In this fourth part of the series, we will encounter perhaps the most important of the texts in the gospels we have looked at to this point. It is important to point out that in these texts, we are drawing closer and closer to the time of Christ’s crucifixion. As we advance toward the passion narrative, paradoxically, we are also coming upon pronouncements from Jesus which more and more portray God as one who will judge the wicked; this judgment is punitive and retributive. This, again, is counter to the understanding being proposed by many, that the Christ who dies on the cross for sinners, and the God who sends his Son to die on that cross, could ever be involved in retributive violence. But again, this understanding is profoundly unbiblical.
11. Matthew 18:23-35
23 Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. 25 Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt. 26 The servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ 27 The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go. 28 But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded. 29 His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’ 30 But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. 31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened. 32 Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ 34 In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. 35 This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.
I have provided the entire parable here because of something very significant that happens in Jesus’ telling of it. The master in this parable summons the wicked servant before him and rebukes him for his failure to show mercy. In the last statement in the parable, Jesus states that the “master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.” The phrase, “to be tortured,” is actually not in the Greek text, but is a kind of explanatory phrase given in a number of English translation to draw out the significance of what the “jailers” would do (NIV, NRSV, NET, NLT). Other translations capture this in their translation of the word “jailers” itself, and translate it instead as “torturers” (NASB, KJV, NJB). This understands that the proper task of these “jailers” or “torturers” was to inflict physical punishment on the prisoners. Other words in the New Testament that come from the same root all refer to the idea of extreme suffering. It seems most likely in this parable that we should understand that the idea of torture is indeed what is being communicated.
But what is most significant about this parable is that it ends with Jesus, in the last verse, stepping outside of the parable to make a statement about his Father—“This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of your unless you forgive your brother from your heart.” If, as some argue, Jesus came to portray for us a “God without retribution,” it would seem that he has chosen a very strange way in which to do it. Here, Jesus makes an explicit statement about his Father as one who would engage in retributive violence. And, interestingly, he does so with reference to what many of us might regard as a relatively insignificant transgression, failure to forgive, rather than to a seemingly more outlandish crime. Jesus explicitly tells us that this is what his Father is like.
12. Matthew 21:12 (Mark 11:15-16; Luke 19:45)
12 Jesus entered the temple area and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves.
The account of Jesus cleansing the temple is given in all three synoptic gospels as an event which occurred during passion week. There is also an account given in John 2, which apparently is to be understood as occurring at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. I have no concern, for our present purposes, of tackling some of the issues involved here, such as whether there are two cleansings or only one, and whether John has dischronologized the event in his account. I will deal with John’s account separately in a later installment; but, for now, I only want to deal very briefly with the synoptic account. The synoptics do not relate to us exactly how Jesus drove out all who were buying and selling. Did he simply yell at them and tell them to get out? Did he physically grab hold of them and push them out? Did he strike anyone? Should we assume what John relates in his version, and understand that Jesus did this with a whip? The synoptic account does not specifically tell us how it was done, and leaves a lot to our imagination. So, without trying to answer this question, there are only two things I wish to point out.
The first is that, in some fashion or other, Jesus did utilize force to accomplish this driving out. The second is that most New Testament scholars regard this account not simply as one incident in the life of Jesus, but as a prophetic sign-action, a parabolic act which is symbolic of another event off in the distance, the destruction of the temple in AD 70, when God will use the Roman army, just as he used the Babylonian army in 586 BC, to accomplish that task. Jesus’ little act of violence, is symbolic of a much greater act of violence yet to come (Matthew 24:1-2; Mark 13:1-2; Luke 19:43-44; 21:5-6). Note that one of Luke’s references to this in Luke 19:43-44 comes immediately prior to his very brief account of the temple cleansing in verse 45. Luke seems to draw this connection more explicitly.
13. Matthew 21:33-44 (Mark 12:1-10; Luke 20:9-18)
33 Listen to another parable: There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a winepress in it and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and went away on a journey. 34 When the harvest time approached, he sent his servants to the tenants to collect his fruit. 35 The tenants seized his servants; they beat one, killed another, and stoned a third. 36 Then he sent other servants to them, more than the first time, and the tenants treated them the same way. 37 Last of all, he sent his son to them. ‘They will respect my son,’ he said. 38 But when the tenants saw the son, they said to each other, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and take his inheritance.’ 39 So they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. 40 Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants? 41 He will bring those wretches to a wretched end,” they replied, “and he will rent the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him his share of the crop at harvest time.” 42 Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures: ” ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes’? 43 “Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit. 44 He who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces, but he on whom it falls will be crushed.”
