Living Under God’s Judgment
TEXT: LUKE 19:29–44
All four gospels tell the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and each year the lectionary chooses one version for us to consider on Palm Sunday. This year it is Luke’s turn. Luke’s version contains a prominent feature not found in any of the other gospels. Yet, the lectionary omits precisely this feature that is unique to Luke’s telling of the story. Why might that be?
As much as we might not want to, we must talk about the judgment of God. If we don’t, then we misread the Bible, and we misunderstand the nature of God.
At the end of the story Luke includes the painful words of Jesus about the utter destruction of Jerusalem and the massive suffering that will result (19:41-44).
As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.” (NIV)
These words are a clear reference to the horrible destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans some forty years in the future, interpreted by Luke as God’s punishment of the rebellious city.
Luke’s version of the triumphal entry is a good news bad news story. The good news is that Jesus is the rightful king of Jerusalem who comes in the name of the Lord to offer salvation. The bad news is that Jerusalem rejects the things, or rather the One, that make for peace, and the consequences will be disastrous. Luke portrays Jesus as standing in the tradition of Old Testament prophets who pointed Israel in the direction of the saving ways of God. But these prophets also declared that if Israel did not choose these saving ways, then God would send devastating judgment.
So why does the lectionary omit precisely the unique element in Luke’s version of the story, the judgment of God? How many of us like to hear sermons that focus on the judgment or wrath of God? I certainly don’t. I have painful memories of preachers who proclaimed, with far too much joyous zeal, the fierce judgment of God. Such preaching can be psychologically manipulative, emotionally damaging, and inappropriate for other reasons as well.
I struggle with how to understand the judgment of God. Far too often Christians attribute disasters to the judgment of God. We hear Christians explaining the horrible scourge of HIV/AIDS as God’s judgment on sinful human conduct. Prominent preachers pronounce Hurricane Katrina or the earthquake in Haiti as God’s judgment on decadent societies. Such simplistic explanations are attractive because they seem so biblical. They follow the precedent of the prophets and numerous biblical writers who regularly interpret natural and human-made disasters as divine judgment, just as Luke does in his triumphal entry story.
I believe that such explanations are profoundly inappropriate. I believe that God’s deepest desire is for the healing, salvation, and well-being of every single human being. I do not believe that God sends or causes human suffering in order to enact judgment. I realize, with considerable anxiety, that what I am saying puts me somewhat out of step with the prophets, with Luke, and with many other biblical authors.
Attributing disaster to divine judgment on human sin is another form of blaming the victim. A community already shattered by earthquake is told by a preacher that they have only themselves to blame. Is this really what people need from God as they struggle to rebuild their lives, their homes, and their communities? A woman just diagnosed with multiple sclerosis is counseled by a Christian friend to examine her life to see how she has displeased God. Is this what a hurting woman needs from a sister in Christ?
I recognize that our human choices and actions have consequences, and when we make bad choices, i.e. when we sin, then the consequences can be devastating. But I don’t pretend to know if and how God’s judgment might be at work in such situations. Talking about God’s judgment is a bit like walking through a minefield. We never know when we might inadvertently step in the wrong place and say something inappropriate or insensitive. No wonder the lectionary steers us away from passages about God’s judgment.
A JUDGING GOD
But as much as we might resist, we must talk about the judgment of God. If we don’t, then we misread the Bible, and we misunderstand the nature of God. The judgment of God is a major theme in the Bible. We see God’s first act of judgment in Genesis 3 already, when Adam and Eve are expelled from the garden. In short order human sin reaches such proportions that God decides to exterminate all of humanity with a flood, except for the family of Noah. The prophets and historical books declare over and over that God is punishing Israel by means of plague, or drought, or military defeat, or foreign oppression.
Wouldn’t it be nice if we could say that the judgment of God belongs to the Old Testament, but in the New Testament we see that God is really a God of grace. Even before Jesus arrives on the scene John the Baptist calls his audience “you brood of vipers” (Luke 3:7), and then he informs them “every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire” (3:9). In Matthew 25 Jesus describes how the Son of Man will sentence the wicked, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” Judgment is a significant topic in the letters of Paul, and takes up entire chapters in the book of Revelation. From Genesis through Revelation the judgment of God is a central theme.
We can’t relegate the judgment of God to the Old Testament and the grace of God to the New Testament. The Bible is far more complex and profound than that. In both testaments God is first and foremost gracious. That is why already at the beginning of the Bible God embarks on the grand project of offering divine grace and wholeness to a broken world. But the grace of God does not eliminate the judgment of God. In the heart of God grace and wrath live side by side in a paradoxical relationship. God is infinitely gracious. But God also has a wrathful side, which manifests itself in acts of judgment. The Bible does not resolve or relax this paradox. There is a contradiction here which we cannot fully understand nor should we seek to explain it away.
