Can Grace Really Be Pulled out of the Fire? Scary Matthew 13.
Anna- curious of your understanding of Matthew 13:36-43. Is this really telling of a one time judgement and not an eternal one? I was thinking of our conversation at Outlaw Ranch this past week. It sounds pretty eternal to me.
There’s always gotta be one in the crowd who listens and then in their free time chases something that bugs them.
So this fine woman sent me this question because she participated in Family Camp at Outlaw Ranch, near Custer, South Dakota. (Insert shameless Outlaw Ranch plug. ELCA bishop Dave Zellmer and I are leading camp again over the week of July 4th, 2012, aided by the musical talents of Paul Tietjan. It’s way fun, and so you should sign up. Info is here.)
And I went off on my radical grace schtick.
And she went off and found her Bible.
It has been said that systematic theologians read more about the Bible than the Bible.
But the Bible is always read with an interpretive bent: the question is whether that bent is manifest or latent.
I just happen to have a manifest bent because I get to be a systematic theologian.
And my bent is Easter.
That’s key to mention at the outset.
That means that my way of thinking through scripture is not to believe that it is literally true, for example. (Why that is so is another question, but the blogs I’ve written here and here and here might give a hint). Instead, I believe that the defining event for Christians is that Jesus is no longer dead. So everything is seen and read and thought about through that lens.
Death, in all its forms, doesn’t win.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at the text. The part you’re most curious about is italicized at the tail end, but is informed by the beginning and middle of the really really long section below.
13That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea.2Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. 3And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow.4And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. 5Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil.6But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. 7Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 9Let anyone with ears listen!” 10Then the disciples came and asked him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” 11He answered, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. 12For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 13The reason I speak to them in parables is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.’ 14With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah that says: ‘You will indeed listen, but never understand, and you will indeed look, but never perceive. 15For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes; so that they might not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and understand with their heart and turn— and I would heal them.’ 16But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. 17Truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.18“Hear then the parable of the sower. 19When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. 20As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; 21yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. 22As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. 23But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”
24He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; 25but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. 26So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. 27And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ 28He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ 29But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. 30Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’” 31He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 32it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” 33He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” 34Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables; without a parable he told them nothing. 35This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet: “I will open my mouth to speak in parables; I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.” 36Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” 37He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; 38the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, 39and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels.40Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. 41The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, 42and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!
I’m going to turn to two sources here: Robert Farrar Capon and Brian Stoffregen.
The first time I came across Capon was when I was a student at St. Olaf.
My English professor came into my classroom with a cookbook in hand. He sat down, and said, “I must read to you from this cookbook.” And he proceeded to relay Capon’s essay “The Heavenly Onion” taken from The Supper of the Lamb. (Wish I could find a link to the text, but I can’t. Tons of references to it, but no actual text. Please send one if you know of one!). My professor had tears in his eyes, either because Capon’s writing was so moving, or because Capon’s writing was so vivid that the virtual onion caused his eyes to water!
Capon, an Episcopalian priest as well as gourmet, has written a three-volume series about the parables. It’s brilliant. The Parables of the Kingdom, The Parables of Grace, and The Parables of Judgment have all shaped me and my way of thinking through Scripture.
In his text The Parables of the Kingdom (note, not the Parables of Judgment), Capon tackles the text.
He gets pleasantly hung up on the Greek word aphete, which can be translated as “let,” “permit,” “suffer,” (!). In this context, the sense is that the wheat and the weeds ought to grow together.
But then he brings us on an etymological journey, and instructs us that not only does the word lend itself to that meaning, but is also translated as “forgive!” Poking around in the King James Version, Capon says that 47 of the 156 versions of aphienai find their way into some form of the word “forgive.” (106).
