Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Two Visions, One Book - that's just the way it is


Biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan argues in his book, God and Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now, that in the biblical tradition, both Old and New Testaments, two incompatible and contradictory explanations of God’s final victory over the evil and injustice of the world run side by side, often in the same biblical books. One explanation is extermination. It is reflected in the Noachic solution to evil in the world, namely, the complete destruction of the wicked. Crossan writes,

"In this vision, God’s solution to the problem of human violence is the Great Final Battle in which good triumphs over evil—and triumphs, let us be clear, by divine violence. The symbolic place of that cosmic cleanup as cosmic slaughter is at Har Magiddo in Hebrew (hence our English “Armageddon”), the mountain pass where the spine of Israel’s hill country cuts westward toward the coast and skirts a great plain suitable for battle."

Examples of this approach can be found in Micah 5:15; 7:10, 16–17 and Revelation 14:20, 19:11–21.

The alternate explanation of God’s final resolution to the problem of evil is reflected in the Abrahamic solution where God calls out a people through whom he proposes to bless the world. In place of a great Final Battle to end all battles, this solution imagines a Great Final Banquet, and its symbolic place is Mount Zion. Examples of this position can be found in Micah 4:1–4, Isaiah 23:6–8, and Zechariah 8:20–23. Crossan says that these texts express the hope that “all peoples and nations will convert to the God of nonviolence in a world without weapons and to the God of justice in a world without empires.”

Two visions, one book.

Not only can these two visions be present in the same book, they can stand side-by-side in the same passage. In Matthew 22:1-10 we read:

Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city [this is most likely a depiction of the destruction of Jerusalem added to the parable after 70 CE]. Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet. Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.

Think about this for a moment. No distinction is made between the bad and the good. No moral evaluation or condemnation – just y’all come. And they did – both good and bad. It’s hard to get more inclusive than this.

Is this too good to be true? Perhaps for some it is not good at all. Grace looks and sounds great, except when it is extended to those we think should be excluded. Were some members of Matthew’s community not happy with this all-inclusive vision of the kingdom? No worry, Matthew offers an alternative vision in the very next paragraph in 22:11-14:

“But when the king came to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a robe, and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him 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.”

The harsh, severe, vindictive language in the passage above is typical of Matthew. The “weeping and gnashing of teeth” used above is found also in Matt. 8:12; 13:42, 50; 24:51; 25:30 (outside of Matthew only in Luke at 13:28), and the phrase “outer darkness” is found in Matt. 8:12. Also, Matthew speaks of “everlasting fire,” (Matt. 5:22; 7:19; 13:40, 42, 50; 18:8; 25:41-46) and “eternal punishment” (Matt. 25:30) to describe God’s judgment. In addition, Matthew makes reference to hell (gehenna) seven times, whereas the word appears only once in Mark and Luke.   

Anyone familiar with Matthew’s Gospel should be able to observe how these images of divine vengeance stand in contradiction to Matthew’s own portrait of Jesus. It is hard to imagine that the Jesus who shares table fellowship with tax collectors and sinners, who speaks of God as Abba, who teaches and embodies unlimited forgiveness, who teaches his followers to pray for their enemies, who brings healing and wholeness to the diseased and demonized, and who condemns condemnation would so mercilessly dismiss, condemn and punish the unrighteous. Theologian Walter Wink has pointed out,

“Matthew’s use of the judgment theme is particularly vindictive . . . The unconditional loving Abba of the Sermon on the Mount (5:45) now wants to settle some scores.  Matthew’s heart will not be happy until ‘all evildoers’ have been thrown ‘into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’”

Matthew, it would appear, has an axe to grind. Two visions – side by side – in the same passage, reflecting two competing visions within Matthew’s church. It’s just the way it is.        

This tends to drive modern people like us crazy, but the early Messianic communities which were modeled after the Jewish synagogue apparently had little problem with it. Jewish teachers loved to debate and argue various positions and interpretations.

The Bible is obviously not a window into a perfectly clear revelation of God. Rather, the Bible is more like a mirror that reflects the human struggle to hear, know, and do God’s will, which we get wrong a lot of the time. Because we are flawed, fragmented, and fractured, our sacred texts are also flawed, fragmented, and fractured. Sometimes a Bible text will take us three steps forward; sometime two steps back. It’s just the way it is.

So here in a single passage, two competing visions. One inclusive, the other exclusive. The inclusive vision was apparently too good to be true for some in the community, so – if you want in you better have the proper attire. And what is the proper attire? That depends on who you ask.

In the church of my upbringing one had to walk to the front of the church at the conclusion of the worship service when an invitation was extended and confess Jesus to the preacher. That was the way in. One had to say, “I want to trust Jesus” or “I want to be saved” or something similar. There was some flexibility on the particular formula, but the confession to the preacher was essential. That’s what sealed it. Every group has their own style of wedding robe – confessions, creeds, rituals, belief systems, etc.

The inclusive vision of the bad and the good together was just too much inclusiveness for some folks in Matthew’s church to accept, and after two thousand years of church history, we can say that for the most part this had been true for most of Christendom. 

2 comments:

  1. And what if the proper attire is love?

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  2. Pam, I hear you. That really is what God is looking for isn't it? Jesus made all the law and the prophets hang on the command to love. Nothing else is needed.

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