Theology means to talk about God. Our God-talk evolves. Babylonian theology thought there were lots of Gods which were arbitrary, capricious, and violent; rather like us, only worse. People were created as slaves when the Gods decided it was too hard getting their own food. Once when people were too noisy, the Gods wiped them out with a big flood, a story on which the story of Noah does commentary.
Jesus’ ancestors were attacked by the Babylonians, defeated in battle, and the cream of the country taken back to Babylon. Among these exiles were a group who made the remarkable decision that just because Babylon had won the war, it didn’t mean they were right about the Gods. Out of that insight and revelation came a new theology which we see, for example, in the beginning of Genesis: One God. Majestically in control, rather than struggling chaotically. Just. A God who made people at the centre of Creation in order that they might enjoy it rather than as an afterthought when that god needed some slave labour.
The long evolution of that insight and revelation has brought us to an understanding of a God who loves us extravagantly that God would rather die for us than use violence against us. It is so radical a view still, that we call one of Jesus’ stories the Parable of the Prodigal Son, as though it is about a footloose, wayward son. It is the story of a God who is so loving that we might better call it the Parable of the Profligate Father.
Jesus and his people were not stupid. They knew the world was full of evil and injustice. It often did not seem that there was a God who loved us, but rather a God who had abandoned us. One theory about this was that things are not yet complete. The Genesis story was not the Creation Story, but related the beginning of the story of Creation. In this understanding, when Creation is brought to fulfilment then the righteous will be revealed and able to enter a new heaven and a new earth. And those who are not right with God will be in a world of trouble. There will be a judgement. Insights about this range from understandings similar to that of C. S. Lewis at the end of The Narnia Tales where those who could not bear to look upon the face of Aslan were simply annihilated, through to them suffering eternal damnation and unending hellfire and torment. Yet since the very early church there has also been an intuition that “God will leave no one behind.” The whole creation will be renewed, including me and you, which is just as well, for as Paul quotes from the Psalms (14:1-3, Ro 3:12), there is no one righteous, not one.
All this leaves at least three questions. A part of us is inclined to ask what the point of being good is if there is no judgement. And we also wonder, since so much is said about judgement in both Testaments, how there could be no judgement. Is the Bible just plain wrong? Is it not only the Babylonians who were wrong about God, but also our stories of God? And, finally, a part of us feels very deeply that judgement of some kind, some kind of punishment, is in order. People‒ even us‒ can do unforgivably bad things.
Living well is good for us now! That’s the answer to the first question. Life is given to us to enjoy. Living as we were intended, as people who love, is the path to joy in this life. Hatred, theft, envy, violence‒ when we say these things are bad, and they are, we are saying not only that they hurt other people but, more fundamentally, and first of all, they damage us. Stepping off the footpath without looking may traumatise the person who drives into us, but it may kill us.
The Bible is not a set statement for all time. The Bible is the witness of the faith of God’s people at particular times. We grow in our knowledge of God, and we can see that growth in scripture and in our ancestors in the faith. Jesus, for example, said “You have heard it said… but I say to you…” (Matt 5:21-48) What the Bible is very good at reflecting is what we know to be incomplete about our humanity. When it talks of judgement, what it is first of all doing is reflecting our knowledge of just how brutal and inhumane we can be. It knows, we know, that our behaviour towards others is often simply indefensible. From a human perspective, judgement is fully in order because people are often appallingly and unjustifiably violent.
But from the perspective of God, there is only love. In the story of the Profligate Father the younger brother is hardly repentant. He schemes for his own benefit: He says, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.’” He is, as the text says, “far off” from a real remorse. “But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.”
What the father does is culturally reprehensible. Think how angry we allow ourselves to become when politicians scapegoat the poor who waste their undeserved Jobkeeper on cigarettes and alcohol, even whilst we are drinking and smoking and using other drugs ourselves. The father, the God-figure in this story, loves and accepts the one who by taking away half the family’s resources essentially wished God was dead! He does not judge him; there is no judgement, only welcome and rejoicing and the pouring of goodness and love upon his child.
