Reading the Scriptures, whether the Hebrew Scriptures (“Old Testament”) or the New Testament, it is absolutely essential that one have an “historical-critical” understanding of biblical texts. This is especially important when one is confronted with a disturbing biblical text, as happened on Sunday, October 15th when the Gospel reading, Matthew 22:1-14, presented a disturbing presentation of God as cruel and vindictive. Hardly the “God is love” understanding.

First of all, the historical-critical method helps a person understand the author’s perspective: the author’s frame of mind and cultural and religious background. Secondly, the historical-critical method helps one understand the problems created by faulty translations of biblical texts. Today we are still dealing faulty translations. In previous posts, I have written about some of these. The Greek word ekklēsia, for example, means “an assembly” or a “gathering.” It is often mistranslated, however, as “church” which has a strong institutional connotation. Actually, I prefer to translate it as “community” as, for example, the “Christian community in Corinth.” Another mistranslation problem which I have touched on is the Greek word ioudaios which means “Judaean.” But it is still very problematically mistranslated as “Jew.” There were no “Jews” in the days of Jesus. There were Hebrews and the Judaeans, people from Judaea, a mountainous region of the Levant. Traditionally dominated by the city of Jerusalem, it is now part of Palestine and Israel. The word “Jew” began to appear in ancient English around the year 1000.

Let’s now return to Matthew 22:1-14 — The Parable of the Wedding Banquet 

Jesus spoke to them again in parables, saying:“The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come.

“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.’

“But they paid no attention and went off—one to his field, another to his business. The rest seized his servants, mistreated them and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city.

“Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come. So go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.’  So, the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, the bad as well as the good, and the wedding hall was filled with guests.

 “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. He asked, ‘How did you get in here without wedding clothes, friend?’ The man was speechless.

 “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.’

 “For many are invited, but few are chosen.”

The final version of the Gospel of Matthew is the work of an unknown Hebrew Christian author and was written after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by the Romans in 70 CE and written around 80 CE. Historians and biblical scholars know that there was a conflict between Matthew’s Hebrew Christian group and other Hebrew groups. But as we see in the Matthew 22:1-14, the author of Matthew’s Gospel seems to have relished violent-God imagery. Far short of the vision of Jesus.

If we see the king, in this Matthew 22:1-14 parable, as a representation of God, then we see Matthew’s picture of God exercising violent retributive judgment, both for the “city” — here most likely a reference to Jerusalem — “The king was furious… put those murderers to death and set their city on fire” and for the one without “wedding clothes” ‘Tie him up hand and foot and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth!’.

Now it is very important and worth noting that in the Gospel of Luke this very SAME parable appears. BUT the God violence is completely absent:

But Jesus said to him, “A man once gave a great banquet and invited many guests. At the time for the banquet, he sent his slave to tell those who had been invited, ‘Come, because everything is now ready.’ But one after another they all began to make excuses. The first said to him, ‘I have bought a field, and I must go out and see it. Please excuse me.’ Another said, ‘I have bought five yokes of oxen, and I am going out to examine them. Please excuse me.’ Another said, ‘I just got married, and I cannot come.’

So, the slave came back and reported this to his master. Then the master of the household was furious and said to his slave, ‘Go out quickly to the streets and alleys of the city, and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.’ Then the slave said, ‘Sir, what you instructed has been done, and there is still room.’ So, the master said to his slave, ‘Go out to the highways and country roads and urge people to come in, so that my house will be filled. For I tell you, not one of those individuals who were invited will taste my banquet!’” (Luke 14:16-24)

The phrase “weeping and gnashing of teeth” in Matthew’s telling of the parable is a phrase often found in Matthew’s Gospel. See, for example, Mt 8: 12; 13:42; 22:13; 24:51; and 25:30. The phrase is not found in Mark or John, and only once in Luke.

In the Gospel of Matthew, we are not dealing with anything like a direct quote from Jesus. In the text of Matthew 22:1-14 we see Jesus as he was presented by this particular Gospel writer who had his own violent-God perspective found in some Hebrew scriptures. 

Right now, considering the Hebrew Scriptures, I am thinking about God’s massive flood that wiped out nearly every living thing on the planet, as described in Genesis 6-7. In Genesis 19:1-28, God rained fire and brimstone upon the people of Sodom and Gomorrah as punishment for their flagrant and wanton sins. Sodom and Gomorrah are mentioned frequently in the prophets and the New Testament as symbols of human wickedness and divine retribution, and even the Quran contains a version of the story about the two cities.Then in Exodus 12:29, God blanketed Egypt with widespread plagues, including the killing of all firstborn children. The Book of Nahum, written between 626–612 BCE was very explicit about a vengeful God. In Nahum 1:2-3, for example, we read “The Lord is a jealous and vengeful God. The Lord is vengeful and strong in wrath. The Lord is vengeful against his foes. He rages against his enemies. The Lord is very patient but great in power. But the Lord punishes. His way is in whirlwind and storm.”

