Justification and Judgment Day: Part 2, Forgiveness and Judgment in the Gospels

Before getting to Paul it would be good to explore the themes of forgiveness and judgment in the gospels.

To start, let's ask this: What was Jesus up to in the gospels? What was his mission? What was his message of "good news"?

To start in on an answer, it might be helpful to draw a contrast between Jesus and John the Baptist.

As we've learned from my series on 1 Enoch, it seems John was a clear product of Second Temple Judaism. Just like 1 Enoch, John arrives on the scene proclaiming the coming of the Chosen One who will come in wrath to bring judgment to earth. Given the imminent arrival of the Day of the Lord, John calls Israel to repentance:

In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah:

“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.’”

John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.

But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.

“I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” (Matthew 3.1-12)
Again, as seen in texts like 1 Enoch, these are Second Temple themes: A coming judgment where the children of Israel will be judged according to their works, a time of "winnowing" when "every tree that does not produce good fruit will we cut down and thrown into the fire."

Jesus then takes the stage, and things are both similar and different from John. 

As for continuities with John, the first thing to note is that Jesus retains John's vision of a coming judgement. As conservative evangelicals enjoy pointing out, Jesus talked about judgment and hell more than anyone. In Reviving Old Scratch I note that progressive Christians conveniently forget this about Jesus, turning Jesus into a cosmic, mindful, non-dualistic, hippie, Zen guru. And yet, Jesus is the one who said "broad is the way that leads to destruction" and regularly mentioned a hellish place where there will be "weeping and gnashing of teeth."

Beyond a coming judgment, Jesus also teaches, as with John, that this judgment will be focused upon works. There are numerous examples here. Just take a tour through the Sermon on the Mount. The entire sermon preaches that we will be judged according to works. Consider:
“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot."

"For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven."

“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell."

"If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell."

"Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven."

"For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.  But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins."

"Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven."

"But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well."

"Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you."

"Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven."

"Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock...But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand."
It's difficult to avoid the conclusion that Jesus preached that we will be judged by our deeds on Judgment Day. Both Jesus and John agree on this point. 

And yet, this is the same Jesus who forgives the woman caught in the act of adultery, touched lepers, welcomed tax collectors like Zacchaeus, and forgave the thief on the cross. Plus, what about the Parable of the Prodigal Son? Or the parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard where those who work an hour get the same pay as those who worked all day? What about Jesus' message of mercy, grace, and forgiveness?

This is why I started us off with the question, "What was Jesus up to in the gospels?" Because I'll be honest with you, most Christians have no clue what Jesus was up to. And you know this because most Christians conveniently ignore the parts of Jesus that don't fit their paradigm. Few Christians speak about the whole Jesus. Why? Because the whole Jesus seems like a big paradox. For example, it's pretty hard to hold the Parable of the Prodigal Son together with "Wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it." Which is it, Jesus? It's hard to tell if we should terrified by Jesus or reassured. 

So again we ask, what was Jesus up to? How do we make sense of these paradoxical texts? Is there a way to think of what Jesus was doing that makes all this material hang together cohesively and coherently? 

Gabriele Boccaccini makes the following argument. To start, Jesus and John were on the same Second Temple eschatological page. Judgment was coming and that judgment would be based upon our righteous deeds. The critical difference between John and Jesus, however, was that Jesus proclaimed an extended season of amnesty for "the lost sheep of Israel." As Jesus said repeatedly describing what he was up to, he came to seek and save the lost sheep of Israel. He didn't come to call the righteous, but sinners. He wasn't sent to the healthy, but to the sick. Given the authority to forgive sins, Jesus welcomed the sinners back into Israel, graciously regathering the scattered flock, saving them all from the imminent Day of the Lord. 

And yet, this offer of grace didn't nullify the fact that God will judge us each according to our works. After Jesus' offer of grace Zacchaeus bears fruit, "Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” To which Jesus replies, “Today salvation has come to this house." To the woman caught in the act of adultery Jesus says, "Go and sin no more." And then we have the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant: You can receive grace, but if you fail to pay if forward you'll be judged without mercy. Forgiveness isn't a blank check. Forgiveness just gets you back into the flock, where you renew your covenantal obligation to not act like a wolf. Prooftext: Zacchaeus. Jesus' offer of amnesty to sinners wasn't permission to ignore Jesus' commandment to love one another. 

To be clear, I don't think this take on Jesus answers all the questions or accounts for all the textual "data" to be explained. There's too much diversity between the Synoptic audiences of Matthew, Mark, and Luke and the Johannine communities to come up with a Grand Unified Theory of Jesus. There never will be a single theory of Jesus that accounts for every line of gospel text. There will always be anomalous data points.

And yet, Boccaccini's proposal does explain a lot, and its key advantages are, in my opinion, how it 1) explains both the continuity and discontinuity between Jesus and John, and 2) helps us hold together Jesus' message of judgment with his message of mercy, how Jesus' offer of amnesty to sinners didn't void the vision of a judgment based upon works that he shared with John.

Let's also admit that this historical-critical approach to the gospels displays a lot of theological impoverishment. Historical-critical readings generally do. And yet, for the purposes of this series, this reading of Jesus does highlight how forgiveness and a judgment based upon works could hang together. This tension will be important going forward as we try to map links between the mission of Jesus and the gospel proclaimed by St. Paul.

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