This is one of those parables whose meaning is transparent and not that hard to grasp, even without an explicit explanation of the meaning. When Jesus uses the imagery of the vineyard, this ties in very clearly with the parable that Isaiah utilizes in Isaiah 5:1-7, as well as with other passages in the prophets, such as Jeremiah 2:21; 12:10; Hosea 10:1; and Micah 7:1. This enhances the understanding that the servants mentioned in this parable (verses 34-36) are the prophets (compare the frequent references in the Old Testament to the prophets as God’s servants; for a few of these, see 2 Kings 9:7; 17:13, 23; 2 Kings 21:10; 24:2; Ezra 9:11; Jeremiah 7:25; 25:4; 26:5; 29:19; 35:15; 44:4; Ezekiel 38:17). Of course, the son, in verses 37-39 is a greatly-less-than-veiled reference to Jesus himself.
There is one difference between what we have in Matthew’s version of this story and the Marcan and Lucan versions to which I wish to call attention. In Matthew’s version, Jesus asks his hearers to tell him what the landowner will do with the wicked tenants, and then they reply. But in Mark’s and Luke’s version, Jesus asks and then answers his own questions: “What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others.” Perhaps either Matthew or Mark or Luke took some liberty in the way they reported Jesus’ words; or perhaps Jesus told the parable on more than just one occasion. In any case, we have both recorded for us—in one, the crowd answers the question; in the other, Jesus answers the question himself.
But what I especially want you to notice in this particular reference to God’s violent action is that it is specifically a response to the crucifixion of Christ. God will “bring those wretches to a wretched end”; he will “kill those tenants”—precisely because of their treatment of his Son. Again, note how this connects to the passage we looked at in Part One of this series. In Revelation 5, Jesus is qualified to pour wrath out on the earth, precisely because he has suffered and died. Here, in Matthew 21, punishment will be meted out, precisely because of the wicked act of killing the Son of God. Far from Christ’s sacrifice being the violent action which will end all violent action, it is the death of Christ on the cross by the hand of wicked individuals which, in fact, insures a violent response on the part of the Father.
14. Matthew 22:1-14 (Luke 14:16-24)
Jesus spoke to them again in parables, saying: 2 “The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. 3 He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come. 4 “Then he sent some more servants and said, ‘Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner: My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.’ 5 “But they paid no attention and went off–one to his field, another to his business. 6 The rest seized his servants, mistreated them and killed them. 7 The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city. 8 “Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come. 9 Go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.’ 10 So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, both good and bad, and the wedding hall was filled with guests. 11 “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. 12 ‘Friend,’ he asked, ‘how did you get in here without wedding clothes?’ The man was speechless. 13 “Then the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ 14 “For many are invited, but few are chosen.”
In some respects this parable is similar to the one we just looked at. Those wicked invitees not only refuse to attend the wedding banquet, but they even kill the second round of servants who come to re-issue the invitation. The king’s response is one that is expected: “The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city.” Notice also that the banquet for which the invitations are issued is specifically the “wedding banquet for his son.” It is precisely the horrible treatment which these wicked invitees give to the king’s servants (the prophets), as well as their failure to respect the king in not attending the son’s (Jesus’) wedding banquet, which instigates the violent reaction on the part of the king (God).
15. Matthew 23:29-39 (Luke 13:34-35)
29 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. 30 And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our forefathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ 31 So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. 32 Fill up, then, the measure of the sin of your forefathers! 33 “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? 34 Therefore I am sending you prophets and wise men and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town. 35 And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. 36 I tell you the truth, all this will come upon this generation. 37 “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing. 38 Look, your house is left to you desolate. 39 For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.'”
If, with the previous two parables, there was any question as to what was only parabolic and what was literal, with this passage in Matthew 23, everything is in plain language. The former generations killed the Lord’s servants, the prophets. If the demerit tank of the previous generations was not quite full, the current generation will top it up by their treatment of Jesus himself (by implication) and their treatment of Jesus’s followers (explicitly). Because of this treatment, all the blood they and their ancestors have shed will come upon this generation. This is the razing of the temple. This is the destruction of the city of Jerusalem in AD 70. This is the punishment which God will send on them for how they have treated God’s servants the prophets in the Old Testament, God’s own Son, and those prophets, wise men, and teachers whom the Son sends out. This is God engaging in retributive violence.
At this point, we are less than halfway through looking at the passages in the gospels in which Jesus portrays both his and the Father’s actions in violent terms. But, even at this halfway point, I want to make a statement, and I want to make it in fairly strong terms. I have several times referred to those who wish to view the Old Testament texts which portray a violent deity through what they refer to as the “Jesus lens.” Jesus came, they argue, to disabuse us of this notion of a violent deity. He came to show us that those Old Testament texts are incorrect of their portrayal of God as violent. Rather, Jesus came to show us that God is a god of love, and only a god of love. The refer to this as “Jesus 101.” However, at only this halfway point of looking at these “wrath of the Lamb” texts in the gospels, I trust that it has become fairly clear how wrongheaded this notion is. Those who would argue this way are either grossly ignorant, or they are being intentionally disingenuous. I could say that even more strongly, but I will refrain.