Genesis 1:27 says we are made in the image and likeness of God. Over the centuries, however, some acrimonius biblical writers and theologians have fallen into the error of making God in their own image and likeness.

Well, the violent perspective of Matthew 22:1-14 does indeed resonate with some earlier biblical texts. But Matthew’s perspective here is diametrically opposite to the non-violence of Jesus and totally out of sync with the Gospels of Mark, Luke, and John. 

Nowhere in Sacred Scripture, in fact, is the loving nature of God more apparent than in the story told by Jesus, the historical Yeshua, about the compassionate and joyous father, usually titled The Parable of the Lost Son which we find in Luke 15:11-32.

The son had run away from home and ended up losing everything. Then as we read, starting in verse 18, the lost son says:

I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ So, he got up and went to his father.

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.

“The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’

“But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So, they began to celebrate.

An historical-critical perspective stresses that one needs to evaluate biblical texts in the total context of the scriptures. There is no doubt that the Hebrew Scriptures as well as the New Testament strongly affirm a loving and supportive God. Indeed, that “God is love.” The author who wrote the final version of Matthew had a few theological hang-ups – just like St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033 – 1109) and his “satisfaction” theory of atonement, anchored in a very distorted understanding of a God who could only be made happy with the crucifixion and death of his very own Son. 

We can and we must move beyond distorted theological hang ups. Certainly, the historical Jesus did not have them. And, thinking about the entire Gospel of Matthew, one should not ignore the positive elements like the memorable Sermon on the Mount (chapters 5–7). There we find a strong affirmation of love, compassion, and selflessness. Jesus encourages his listeners to love their enemies, to forgive others, and to care for the poor and marginalized. Nothing cruel or vindictive about Jesus. May we live and move forward in his spirit.


8 thoughts on “Distorted Understandings of God?

  1. Jack – How well we know that old saw, It’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks! Vatican II made that quite clear for fear-based Catholics. And their number still manifests itself, especially in the hierarchy who recognize that fear is a far greater motivator than love, especially when it comes to the unknown beyond the grave. In these instances, the safe solution is to be given a set of rules to follow and a pad/pencil to check off failings, go to confession, get those erased, and then start over with the strong assurance that, should you be hit with a truck, you are on the fast train to heaven. Defining love and living a life of love is far more difficult and less able to be quantified. So, from my perspective, while the Matthean Scripture you quote is problematic, even more so is the human’s recognition that s/he knows quite little about healthy love and how to express it. Best/Thx!

      1. Brilliantly done, Jack. Especially in light of Israel and Gaza and the current leader there invoking similar biblical texts. You keep us Christian. Thanks.

  2. Dear Jack,
    Your words really illustrate how mis-translations can lead to confusion and/or misunderstanding of the true intent of sacred scripture and, even worse, a belief that God is waiting for us to screw up so S/He can send us to the fiery pit! Since most of us laity have none of your education, we depend on passages chosen for us by “wiser” clergy who will guide us. Many times I am confused and befuddled by the cryptic messages from scripture that portray God as vengeful or distant or judgmental at the very least. As your friend, Joe Sankovich pointed out, fear sometimes permeates selected readings more than love. It is incumbent on each of us to seek the true context of our selected Sunday readings, of course, but we rely on those who are the “experts” to lead us to God through sacred writings. You, dear friend, are indeed Another Voice who clarifies and enlightens. Thank you for all of your wise interpretations.

  3. For Another Voice, and on behalf of all the voices of others, thank you for raising the flag “Nothing cruel or vindictive about Jesus.” When have we ever been more awash in theological hang-ups, theological log-jams? We could wish for a Paul Bunyan and Babe his blue ox in religious clusterations and “revoltin’ predicaments.” However, Paul and Babe are myth and magic, and not everything is clear always, but something always is.