As far as Capon is concerned, this implies that (note the snarkines in his writing below–has anyone else noticed that word surfacing more and more as of late? I like it. Capon’s snarky):
On the basis of the parable as told, the farmer has announced, publicly and in advance (do you seriously think the servants told nobody about his crazy plan to leave the weeds alone?) that his enemy is quite free to come back any night he chooses and sow any weeds he likes. Not just more zizania [weeds], but purslane, dock, bindweed, pigweed, or even–when he finally runs out of seriously mischievous ideas–New Zealand spinach.
There is more. On the basis of Jesus’ ministry as lived and died, God has announced the very same thing. No enemy–not the devil, not you, not me, and not anybody else–is going to get it in the neck, in this life, for any evil he has done…
And then there’s the clincher. On the basis of jesus’ ministry as risen, there is no change in that policy. He comes forth from the tomb and ascends into heaven with nail prints in his hands and feet and a spear wound in his risen side–with eternal, glorious scars to remind God, angels, and us that he is not about to go back on his word from the cross.” (108-109)
Capon is not oblivious to that final verse: you know, that bit about the weeds being collected and burned.
He has a couple of things to say here:
1) Proportionately, the parable is about the aphesis of evil, “not about the avenging of it.”
2) God gave us what we want. A little fear-inducing, behavior-shaping, yikes-y stuff. But with it, he writes: “The human race is hooked on eschatology [notions about the endtimes]: give us one drag on it, and we proceed to party away our whole forgiven life in fantasies about a final score-settling session that none of us, except for forgiveness, could possibly survive” (109-110). And then:
When we dwell too simplistically on the Final Judgment, we almost always picture it as the day when God finally takes off the gloves of mystery with which he has so far handled with world and gives his enemies a decisive taste of eschatological bare knuckles. That image, however, leaves one important truth out of account: the judgment occurs only after the general resurrection of the dead. And since the resurrection of the dead (of the just and the unjust alike) is something that happens to them solely by virtue of Jesus’ resurrection–about which we have very little unparadoxial information–we should be very slow to imagine scenarios for it that are based on simplistic extrapolations of our present experience. Everything that happens after the second coming of Jesus–judgment, heaven, and even hell–happens within the triumphantly reconciling power of his death and resurrection. We simply don’t know how or to what degree that power affects the eschatological situation.
Take, for example, the question of whether we are in a position to discuss the meaning or even the possibility of ultimate human rejection of the reconciliation. To be sure, Scripture says clearly enough that the sovereign, healing power of Jesus can and will be refused by some. I have no problem with that. What I do object to, however, are the hell-enthusiasts who act as if God’s whole New Testament method of dealing with evil will, in the last day, simply go back to some Old Testament “square one”–as if Jesus hadn’t done a blessed or merciful thing in between, and as if we could, therefore skip all the paradoxes of mercy when we talk about hte Last Day and simply concentrate on plain old gun-barrel justice.” (113-114).
Let me be clear: I could quote Capon all day, but you would stop reading. His lawyers might not, however, and I’d get in a mess of trouble for breaches of copyright.
But I’m sorely tempted to quote him ad nauseum because Capon understands mystery and he understands grace and he sees that Easter makes all the difference in the world.
So does Brian Stoffregen. He’s a Lutheran pastor who writes illuminating textual notes on the weekly Gospel verses. You can find his insight and honest, well-written prose here. Here he writes on the parable-at-hand (I know it’s a long excerpt, but if you’re into grace and humility, here’s some good fodder for you):
I notice that the angels collect “out of his kingdom”. Earlier the field was defined as “the world” (kosmos, v. 38). Does Jesus/Matthew intend us to think that “his kingdom” is the same as “the world,” or, as I’ve discovered in other passages, there is a greater judgment for those on the inside, who don’t measure up in some way.
Those that are gathered for punishment are defined as “all causes of sin” and “all evildoers” (NRSV). These need further comments.
“causes of sin” is skandala. This word originally referred to a trap — most likely the type held up by a stick; then, metaphorically, to something that causes a person to be trapped, caught, be stuck where they don’t want to be — that is something that was offensive to them. Finally, came to refer to things that tempted others to stray or sin. The word is used three times in Matthew (once in Luke and no occurrences in Mark or John).
