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Q & R: Jesus, Harsh Words, and Violence

Here's the Q:

I have read several of your books and heard you speak in Greensboro NC last spring. I convinced my 23 year old son to go listen to you speak in Chicago last month, even though it required a 90 minute traversing of the city on a friday evening. Needless to say, I'm a fan. I love what you have to say in your books because it truly speaks to my heart, but I still come away with some question/concerns. I guess I always feel the need to be able to defend what I believe through scripture even though my heart seems to speak the loudest when it comes to my beliefs. In your recent book you write about Paul's quote and say that "the language of divine mercy and promise is retained." You also write about Jesus' "dehostilization" of Isaiah 61:1-2. I know that Jesus'overall message is one of love but he also uses some harsh words. It's hard for me to ignore (or make sense of) his words in The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant (18:34-35) or his warning in Luke 12:5 and 12:46. Not only do verses like these (and there are many more)make me question what I've come to believe~that our God loves all of his creation and will save us all~but it also makes me question the validity of scripture. I need your help. Any thoughts? Can you speak directly to those verses?

32Then his lord summoned him and said to him, “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?” 34And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he should pay his entire debt. 35So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister* from your heart.’


45But if that slave says to himself, “My master is delayed in coming”, and if he begins to beat the other slaves, men and women, and to eat and drink and get drunk, 46the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour that he does not know, and will cut him in pieces,* and put him with the unfaithful. 47That slave who knew what his master wanted, but did not prepare himself or do what was wanted, will receive a severe beating.

4 ‘I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that can do nothing more. 5But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority* to cast into hell.* Yes, I tell you, fear him! 6Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight. 7But even the hairs of your head are all counted. Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows


Here's the R:


First, sorry for the delay in responding. I wanted to give this some additional time - and also to consult some of my wise friends, like Paul Neuchterlein, who runs one of the most helpful biblical and theological resources on the internet: http://girardianlectionary.net I can't recommend it highly enough.

Here are some selections from Paul's replies. They show you how blessed I am with good and thoughtful friends ...

Hi Brian, this will be the quick response, and then some follow-up on the specific passages. In general, I would say that Jesus harsh words of judgment are primarily to those in charge of law and order in his day, the folks who will run him through the system later. In just this past week's sermon I was using Les Miserables to help bring out my points. I ended up taking this part out of the sermon, but I wrote it up for my webpage:
Left out of the above sermon is an anticipated reaction by those who still find Anselmian atonement attractive: what about the passages in the Gospels where Jesus speaks words of judgment that seem to presume a God of wrath? A response in terms of Les Miserables is to point out that Jesus' words of judgment are almost always to the Javert's of his day, i.e., those who are charged with upholding the human system of law and order. Spoiler alert: And I left this out of the sermon because the point is best made by revealing a crucial moment in the drama of Les Miserables: When Valjean shows Javert mercy during the 1832 June Rebellion in Paris, Javert cannot live in the world of mercy and takes his own life. Steadfastly choosing to live a a world of human condemnation, he condemns himself to die. This is a perfect illustration of a Girardian reading of Jesus' words of judgment in the Gospels: that Jesus understands the consequences of upholders of human law who refuse to step into God's world of mercy, preferring the gods of wrath.
The parable of the Unforgiving Servant in Matt 18 is a prime example of this sort of reading. One doesn't need to read the master as God, especially since the ending is opposite of what God actually gives us in Jesus. So the parable is about how this servant's actions show that he doesn't really want to live in a world of mercy. The consequences are being pulled back into the world of debt-keeping. It is a form of self-judgment. More later.

Luke 12 gives me more reason to refrain from reading masters as God. The parables may give us points about God, but we can catch those points without seeing the characters in the parable as equivalent to God. We can still see them as human characters enlisted to make a point about God. Human masters may cut their servants to pieces. God doesn't. But the story conveys the sense of urgency to be faithful to God because we humans are so violent. We do things like cut each other to pieces, so the time to be faithful to God is now. The violence makes it urgent for us to embrace God's way to peace -- picturing Jesus crying over Jerusalem later in Luke's gospel. Just a few further thoughts
I couldn't let go yet -- some quick thoughts on Luke 12:4-5. Many of the sayings in this chapter seem to almost be non sequiturs. The verses immediately 12:4-5 speak of God taking care of the sparrows. Most will assume that 12:4-5 are speaking about God. But it's interesting that Jesus doesn't specify God in these verses but only uses the male pronoun. Intentionally vague? What if him is Satan? Or the false god of wrath? The reference to hell is Gehenna, the Valley of Ben Hinnom. It has been in vogue to point out that it was a landfill near Jerusalem; I've done it myself. But more recently I've begun to see it more in terms of its clear references in Jer 7 as a place of child sacrifice. Thus, hell names our sacrificial practices. We need to worry about 'he' who presides over the sacrifice in any time and place. This would not seem to me to be the God he names next who takes care of the sparrows. Is Jesus making a contrast between the god of wrath and the God of mercy? The first is only "him"; the second is "God." Just a thought.


