Some lines in the readings set in some of the lectionary passages for this coming Sunday place the focus on the judgement of God.
In the parable of the vineyard which is recounted in Isaiah 5, the Lord God is claimed to say: And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.
This is immediately followed by the declaration that the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!
In other words, the judgement of God is to be rained down on Israel:
bloodshed, not justice;
a cry, not righteousness.
By the way, there is a neat wordplay here in the original Hebrew of the parable that is worth reproducing In transliteration:
le-mishpat we-hinneh mispah
li-tzdaqah we-hinneh tzeaqah
The psalm chosen in the lectionary to accompany this scripture passage, Psalm 80, makes allusion to the same action of judgement threatened in the parable, before going on to utter a cry for divine compassion:
Why then have you broken down its walls, so that all who pass along the way pluck its fruit? The boar from the forest ravages it, and all that move in the field feed on it. Turn again, O God of hosts; look down from heaven, and see; have regard for this vine, the stock that your right hand planted.
God executes judgement according to this psalm, also.
The same emphatic declaration of divine judgement occurs in the words of Jesus in Luke 12: Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.
This is no “Jesus meek and mild” of the hymn by Charles Wesley:
Gentle Jesus, meek and mild, Look upon a little child,
Pity my simplicity, Suffer me to come to thee.
Loving Jesus, gentle Lamb, In thy gracious hands I am;
Make me, Saviour, what thou art, Live thyself within my heart.
Now I would be as thou art; Give me an obedient heart;
Thou art pitiful and kind, Let me have thy loving mind.
On the contrary, this is a Jesus filled with passion, declaring I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! This Jesus is much more akin to the figure that is depicted by John Bell and Graham Maule of the Iona Community:
Jesus Christ is raging, raging in the streets,
where injustice spirals and real hope retreats.
Listen, Lord Jesus, I am angry too;
in the Kingdom’s causes let me rage with you.
In Luke 12, Jesus is carrying through the programme that he enunciated at the start of his ministry, preaching the good news of the kingdom of God (Luke 4:43)—the same kingdom in which God requires upright behaviour (Luke 13:22-30). And Jesus takes on the role of declaring God’s requirements (this is especially expressed in many parables in Matthew’s Gospel) and affirming that, in the very fact of his presence, the kingdom is already a present reality (Luke 11:20 and 17:20).
Jesus does not shy away from the role of stating divine judgement. He does so, on the basis of the claim that he makes, in the Synoptic Gospels, to be integrally related to the kingdom which God is seeking to establish.
What are we to make of the righteous judgements of God, threatened in the parable, prayed about in the psalm, and declared with forceful passion in the words of Jesus?
Judgement sits alongside grace as integral the nature of God. Divine judgement is carried out by God from the plagues of Exodus to the denunciations of the great prophets and the military victories of foreign powers. That same judgement is proclaimed by Jesus, valorised by Paul, and envisaged in the dreams of the prophet John in the last book of the Bible.
Judgement is executed on those human beings who have entered into covenant relationship with the Lord God. Judgement means that God is holding them (and us) to account for the actions they (and we) have undertaken, which contradict the conditions of the covenant and demonstrate that one party (the human party) has strayed from the agreement reflected in the covenant.
This is as much the case for the New Covenant (reflected in the New Testament) as it was in the Old Covenant (reflected in the books that Christians identify as the Old Testament). It’s not the case that the OT God is a figure of judgement but the NT God is a figure of grace. Grace and Judgement exist equally and consistently in the character of God as attested in both testaments of Christian Scripture.
Judgement sits alongside Grace. They are related as both being integral to the kingdom which God seeks to establish, and the demands which come when seeking to be faithful to the vision of that kingdom.
God’s Grace invites people into a covenantal relationship, where mutual respect is to be manifested in specified actions. The Law that is given in the Old Testament is a guide as to what is expected of the human parties to the Covenant. Grace brings with it responsibilities and expectations.
That Covenant is the foundation upon which the Kingdom is based. God seeks to establish a realm in which the convent relationship guides all actions; a realm in which the requirements of justice and righteousness are lived out in the actions and attitudes and relationships of those who inhabit the Kingdom. So Justice is a consequence of the covenant established by Grace.
God’s Judgement operates in a manner consistent with divine Grace and is consequent upon the requirement of Justice. Judgement is executed when the actions and behaviours that are expected within the covenant relationship are not carried out; when injustice reigns in place of justice. The Law that is given in the Old Testament is a guide as to what is expected of the human parties to the Covenant. Judgement expresses the consequences that follow when the responsibilities and expectations of the covenant relationship are not met.
So we ought reasonably to expect that God will exercise judgement.
It is, of course, ultimately a divine decision as to when and how judgement is to be executed. Scriptural advice is consistent, that is not for human beings to determine that judgement. Jesus exhorts this in Matt 7:1-5 and Luke 6:37, Paul repeats it in Romans 14:4, and James advises the same in James 4:11-12.
The psalmist expresses the claim that God rightly judges people in various Psalms, such as 7:8-11, 50:4-6, 58:1-11, 67:3-4, 76:1-12, 96:10-13, and 98:1-9, and the prophets concur: see Isa 2:4, 11:1-5, Jer 11:20, Ezek 7:27, 18:30-32, 34:17-22, Micah 4:1-5.
So faithful adherence to the covenant relationship means that we are expected to adhere to the demands of justice, which are integral to the kingdom which God seeks to establish. And those demands of justice mean that we might well expect and anticipate judgement when we, as humans, fail to keep our commitment in the covenant.
So, I wonder: does Jesus have every right to threaten a fiery judgement and execute divine wrath? Especially, given who he is confessed to be, within the tradition of Christian orthodoxy? The threat of judgement, based on a requirement of justice, comes with our agreement to commit to the covenant which God has established in grace. That’s what Jesus is seeking to affirm—isn’t it?
This offers us a different picture of Jesus from what Charles Wesley popularised. But it’s a portrayal that is faithful to the witness of scripture.