Judgement is what we do. It is the older brother who judges, not the father. God does not judge us. People visit judgement and death upon each other. We imagine God is like us; that is, judgemental. We do not understand that to be made in God’s image is to cease judging, and only love.
But in Matthew 25:31-46, where those who thought they were righteous found themselves judged because in their rejection of the poor and the sick and the homeless‒ think of the rejection of the Murugappan family from Biloela‒ in that rejection they had actually rejected the Christ-Messiah himself. I cannot escape the force of that story. How can it be that to reject the Messiah himself has no consequence?
I think that in its inclusion of the texts about judgement, the Bible not only reflects our human evil and violence. It also warns us that judgement, our judgement, does have consequence. Let me tell you a story:
The minister walked down the long corridor of the city hospital looking for room twenty-seven. He was pulled up short by a name tag a few doors before his destination: Mr Reginald Martin. At that moment a stream of abuse flowed around the partly closed door as an unfortunate staff member was blamed at high volume for the “shit food, the disrespect, the lack of any real care, and the general incompetence of the entire hospital. You never tell me anything. I’ll die in here, and it’s your fault‒ the lot of you.” It was the same voice from two doors down the street from the church, which sometimes competed with the sermon, or prayers, and was always angry and abusive.
He knocked at number twenty-seven, and went into see his parishioner. Reg was still holding forth, audible even in her room, and she said sadly, “He’s wrong, you know. They are so kind to me, so gentle. They keep me fully informed about everything that’s happening. The food is really good‒ I’ve asked if I can move in here instead of staying in my unit!” Betty was preparing to die, too unwell for dialysis and with her remaining kidney barely functioning. A nurse who arrived with medication told him, “Betty is our favourite patient.”
When he left her room, the minister looked back toward Reg’s door, heard more grumbles in which the f-word seemed more prominent than any other, and decided he simply could not face visiting. He left via the nurses station at the far end of the ward where, with hand-over underway, he heard the NUM saying, “And Rotten Reginald is his usual worst this afternoon…”
He’d had his fair share of conversations with Reg, who always seemed to want someone to listen to him, and to care for him; Reg, who desperately tried to be civil and welcoming, but mostly ended up complaining about life in general and sometimes abusing him across the fence. Even here, he thought, poor old Reg can only see the people who care about him, and who wish to save him, as his enemy.
When we judge, it’s us we damage. My great fear is that I might end up seeing the Messiah himself as so evil that I might refuse to go into the feast. That’s the danger of judgement.
But this is not the last word. I once led a funeral for a person who made Reg look tame. Their amazing family, who had suffered much from them, told of a person who had been terribly traumatised by one of those events where we say, “It destroyed them.” It had. The Regs of this world are mostly driven by the same pain as the rest of us, only worse. But even so far off, lashing out, scratching and violent in our pain, God will not desert us. God will out-wait us until we can finally come into the feast. I love the apocryphal tale of how, in the year 3,000, as twelve people are waiting around the table, there is a hesitant knock at the door, and Judas Iscariot anxiously peers into the room. “Judas! Come in! We’ve been waiting for you!” And Jesus sprang to his feet and embraced him.
God will wait for us all, even me. But every time I judge you, every time I exclude you from the fullness and richness of life which I have and demand, I walk away from the table and the joy of the feast, to wait a little longer.
(Andrew Prior June 2021)
The Tale of the Profligate Father (Luke 15)
11 Then Jesus* said, ‘There was a man who had two sons. 12The younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” So he divided his property between them. 13A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and travelled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16He would gladly have filled himself with* the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17But when he came to himself he said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.’ ” 20So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21Then the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”* 22But the father said to his slaves, “Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” And they began to celebrate.
25 ‘Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27He replied, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.” 28Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29But he answered his father, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” 31Then the father* said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.” ’
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
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