When Marcion, in the second century BC, argued that the Old Testament God could not possibly be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, he did not simply attempt to cut the church off from the Old Testament. He actually also attempted to cut the church off from Christ; that is, from the whole Christ. That is why his canon included only a few of Paul’s letters, and only one gospel, the gospel of Luke. And even his gospel of Luke was a chopped up one, devoid of all reference to the Old Testament, as well as anything else he didn’t like that Luke said about Jesus.
So it is also with the modern-day Marcionites. Their problem is not just with the Old Testament, but with Jesus himself. They are not truly “red-letter” Christians. When they say that want to read the rest of the Bible through the “Jesus lens,” they simply do not really mean it; they are being less than genuine. I have made reference before to an article by Andrew Wilson, “The Jesus Lens, or the Jesus Tea-Strainer.” Wilson, after listing only a few of the passages to which I am calling attention in this series, cogently articulates the situation:
That’s just a sample, of course. As such, I don’t think Steve Chalke, Brian McLaren, Tony Campolo, Rob Bell and co are reading the Bible through a Jesus lens, as much as they are reading Jesus through a selective, progressive postmodern lens, and then reading the rest of the Bible through that. The end result, ironically, is that while the Jesus we find in the Gospels fits well with the rest of the scriptures – as you might expect, given that he inspired them – neither the Jesus of the Gospels, nor the Bible, fit particularly well with the pastiche of Jesus that the Red Letter guys want to promote. When all is said and done, the biblical Jesus cannot be squeezed thorough the fine mesh of the progressive Jesus tea-strainer. Given the choice, we’re probably better off with the biblical one.
Wilson is right.
We will continue the series with five more passages in Part Five.
October 19, 2014
Thanks for these posts. I don’t disagree with anything you have said thus far, but I do think it would be helpful to define “retribution” because the term brings up false connotations for many people. Retribution is the return of a sinner’s own sin upon the sinner’s own head. I could point to a thousand examples in the OT and NT to prove this point, some of which have come up in your posts, but I’ll only list a few important ones below. This is helpful when dialoguing with my liberal and non-Christian friends, when they say things like, “God’s punishments are so cruel,” and I can say, “No, our sins are cruel and God is just to return them to us. So when we suffer our own sins, we shouldn’t complain about God’s cruelty, but complain about our own cruelty and plead with God to set us free from it.”
6 of the 10,000 examples showing that retribution is the return of a sinner’s own sin upon the sinners own head:
Genesis 9:6 – “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed.” Clearly states the retributive principle in a promise God makes to all men.
Exodus 4:23 – God to Pharaoh, “Israel is My son, My firstborn. I said to you, ‘Let My son go…’ but you refused to let him go. Behold, I will kill your son, your firstborn.” This quotation gives clarity to one of the greatest acts of judgment in the OT.
Matthew 18:23-35 – The sinner withholds forgiveness, so forgiveness is withheld from him. See also the Sermon on the Mount, Matt 6:15, “But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.”
Matthew 21:33-44 – “He will bring those wretches to a wretched end.” Wretches will receive wretchedness.
Luke 16:24 – The rich man in Hades longs for a drop of water from Lazarus’ hand, just as Lazarus used to long for a crumb from the rich man’s hand (16:21). Just as the rich man deprived Lazarus of mercy, so the rich man is deprived of Lazarus’ mercy in Hades.
Revelation 11:18 – a summary statement about the the Messiah’s judgments in Revelation, and God is praised for “destroying those who destroy the earth.” Important because it clarifies that God’s retribution is not only against the wicked, but also for the protection of His good earth and those who will inhabit it.
Thank you, Gabe. Your examples are all very good, and they rightly call attention to the “tit for tat”-ness of the retribution. This is an important theme in the biblical literature. It isn’t always the case that there’s a tight fit between the crime and its punishment; but it is certainly the case quite often. As for more clearly defining what I mean by retributive, I have in mind here basically the idea of a reaction to wicked behavior that is mainly concerned with punishment rather than with restoration–hence, retributive justice rather than restorative justice. The two aspects can coincide; but they do not have to.
Thank you both for the thought provoking post and comments. Dr. Shepherd, I think you’re right in saying that while there is often a tight fit between the crime and punishment it isn’t always so in the Bible. How do those cases where the punishment doesn’t seem to fit the crime fit into an understanding of retributive violence and a just God? Do we simply have to trust that God’s actions are just even when they do not appear to be so? Are we not reading the text carefully enough? I suppose it is a hard question to answer when I haven’t provided specific examples of when the punishment doesn’t fit the crime. I guess what I am looking for is not an explanation of specific texts but what kinds of approaches you might take to answering this line of questioning.