In some earlier eras of church history the weight of the church’s teaching was on God’s judgment. As a result many people experienced God as somewhat of a tyrant, always keen to punish and to consign the wicked to eternal damnation. Some of us here have been deeply hurt by this kind of inappropriate teaching and preaching. In response, we have sent the pendulum swinging in the opposite direction and we virtually never speak of the judgment of God. Even the lectionary, which is supposed to give us a balanced diet of biblical texts, steers us away from judgment passages.
So what happens to our understanding of God when we relax the paradox too much in favor of the grace of God? God becomes a God of infinite love and grace who always affirms, supports, and comforts us no matter what we do. God becomes a cosmic teddy bear always prepared to give us warm fuzzies. “If you want to invade and destroy the country of Iraq under false pretenses, that’s okay, I will love you anyway. If you want to kill five million Jews, that’s okay, I love you anyway.” This kind of God becomes toothless and gutless. Of course God is infinitely gracious, and of course God comforts, affirms, and supports. But this is only half of the paradox. As a friend of mine once observed, “the God of the Bible is an ass-kicking God.”
When the world can spend billions of dollars waging war in far off places, while doing so little to alleviate the suffering caused by massive famine in the horn of Africa, God is absolutely enraged, and is ready to kick some serious butt. When amazing plant and animal species, that God has so lovingly created, are being obliterated from the face of the earth because of our human greed and wasteful western lifestyle, God is absolutely enraged, and is ready to kick some serious butt. When the cupboard for inner city schools, public transportation, and healthcare is bare because we are too selfish to pay taxes, then God is enraged, and prepared to kick some serious butt. We need the biblical texts of divine judgment to remind us that God is no cosmic teddy bear.
LIVING UNDER JUDGMENT
We need these texts to remind us that as a biblical people we always live under the judgment of God. The judgment of God reminds us of how seriously God takes human sin. The Jewish scholar Abraham Heschel offers a wonderful description of the Israelite prophets. So what if somewhere in Palestine powerful landowners are dispossessing some Israelite peasants of their ancestral land? So what if some Israelites worship Canaanite fertility gods at the local shrines? These are minor events. No, God declares, these are massive catastrophes that merit the destruction of the nation. God is raging in the words of the prophets. 1
In Matthew 25 Jesus tells a parable of the last judgment. The basis for distinguishing between the faithful and the wicked will be whether people have fed the hungry, clothed the naked, welcomed the stranger, visited the sick (25:35-36). “What’s the big deal?” we ask. “So there are some hungry, or naked, or sick, or lonely people around. We can’t care for everybody. These things happen all the time. They are minor matters.” “No,” Jesus declares, “these are matters of ultimate significance.” “Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels’ ” (25:41). Living under the judgment of God reminds us of how seriously God takes human sin.
Living under the judgment of God also reminds us of God’s ongoing call to repentance. One of the fascinating things about the Old Testament prophetic books is that they were preserved at all. Prophets like Amos, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel declared that Israel had sinned grievously by worshipping other gods and by oppressing the poor. Therefore, God was about to send horrible judgment in the form of military defeat and conquest by foreign empires. After this message of judgment was fulfilled, why go to all the work of writing down and preserving these messages? The prophetic books were understood to represent God’s ongoing call to repentance and vigilant living. The community of faith must always be clear about which God it will worship and be loyal to. It must always ensure that widows, orphans, and sojourners are cared for. If not, then the community will again experience the judgment of God.
Jeremiah and Ezekiel both condemn false prophets because they have no message of judgment. These prophets say little about the sins of the nation. Instead they announce the grace of God and promise the people well-being. Jeremiah and Ezekiel both declare that such proclamations of the grace of God without any hint of judgment, cover up the sin of God’s people and lead to complacency. Ezekiel calls it slopping whitewash onto a crumbling wall. Thereby false prophets prevent the very thing that could lead to the genuine healing of God’s people—true repentance. The message of judgment is a wake-up call. It is a summons to commit our lives every more fully to Jesus, and thereby become disentangled from our sinful actions and from the larger sinful structures in this world. The message of judgment is a summons to invite Jesus into our individual and collective lives so that he can begin the process of our renewal and transformation, and so he can inspire us to share the good news of God’s salvation with others.
JUDGMENT AND GRACE
Luke’s version of the triumphal entry is a story of both God’s grace and God’s judgment. Palm Sunday is an appropriate time to reflect on both. Later this week Jesus will be tortured and killed. Surely here human sin reaches a highpoint. Humanity nails Jesus to the cross and thereby rejects God’s offer of salvation. Surely here God’s wrath should lash out in acts of judgment. But God sends grace and forgiveness. God raises Jesus from the dead, thereby unleashing the power of resurrection and new life into our world, a new life that is now offered to you and to me.
We know so little about how God’s grace and God’s judgment interact with each other. And we know so little about how God’s judgment works itself out in human history and experience. But we can be assured that God’s response to the crucifixion of Jesus is a promise that ultimately God will not deal with our sin in ways that destroy us, but in ways that will lead to our being forgiven, healed, and made whole. It is this experience of God’s abundant and amazing grace, which gives us strength and courage to also live under the judgment of God.
- Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets: An Introduction, Vol. 1 (New York: Harper and Row, 1962), 4–5.