Quest for a Violent Jesus, Part 2: Away From Me!

In part one of this series I examined two gospel passages commonly used to suggest that Jesus advocated (sword-based) violence. That post was basically an apologetic, as I sought to demonstrate that the ethos and message of Jesus was consistently and inherently nonviolent. But it’s important to note that apology is not my default approach to every troublesome Bible text. In this case, I strongly believe that the true sense of the texts in question had been misunderstood and needed correcting. But in general, I am not committed to defending the Bible at all cost. I am open to being challenged and corrected, and I am willing to learn from or ultimately even to disagree with the text. The material today will put this to the test.

Many Christians, in service to inerrancy and systematic theology, accept apparent tensions and contradictions in the Bible as part of some grand, unifying plan. When it comes to Jesus, many Christians have no problem acknowledging that he was a teacher of peace, even as they have no doubt he will return to earth riding a wave of fire and retribution. Round one may have been all hugs and back pats, but round two will be a different story.

For the most part, this tense view of a peaceful-but-eventually-violent Jesus comes from contrasting what the gospels report about Jesus with what other New Testament texts (eg. 1 Thessalonians or Revelation) say about his return. But even in the gospels, Jesus offers his own vision of the “coming age,” replete with dramatic prophetic imagery. Since this series is concerned with the presentation of Jesus in the gospels, we will focus on his apocalyptic sayings, especially some in Matthew which seem to promise violence.

Violent Apocalypse in Matthew

There is little room for debate that Jesus held a Jewish apocalyptic view of history. This does not mean, as the word implies today, that Jesus warned of “the end of the world,” but rather that he believed Israel’s God was going to act decisively and imminently to usher in a new age of peace. The Jewish apocalyptic “worldview” (to use a very modern word) was not uncommon in Jesus’ day, but his vision of it was uniquely characterized by a subversion of religious and social values, and the remarkable way he cast himself as the harbinger and sign of the apocalyptic event.

All three synoptic gospels feature apocalyptic parables and sayings from Jesus, but the ones in Matthew’s gospel are the most pertinent to our discussion. For in Matthew’s presentation there seems to be a pervasive and even gleeful violence attached to Jesus’ vision of the things to come, in a measure not found in the other gospels.  Here are two examples of texts from Matthew in which Jesus appears to threaten violence against his enemies.

Matthew 22: The Wedding Banquet (Unrated Version)

Jesus tells a story: “The kingdom of heaven is like a king who made a wedding feast for his son.” He invites everyone he knows, but nobody shows up so he instructs his servants to bring in strangers off the street so the party can go on. That’s the basic outline of the parable, which appears in both Matthew (22:1-14) and Luke (14:16-24). But the details of the two tellings could hardly be more different. In Luke, the invited guests simply flake out and make excuses, but in Matthew they attack and murder the servants of the king, who promptly burns down the entire city where they live. In Luke, the new party guests are the “poor, crippled, lame, and blind,” while in Matthew they are simply random people, “good and bad alike.” And whereas Luke’s version of the story ends with the party happily raging on, Matthew adds this strange and upsetting coda:

“But when the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who wasn’t wearing a wedding suit. ‘My friend,’ he said to him, ‘how did you get in here without a wedding suit?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to his servants, ‘ Tie him up, hands and feet, and throw him into the darkness outside, where people weep and grind their teeth.’” (Matt 22:11-13, KNT)

At every turn Matthew’s version of this story is more brutal and bloody than Luke’s, culminating in a bizarre ending where one of the welcomed surrogate guests is violently ejected. The language of “weeping and grinding teeth,” repeated often in Matthew, has been understood by most Christians as a reference to hell. It is more apt to say that this is a metaphor for exclusion from the kingdom, but nonetheless it is a most violent metaphor, here foisted quite unexpectedly on an apparently innocent victim. And while Luke’s version makes sense to us as a lesson (the kingdom of God is where society’s losers are honored guests), Matthew’s is dark and obtuse, offering no explanation for the erratic and violent behavior of the king.

There is no simple apologetic that can solve this one for us. Questions abound: Does the strange violence in this parable originate with Jesus or was it added by Matthew? If it was added, why? If it is original, why did Luke edit it out? And why does this portrait of God (if that is who the king is meant to represent) seem to contradict just about everything else Jesus teaches about the divine character? I’m going to end this paragraph now and move on to the next section, even though I haven’t offered you any definitive answers. Sorry!

Matthew 25: Those Damn Goats

Here’s a parable that is exclusive to Matthew, and one that is more directly about Jesus himself (or is it?). The first thing to note is that this passage (Matthew 25:31-46) has not traditionally been read as a parable, but rather as a literal prediction of future events. Only fairly recently has scholarship recognized this passage as an apocalyptic parable, a mix of metaphors meant to engage and provoke the imagination.

In this story, the “son of man” comes to judge the world and separates all people into two groups, “like a shepherd separates sheep from goats.” The sheep are those who fed the hungry, welcomed the stranger, and ministered to the sick and the prisoner. The goats are those who did not do those things. Both groups protest, saying they didn’t know there was going to be a test. But the son of man won’t hear it, and the sheep are ushered into “everlasting life” and the goats into “everlasting punishment” in “a fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”

The “son of man” is a sort of apocalyptic trope, borrowed from the book of Daniel, a human figure given divine authority to judge and rescue Israel and the world. Jesus often applied this title to himself, though there is some debate over exactly when and how. In passages like Mark 8:38 and our current parable, for example, it is possible he is referring to a third party, or simply invoking the metaphor of coming judgment and rescue.

Whatever the case, Jesus paints a vivid picture of judgment that is (like so many of Matthew’s bits) equal parts revelation and devastation. On the one hand, this is a radical and subversive suggestion of how judgment works. According to Jesus, humans are judged not on their religious affiliation or the strength of their belief in a religious savior (the only basis of judgment according to most modern Christians!), but on the content of their character and their compassion for their neighbor. In a stunning beat, the people being judged don’t even recognize the son of man – not even the sheep!

And yet, this parable is still marked by disturbing violence and cruelty toward the goats. There is no way to explain away or soften the violence here, but there is plenty of perspective to be considered. This parable is particularly grim when read as a literal description of an inescapable future, but as an ethical teaching designed to urge a listener toward good deeds, its harshness begins to make some sense. Perhaps these are not “shadows of things that will be,” but words of ethical instruction, warnings about what really matters in this life. Whether they represent a secret dark or violent side to Jesus depends on how we read them in light of what we know about Jesus from all of our other sources, including the whole of Matthew’s gospel.

Conclusions (Would Be Nice)

While I continue to believe that Jesus unequivocally taught nonviolence and revealed the heart of God as inherently unharming, I acknowledge that his apocalyptic sayings appear occasionally to undermine nonviolence. However, I am quick to add that this may have more to do with the agenda of a given gospel author and/or our ability to interpret apocalyptic language than it does with Jesus himself. While traditional Christianity has obsessed on the bloody details, it has missed the meaning of the apocalyptic material, which is essentially the same as the ethical teaching. For Jesus, the foundation of goodness and morality is not religious ritual, belief, or affiliation, it is radical love for others.

I also reject out of hand any convolution or duality which sees Jesus as a nonviolent agent of a God who is ultimately violent in accomplishing the divine will. This is to neuter and mock the revelation of God in Jesus, and it renders christological language meaningless. Jesus is not like any God we have known before or since, and to be a Christian is to believe that God is like Jesus.