Hi Jonathan. When I referred to the “tight fit,” between the crime and the punishment, I wasn’t thinking in quantitative terms, but rather about the idea of “retribution in kind.” That is, for example, the one who constructs a trap falling into his very own trap, or the one who builds a gallows doing something that causes him to be hung on those same gallows. So this idea of “retribution in kind” fits very well with the examples that Gabe gave in his original response; however, not all retribution is necessarily “in kind.” As for the rest of your question, for myself I take encouragement from Abraham’s rhetorical question, “Shall not the judge of all the earth do right?” And certainly, as the wisdom books of Job, Ecclesiastes, and even a number of places in Proverbs and the Psalms, we are reminded that we do not always get to see the justice of God’s judgments. Wicked, stupid people live a long time, and righteous, wise people can get cut down in the prime of life. But we trust that the good God gets all those things sorted out in the end.
“How do those cases where the punishment doesn’t seem to fit the crime fit into an understanding of retributive violence and a just God?”
Jonathan, thanks for your question. God’s punishments are always just and good, and we can be confident that when He chooses to punish, He is choosing the best response to our sin. I agree with Jerry that God’s punishments in the Bible do not always display the retributive principle I pointed out (although the more I look at God’s punishments in the Bible, the more I find the retributive principle at work).
Let me begin with a clarification: The definition of retribution is not so much that “the punishment fits the crime,” but that “the punishment is the crime,” that is, “the crime returning upon the criminal’s own head.” Retribution is not the balance of offenses, or the settling of a score, but it is the return of a sinner’s own sinful destruction upon the sinner’s own head. Understanding the retributive principle in this way is valuable because it allows us to simultaneously maintain that (1) God does indeed actively punish sinners and (2) ultimately, sinners are the primary agents of their own destruction.
To sin is to plunge into self-destruction, and all humanity has taken the plunge. It is important to thoroughly consider the self-destructive nature of sin before considering God’s response to it. If we don’t, we can fall into thinking that “Sin only results in destruction and misery because God punishes it. If God did not punish sin, sin would be a really fun and happy activity. The best way to live is to enjoy sin and then avoid punishment for it.” This is Satanic thinking. When Satan says that sin brings happiness, he is telling a lie, he is not telling a truth that God dislikes and so retaliates against. We are designed to love God, and so when we rebel against God we rebel against our own design, necessarily resulting in self-destruction. When people sin,”They ambush their own lives (Prov 1:18)” and “forsake the fountain of living waters (Jer 2:13)” killing themselves by their own acts. If we look at the Original Sin of Adam and Eve in Gen 3:1-7, our parents (a) submit to the beast, thereby dehumanizing and dethroning themselves from their God-given reign over creation (b) bring shame and dishonor upon themselves in their own eyes, (c) disrupt their God-given sexual intimacy, and (d) plunge themselves into spiritual death. All of this destruction and misery takes place before God even enters the scene in Gen 3:8.
So the function of God’s punishment is not to ensure that sin results in destruction and misery for sinners. Sinners would destroy and depress themselves in their sin even if God never lifted a finger to punish sin (see the book of Ecclesiastes). The function of God’s justice, both penal and restorative, is to marshal sin’s destruction under His sovereign jurisdiction for His redemptive purposes. Some people will reject God’s redemptive purposes, and for them they will reap what they have sown, which the Bible says is everlasting death. Notice also that everlasting death is what Adam and Eve would have brought upon themselves by their own actions had God never intervened to banish them from the garden (Gen 3:22-24). Having partaken of spiritual death by eating of the forbidden fruit, they would then confirm themselves forever in this state by eating of the Tree of Life.
That is where I begin my approach to answering questions about God’s punishments of our sin. Does this help answer the question?
Thank you again Gabriel. I very much appreciate your thoughtful response. Your definition of retribution as “the punishment is the crime” is certainly clarifying and I think quite scriptural. Sinners do indeed wind up swinging from their own gallows and falling into their own traps because, as you have said, we sinners are the primary agents of our own destruction.
Yet, while I can see this on the grand scale I think we have to be careful not to close the circle too tightly. This is true pastorally and I think Biblically as well. There are times when theodicy has to give way to trust that the judge of all the earth will do right.
Hi Dr. Shepherd
It brought to my attention as I read your blog, a comment made by Richard Niebuhr in his book, “The Kingdom of God in America.” He defines liberal theology this way, “a God without wrath, who brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment, through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” H. Richard Niebuhr, The Kingdom of God in America (New York: Harper, 1959), p. 193.
Now I don’t remember I actually read this book or read a book that quoted him but it is a pretty good picture of post modern theological confusion.
You’re exactly right, Mas. And good to hear from you. Blessings.