Sorry to fill your inbox, but I went ahead and wrote more this morning on Atonement and hell on the Epiphany page, since you may quote me and link to it (http://girardianlectionary.net/year_c/epiphany.htm). I end by connecting Javert's suicide with the metaphor of suicide machine from Everything Must Change, still your most important book overall. But I also see deflating Atonement and hell as important work to disciples being able to join in the Spirit's work of redeeming our suicide machine into a life-enhancing machine that fulfills our stewardship with God. Paul

OK ... with Paul's helpful insights as background, a few conclusions.

As I explained earlier (http://brianmclaren.net/archives/blog/i-read-matthew-22114-this.html), I used to assume that masters and kings referred to God in the parables, and punishments referred to final judgment. Now I begin with the likelihood that masters and kings refer to Caesar and those who exercise power in his system, and punishments refer to Jesus' rejection and crucifixion.

But as with just about everything in the Bible, I have to acknowledge that it's not always that simple. So here are some comments on the passages you quoted:

32Then his lord summoned him and said to him, “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?” 34And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he should pay his entire debt. 35So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister* from your heart.’

First, if Jesus does indeed intend the master to represent God, a legitimate point can be made about God (that God is supremely displeased by unforgiveness) without stretching the point into a full-fledged analogy (God tortures).

Second, it's worthwhile to note that what earns these dire consequences is not "failing to say the sinner's prayer" or failing to belong to the right church or religion or failing to believe the right doctrines. What earns these dire consequences is a hard heart toward others after one has received such great mercy from God. Those who like to paint God as hard-hearted - ready to inflict eternal conscious torment on everyone who doesn't qualify by their doctrinal or ecclesial tests - better be careful, because their very hard-heartedness towards outsiders might put them in harm's way! Rachel Held Evans wrote a powerful blog post on this subject the other day - worth reading here: http://rachelheldevans.com/blog/scandal-evangelical-heart

Third, it's worth noting that this text, taken in that way, would argue against "eternal conscious torment," since it implies that the debt is not infinite and can be paid.

In the end, I think Paul N is right. The parable can make a point about the seriousness of unforgiveness without making God equivalent to the slavemaster in the story. This parable resonates with a larger theme in the gospels and new testament - that you get the God you inflict on others. This, I think, is a highly insightful psychological or social observation that can be appreciated without turning it into a dogmatic theological pronouncement.

45But if that slave says to himself, “My master is delayed in coming”, and if he begins to beat the other slaves, men and women, and to eat and drink and get drunk, 46the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour that he does not know, and will cut him in pieces,* and put him with the unfaithful. 47That slave who knew what his master wanted, but did not prepare himself or do what was wanted, will receive a severe beating.

What was said above could apply here - that even if we equate God with the master, we would be unwise to interpret the parable (which makes one point through a fictional tale) as an analogy (which makes every fictional detail stand for something dogmatically). And for those who do lean toward analogizing these master-servant parables, their interpretation would argue against a single fate for all the damned ... it would argue for a sliding scale based on social righteousness in relation to knowledge, based on (in other words) just works and not correct faith. Folks who want to interpret the text as an analogy should at least go all the way and be consistent about it, I think.

4 ‘I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that can do nothing more. 5But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority* to cast into hell.* Yes, I tell you, fear him! 6Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight. 7But even the hairs of your head are all counted. Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows

This is pretty incoherent if God is the one who kills and casts into hell. "Fear God - but don't fear God," the text would say. I recall Jesus saying, "the thief comes to steal, kill, and destroy, but I have come that they might have life, life abundant." With that in mind, we might hypothesize that "the one who kills" is the evil one, the satan, etc., and he is the one to fear ... If that's the case, Jesus is saying something like this: "Don't be afraid of Herod and his fellow dictators. Once they kill you, they can't do anything more. More fearful are the systems of oppression and scapegoating that prop up Herod and his peers. They have the power to drag you into the dark trash-heap of religious violence and torture. But in the end - you have nothing to fear, because God love all creatures, including you. You are of great value to God, so don't be afraid of any of the powers of this world."

One last thing: if we hear Jesus say "cut off your right hand" or "pluck out your right eye" - and interpret him to be using violent and extreme language as a kind of moral exclamation point ("I'm saying something of great urgency, so will pull out all the rhetorical stops to say it"), perhaps we can allow him to be doing so here. In that case, the thing to focus on is not the details of the parable or image, but the moral summons to which they point:
Forgive!
Be prepared! Don't delay in doing right!
Don't be afraid of dictators!

There's much more to say, but I hope that's a start ...