On one hand, especially with the verb, skandalizo, there is the sense that such things have to be removed, e.g., if a part of your body causes you to sin, remove it (5:29, 30; 18:6, 8, 9). The noun is used three times in 18:7 to refer to the dangers of being a cause of sin to others.
Besides seeing “causes of sin” as people within the community who are leading others astray, they could also be within each individual — parts of us that remain under the power of sin and continually tempt us to stray away from the faithful life. The parable suggests that the day will come will all of that will be destroyed. Then, we, as truly and fully righteous will shine like the sun. To use Luther’s terms, presently we are simultaneous sinner and saint; but the day will come with the “sinner” part will be removed and destroy. All that will be left is the saintly part.
The other use of the noun presents an interesting problem. In 16:23 Jesus turns and says to Peter: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
Similarly, the verb is used of the disciples in 26:31: “Then Jesus said to them, “You will all become deserters because of me this night; for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’
Peter and the disciples are “causes of sin,” but will they be gathered and thrown into the blazing furnace?
Perhaps we can say that they deserve that kind of punishment, but by God’s grace they don’t receive it.
“all evildoers” is more literally “the ones doing lawlessness”. They are those living as though there were no law. Matthew has made it clear that Jesus came to fulfill the law (5:17-18) not to do away with it. (I might phrase it, “He came to restore the law to its proper uses.”) My hunch is that there may have been some within Matthew’s community who proclaimed that the law no longer applied to them, and lived without it. For Matthew, “lawlessness” is not just outward acts, but one can be “lawless” inwardly (23:28), perhaps not inwardly wanting to obey the law, but putting on an outward show of obedience.
The images of “furnace of fire” and “weeping and gnashing of teeth” seem to be Matthian. Only Matthew uses “furnace” (kaminos) as a picture of punishment (13:42, 50). (Its other uses are Rev 1:15; 9:2).
It is used often in the OT as a picture of refinement (Is 48:10; Sir 2:5; 27:5; 31:26) — so this text could be interpreted as refining those who are in the kingdom. They are purged of all the sins and lawlessness that is within them through the fires of God’s judgment.
The phrase “weeping and gnashing of teeth” occurs six times in Matthew (8:12; 13:42, 50; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30) and once in Luke (13:28), and no where else in the NT. Thus, it seems to be a strong emphasis in Matthew.
What I find interesting about Matthew’s six uses is that those who will weep and gnash their teeth, all seem to have been “insiders”!
- 8:12 it is the “heirs of the kingdom” (probably Jews vs. many from east and west)
- 13:42 some from “out of his kingdom”
- 13:50 evil from righteous, but both are “caught in the same net”
- 22:13 someone at the wedding banquet, but not wearing the wedding robe
- 24:51 wicked slave (as a slave, he was part of the household)
- 25:30 worthless slave (as a slave, he was part of the household)
It seems to me that this harsh judgment is uttered against those within the community of faith, but who fail to bear the proper fruit of living in Christ. As was true in the OT, God’s harshest judgments were pronounced against his own people. So, too, Matthew does in his gospel.
So Capon and Stoffregen do not deny that there is judgment in this story.
They do deny that it need be ultimate.
And that’s where I’m at too.
I have never said that one can’t find texts that suggest the possibility/probability/assured existence of eternal damnation.
I have said that a) there are other texts that would dispute that assertion; and b) I think Easter trumps any text that trumpets eternal damnation.
I think God’s ultimate agenda is reconciliation.
It is aphete.
And aphete does not preclude judgement.
Instead, it comes before, during, and after it.
It’s precisely what makes judgement–with the aim of restoring, or refining–possible.
Even to those within the Christian community.
And that’s mysterious grace for sure.
I hope that that aided in your thinking about the text!
And I hope you sign up for our week next year again.