    Nothing is ever lost, we try different approaches, suffer, learn, then change. In scripture, it seems that one after another tribal modus vivendi was recorded, but as the via negativa: in other words, Read, mark, learn and inwardly digest how to live differently but not like this! For example, Yahweh was less than enthusiastic about a trendy kingdom for the Hebrews, warning against it, and yet, so it was, and such a mess. Even so, still to this day we are shackled with “kingdom” terms from politics rather than the heart: we need another term, maybe “kin-dom” is not so bad, but it too smacks of tribalism. Perhaps technology enables us to gorge on drama too much, in movies and books, even in Congress, and sometimes to over-personalize classic tragedies, which are not funny. Liturgy is not drama, not magic, not funny, because there is no escape but to struggle together with the absurd, to clear a way for others, one soul at a time. Even in mythology, Sisyphus smiles, alone, because someday the boulder on his shoulder will get over the mountain, and he has shown us how to alter gravity. A good musician knows how to accompany another, not always to solo, always to favor another voice, adapt and improvise if needed.

    This reminds me that I’m looking forward to your post-synodal reflections, to find some hope, some light, in time, in a new tempo, a new key. I think of my daughter and granddaughter, of the world, life and times in which they will live after I’m dead.
    Meanwhile, “ne mi fallor,” but it seems that the inertia of the episcopate is fatal to the evangelical character of the RCC, in that it, as a deliberative or consultative body, continues, after two millenia already still eliminates women from “full participation” on the basis of gender in the functioning of the RCC, as it sees “itself.” In fact, in the originating gospel narrative, Woman illuminates the formation of the personality of Yeshua of Nazareth, born of Maryam and infused with the Holy Spirit (to use that hallowed bi-gendered term) accompanied always by many women, as you have stated. Jesus is the natural magnet of this faith, this religion, this attractor to the divine in the fleshy-now, born of Woman, so it seems men have recast the life and teaching of Jesus into a golden male calf. Yes, I hear from patronizing ordained men that the synod should not be all about women…. but why is that too much to expect? Are we more selective, exclusive and elite than Jesus? Well, to be honest, yes….. but why?

    In another key, regarding the humanity of women as Sapiens, the “itself” of so many “Christian” churches breaches faith because religious ‘itself-ness’ deflects the holiness of Creation from the “Itself.” Why is there even a question about the “role” of women in the church?! If a church supplants itself for the “Itself”– IOW, God as the ever-present Origin of all that was, is, and what’s becoming, forever a mystery into which we can perceive our own place in the universe, and unto which, or whom, we as Sapiens are by nature drawn, the “mysterium termendum et fascinans,” to use Otto’s line– then by its own logic, church itself makes a glitzy golden calf of desperation, an idolatrous act of minimal perspective. Do we really need this glamorous perfidious herd of magical golden calves? Maybe churches as we have experienced them should get out of the way.

    An aperspectival view has yet to emerge with honest and humble metanoia, with changing up and seeing through the phenomena and happenstances of living the way we do, with mutating ourselves differently for a new time. The narrow perspective of self– whether itself or myself– is, I think, but a splinter, a glint from Itself that is wholly Other and ever-originating: the not-me, nor my mental projections about this mere blue planet and its harboring of life. It seems to me that the change-up in churches is out of pace with what is evolving. Without Sapiens, the universe would be poorer, a shame for the sake of wonder, love and praise within the universe as it evolves differently in keeping with the ever-originating and ever-mysterious Itself. As for our metanoia as a species, we need to get a wiggle on.

    Yeshua of Nazareth has been calling us to metanoia, to seeing-through, if we could just hear his voice. Jesus, the “Verbum incarnatus,” is the closest Sapiens has yet come to a thankful appreciation of living in an original way, evolving from the same-old into the novel and different. This is the lesson from scripture, history, mystery and the tradition of emerging consciousness and conscience, facing the pure truth of becoming more human, never less. Pilate privately said to Jesus, perhaps as a stoic aside, “What is truth?” to which Jesus remained silent, letting that question, the revelation not of information but of what is heart-felt and intuitive reality for each unique person, hang in the air before us. [So much for privacy! Who first overheard this exchange? Pilate’s wife? One of her maids? And yet the words were heard and preserved.] How can we not respond to the One who calls us each by name at the end, except to weigh the call, find the words, raise a voice, and act honestly, critically, aperspectively? I think this call to approach truth amidst the absurdities of our life and times, comports with “le point vierge” that Tom Merton picked up from Louis Massignon, now so long ago it seems, but ever present in stillness.

    I should temper my impatience with church and religion, especially as winter holiday family banquets approach, by repeating Galileo’s line, after he recanted (“coactus feci”) what he knew to be true: “Eppur si muove.” I hope that is true of churches, though I hear even without my audio devices, a crescendo of “Tick-tock, tick-tock.”

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