaped love, not a book. That book's divine purpose is to lead us to that love. When we neglect that and instead focus on defending it, we miss the whole point.

At 8:31 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Yes, correct. But consider his don't go back, flee the mountains talk in Matt 25ish that spoke of fall of Jerusalem. Like those who heeded Moses move inside or experience hail. Jesus saw it coming and warned people in their day. Some listened as history shows, some didn't.

At 12:53 PM, Blogger Joel Kessler said...

Hola Derek, I just got done reading Rachel Held Evans' book "Evolving in Monkey Town." And I just wanted to thank you for inspiring me to read her. She is truly a "grace preacher." It was a fantastic read....Appreciate ya'

At 5:45 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Hi Brad, I’ve been thinking about your posts here and thought you haven’t asked me I’ll give you my thoughts on this since they have formed up from your posts in this discussion. I think that whatever Matthew’s particular slant on this is – and the Gospel writers do each have their own particular emphasis in how they tell the story certainly – the thrust of all of the Gospel’s is that the rejection of Jesus was a tragedy for Jerusalem and a tragedy that Jesus warned of and even told his followers to flee from. And the parables of judgement in Matthew which come after the prophetic sign given by Jesus in the Temple do have this context. The issue for me concerns the nature of the judgement upon Jerusalem. Was it an active judgement by God? Did God raise up a Roman army to destroy Jerusalem in fury at the rejection and killing of his Son, and is this what Jesus is warning about here? This makes no sense to me at all. On historical grounds there were no ‘miracles’ in the Roman crushing of the Jewish revolt. Factions amongst the Jews rose up against the Romans – and the Romans were vastly superior in power to them in terms of numbers and military technology. The Jewish insurgents were also divided and killed each other and also innocent non-combatants (woman, children, the sick, and the elderly) in fearful sectarian violence - especially within the besieged City of Jerusalem. Josephus history of this makes for terrible reading. The only supernatural element in this was one of absence - that no legions of angels came to fight on behalf of the insurgents. Josephus concluded from the Roman victory that the Emperor Vespasian was indeed an agent of God. He became a turncoat and even honoured Vespasian with the title ‘Messiah’!!!!!!

I think it is a huge mistake to see the fall of Jerusalem as the result of the active wrath of God and the Roman armies as the agents of God wrath. The only way it makes sense to me is to see Jesus living out the pattern of the ‘king ‘ as Suffering Servant again without legions of destroying angels sent to the rescue – but then being vindicated by God in resurrection when he comes with Shalom the other side of conflict - while the destruction of Jerusalem was the purely the result of faction following Maccabean models of violent kingship and kingdom that lead to those who lived by the sword dying by the sword. The Jesus and his followers of course still suffered under the power of Rome and were killed by Roman powers as the Jewish zealots had been; so I don’t think this was ever a case of the good guys avoiding suffering while the bad guys get zorched. It is simply the case the those who suffer because of their own violence are only causing further cycles of destruction , while those who take on suffering to end violence and vengeance are building the Kingdom (being persecuted for the sake of righteousness).

At 3:55 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

That's great to hear!

At 4:00 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

I think that Dick made some really salient points here. I'd only add that generally, if we are looking to take ethical pointers from the Gospel of Matthew, while there is a whole lot of good stuff that should shape us (like the focus on radical forgiveness), one think I am really hesitant to adopt is the tendency to motivate good behavior via threat of violence. I think we can agree that fear of suffering is not a good way to motivate people towards developing character. Perhaps such an amygdala response has a place in the short term, but not long term.


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