Some years back, I saw a woman in a carpark smacking her child. And as she smacked, she yelled, “WE DO NOT HIT IN THIS FAMILY! WE LOVE!” It reminded me of those ostensibly Biblical parenting models, in which cool and collected parents maintain discipline by spanking their naughty children—and then lovingly use the moment as a teaching opportunity. Because the people being hit are children, and because our society doesn’t rate children’s experiences very highly, we adults can miss the contradiction here. Yet if we substitute ‘women’ for ‘children’, perhaps things become clearer: even if it’s ‘just a smack’, there is a mixed message going on, to say the least.
That is, there is a fundamental disjunction between hurting someone and loving them; between creating a climate of fear and shame versus nurturing a trustful environment where all people, not just the powerful, can flourish and grow. And yet this fundamental disjunction between love and violence is something that many people accept when it comes to parenting. Perhaps this is because they also accept it when it comes to thinking about God and God’s Son: Jesus, the Messiah.
Even the prophet John, who foretold the coming of the Messiah, proclaimed this mixed message. One is coming, he says, who will offer forgiveness, and show love and justice and mercy and compassion, especially to the most vulnerable. This one will gather up the wheat, the ‘good guys’, the quality, into the granary which is his kingdom. Yet, says John, this same one will winnow out the chaff, the ‘bad guys’, the riffraff, the sinners, and burn them with unquenchable fire. And this, says John, is good news.
Do you hear the disjunction? John is predicting a Messiah who is both forgiving and judgemental; generous and vengeful; loving and violent. In Matthew’s account, John rightly identifies Jesus as the Lamb of God; but here, Jesus sounds less like a lamb and more like a dragon, blazing with anger and incinerating everyone he disapproves of. So what’s happening here?
At heart, it’s that John has only partial insight. Jesus himself said of John that, although he was once the greatest, “yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force …” (Matthew 11:11-12). So John is a mighty prophet, who in line with Biblical tradition proclaims that the coming Messiah demands justice, mercy and compassion, especially for the poor: and this description is certainly true of Jesus. But John is still locked into traditional thinking, that is, violent thinking, about what it means to be Israel’s Messiah or Saviour, and this is where the disjunction lies.
Israel had a long history of attributing war to God’s purpose; so much so that ‘God’s wrath’ was invariably linked with military violence. And in John’s time, Israel was under Roman rule. People were longing for freedom. They were looking for a new David, a warrior-king, who would drive out the Romans and clean up the Temple system from corruption and collusion with foreign powers. Into this context, John predicts a Messiah who, although forgiving, compassionate, merciful and just, will also re-establish Israel’s sovereignty through the fires of judgement and war.
If you count yourself as one of the good guys, then this is great news. You will be justified, vindicated and liberated, while those bad guys over there will be judged and punished. The tables will turn, and those crosses will no longer hang with Jewish guerrilla fighters. Instead, the tortured bodies of Roman soldiers will line the roads.
However, if you’re not one of the good guys: a woman, perhaps, or a child; an Indigenous person, a migrant, or someone with a disability; someone whom the powers that be identify as ‘other’ or ‘outsider’ or even ‘enemy’; someone, in short, who is never one of the guys, usually visible only when scapegoated, and usually bearing the brunt of war, then maybe this vision of a violent and punishing saviour isn’t good news at all.
And yet, Jesus is good news. For when Jesus comes, in his presence “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them” (Luke 7:22). So in some ways it was just as John had predicted. And yet Jesus appeared to gather up … everyone! He spent time with women and children; he gave the voiceless a place to speak. He ate with sinners and outcasts and those on the margins, and brought them into loving communion with him and with each other. He told stories where the bad guys were the good guys, and the good guys were confused; and he reached out to enemies without judgement, only love. Traitors, collaborators, even Roman centurions: all came into the orbit of his passionate concern.
His approach was so unexpected that later John sends a plaintive message. “Are you the one,” he asks, “or should we wait for someone else?” (Luke 7:19): someone who looks a bit more like a Messiah. Because Jesus is fulfilling only half the prophecy. Sure, he is gathering the wheat into his barn, but there appears to be no chaff. Where is the thunder? Where are the fires? Where are the judgement and punishment and violence? It seems, in fact, that the only thing Jesus is winnowing away is any idea of a judgemental, vindictive and violent saviour.
Jesus’ approach was scandalous then, and it’s still scandalous now. Like Israel, like John, we largely expect a god with two faces. Such a two-faced god will uphold all our prejudices and fears. Such a god will save us, but judge them; forgive us, but punish them; be gentle with us, but violent with them. But this is not how Jesus does things. Every week we affirm that Jesus Christ is the light of the world; and “in him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 3:15b). There is only light, and truth, and love, and mercy, and welcome: for the world: that is, for everyone.
Jesus doesn’t show a different face to different people: one loving, one violent. Instead, he has integrity: and his one and only face shines with love, and only love, as he draws all peoples to himself. Not just the Israelites, but the Gentiles, too; not just the good guys, but the bad guys, too; not just the men, but the women and children, too; not just my people, but your people, too.
So if you’re seeking a saviour who will love you, but who will justify your fear and hatred of the Romans, or Jewish people, or Indigenous people, or gay and lesbian people, or Sudanese gangs, or Muslim asylum seekers, then look somewhere else. If you’re seeking a saviour who will unlock your voice, but who will burn all those opinionated women like me at the stake, then look somewhere else. If, on the other hand, you’re seeking a saviour who will lead you to flourish, but who’ll punish and destroy all those right wing conservative patriarchal nutjobs, then look somewhere else. And if you’re seeking a saviour who will accept you and the people at your church, but will bar the door to all the people who disagree with your particular morality or theology, then look somewhere else. The Jesus revealed in the gospels is not the one you are seeking.
But if you’re looking for the one who takes away the sin of this world of us and them, who reaches out to the marginalised, heals all comers, and transforms bitter enemies into friends, then come. If you’re looking for the one who knows what it is to be a victim of violence, and wounded, and thrown outside the city gates, then come. If you’re looking for an end to human violence and a beginning to human flourishing for all peoples, not just the powerful, then come: for Jesus is the one.
Yet come knowing he will turn all your expectations of judgement upside down and inside out: for in this family, nobody hits, not even God. It’s not how we usually do things: in fact, it’s a scandal: for we expect the powerful to push people around. But this is not the way of Jesus Christ. Jesus told John, “Blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me” (Luke 7:23): so do not take offence. Instead, trust in his integrity; trust in his gentleness; trust in his compassion; trust in his love. And with his one true face shining through your own, forgive, cherish, and love all peoples, in the joyful confidence that his way truly is good news for you, and for everyone. Thanks be to God. Ω
PS: The idea of literal and eternal punishment through hellfire is a relatively modern concept. It did not exist in Biblical times, was not part of Jewish thinking, and plays no part in John’s imagery. You can read more about how Jewish writers used, and thus how we should read, apocalyptic imagery here and here and here.