Over the course of my lifetime I have become increasingly wary around war metaphors when it comes to theology. I grew up singing, “I’m in the Lord’s Army” complete with hand motions and now my daughter sings it as well. But I also grew up in the post 9/11 era, watching everybody from terrorists to politicians use religious metaphors to describe their desired war efforts. I am often not sure if they are using religion to promote war or war to promote religion but I definitely know both make me super uncomfortable.
However, when you react against something you often embrace all the errors of the opposite. So in reacting against a God of War many of us have found ourselves over embracing a God of passiveness, a God who is unaffiliated with our world, unfamiliar with the true evils that lurk among us and who wants to just go around handing out Pepsi’s to riot police and protesters without acknowledging the deep evils that lie under our world.
In such a view, we remake Jesus into a kindhearted, compassionate do gooder. He never raised his voice and never said anything remotely offensive. And of course they crucified him for no apparent reason.
In reading Matthew this week, I have come again to realize Jesus was nothing of the sort. There was a true conflict going on between Jesus and the authorities and he stoked their ire quite deliberately. They were perpetuating grave evils and he did not mince words while calling them out.
The parable I wrote about yesterday was just the warm up act. Jesus follows it with two more stories which are more cruel and far more deliberate in their attempts to stoke their anger. (See Matthew 21:28-22:10)
The first, sometimes called “the Parable of the Tenants” has to do with a landlord trying to collect rent from his tenants. The tenants want nothing of it, beating and killing every money collector sent. The story climaxes when the landlord sends his son who is then also killed. These tenants are not just evil but also stupid. Killing the servants is not going to guarantee the landlord will stop trying. Killing the son is not going to guarantee them the inheritance. In fact, the Chief Priests correctly use the word “wretched” to describe them.
But then Jesus turns that on them. “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produces its fruit!” It is almost like he was saying: You are evil and stupid and wretched!
The second parable, the Parable of the Wedding Banquet, makes a similar point. A King throws a wedding banquet and all the honored and invited guests refuse to show up. So the King ends up letting everybody come.
These parables are not quite “war” stories or metaphors and yet words of violence saturate them. There are beatings and mockings and killings. There is gnashing of teeth and people being captured and tied up. These are hardly stories describing a passive, almost apathetic God. This God cares about the fruit and the land that produces it. This God cares about people. This God cares about the servants. This God cares about the rejected. And this God is angry at those who do not care, especially when they are the Chief Priests who wear God’s name and claim to act in God’s best interests.
Yet notice how God deals with the situation? Yes, he ousts the tenants but then he gives the farm to others. And when the guests of the bridegroom refuse to show, God goes out and invites others in. Both these parables end the conflict with inclusiveness. People are welcomed who were earlier rejected.
Both these parables point to the cross, that moment when Jesus is completely rejected by the religious establishment but then God throws open wide arms of mercy to invite all sinners in. God wins the conflict not by conquering or by killing but by inviting. Those the chief priests and elders rejected become the children of the King! God’s wonderful kingdom gets bigger.
Yes there is a conflict. Yes God is at war with the corrupt and the uncaring. But God wins the war by throwing open the doors of the kingdom to everybody who will believe and repent. So too, the church wins our various conflicts when we take up our crosses, throw open our arms and open our doors to the tax collectors, prostitutes, thieves, the greedy, the manipulative, the battered, the poor and the broken. Only in so doing will the reign of love increase!