How do we reconcile the seemingly loving and peaceful Jesus with a seemingly vengeful and angry God of the Hebrew Bible? This is a sticking point for many people, especially in a society so saturated with hate crimes.
I bring this up today because it is early Saturday morning and I am going to preach from Luke 4:16-30 tonight and tomorrow morning. I’ve been soaking in this passage all week. You can read this post and this post to track the process.
This morning I opened Rohr’s Saturday summary of the week, and read these words:
The longest single passage he [Jesus] quotes (in Luke 4:18-19) is from Isaiah 61. Jesus closes with the words “proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord,” deliberately omitting the next line—“and the day of vengeance of our God”—because he did not come here to announce vengeance.
Huh, is this coincidence, or is God trying to flesh out my sermon a little bit?
Now, here’s the big question: Why did Jesus (or Luke’s version of Jesus) stop the quotation of Isaiah 61:2 before the comment about vengeance? Rohr says it’s because Jesus is being selective and editing out the angry God, and that we, too, should filter scripture in this way. He speaks more about this in his Tuesday post.
Yet, listen to what J. Vernon McGee has to say,
Here is a passage of Scripture that was going to be fulfilled down to a comma, and the rest of the passage would not be fulfilled until He came back the second time. The day of vengeance had not yet come. What is the day of vengeance? It is that time of which God said, “Ask of me, and I shall give thee the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession” (Ps. 2:8). How is the Lord going to get the heathen for His inheritance? “Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron; thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel” (Ps. 2:9). That is the way the Lord will come to power. That will be the day of vengeance. That is the great Day of the Lord, and it will take place when Christ comes the second time. He came the first time to preach the gospel to the poor that they might be saved. He came anointed by the Holy Spirit to bring the glorious message of salvation. We are still living in that wonderful day, the day of the gospel. When He comes the second time, it will be the day of vengeance.
– J. Vernon McGee, Thru the Bible Commentary, electronic ed., vol. 4 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1997), 265.
Dr. J. Vernon McGee was a Presbyterian minister and received his Ph.D. from Dallas Theological Seminary. He created a radio show called Thru the Bible that influenced hundreds of thousands of people. His teaching, and other Dallas teachers like him, shaped the theological imagination of young people like me and my tribe for a whole generation. This teaching is called dispensationalism and it is a particular hermeneutical lens (the lens that colors our reading of scripture) that attempts to reconcile the seemingly different tones of God in the Hebrew scripture and in Jesus’ teaching (just like Rohr is attempting to do).
Essentially, McGee (and others) believes that the vengeance of God is taking a break during our current dispensation of Grace (“the day of the Gospel”). Then, at the “end of the age (see Matthew 13:36-50),” when Jesus comes the second time, as predicted in the Revelation, all of God’s wrath will be poured out on the sinners of the world and God is going to kick butt.
So, we who soaked in this hermeneutic, had two agendas during our lifetime:
- Get as many people saved from God’s wrath as possible, and
- Look forward to the day when sinners pay for their wretchedness (all the while thankful that I’m not “one of those people”)
These are two very different set of lenses. Richard Rohr on the one side, and J. Vernon McGee on the other. Both are very educated men. Both are passionate about Jesus. Both seek to reconcile the observable tension between the language of a wrathful God and Jesus’ language of love and inclusion.
Which is correct?
Confessions of A Pastor in Transition
Now, imagine that you are a pastor who was raised under the teaching of men (and they were all men) like McGee and attracts people who resonate with this hermeneutic. Then, you start reading people like Dallas Willard, Leonard Sweet, Stanley Grenz, Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, and Richard Rohr (just to name a few that I was reading from 1998 – 2006) and your teaching starts to change.
That, my friends, is why (a) I left the mega-church and started a house church in 2002, and (b) why our house church died in 2006. I was changing too fast for people. It is scary. I was accused of being demon possessed and/or a moral relativist simply because I was questioning some of the hermeneutics that had formed me.
The death of the house church was so painful that I stepped out of ministry for three years. I call it my ministry coma. Then, I woke up in Minnesota and in the ELCA. I completed a Ph.D. in Missional Leadership at Luther Seminary and have taken a quantum leap in my understanding of hermeneutics (read about that here).
Sorry, that got a little cathartic for me. I share that story to help you understand why this gets so intense for people and why some hurtful things get posted when certain types of people (like me) post Richard Rohr meditations on Facebook.
Just to throw more intrigue into the conversation, I received some push-back from a pastor on the Narrative Lectionary Facebook Page regarding one of my posts about this passage. The pastor was reacting to my statement that God’s promise (as stated in Isaiah 61, quoted in Luke 4:18-19) is for everyone. This pastor said,
We must be very careful with this line of reasoning with respect to carrying it any further than salvation. Jesus didn’t restore the sight of every blind person, nor did he free every captive. He watched passively as the widow paid her temple tax. In our congregations, we have many people whose prayers for healing have not been answered, and otherwise may feel outside of God’s favor. We cannot discredit the reality of separating sheep from goats. Bringing the Good News to all people does not mean that God is not selective and exclusionary in some aspects.
What Do We Do?
So, what do we do with the Scripture? How do we interpret it? Further, the task that I face on a weekly basis is this: How do you take a single text and write a 15-20 minute sermon, knowing that the people to whom you will speak come from multiple theological backgrounds and have on their own set of hermeneutical lenses through which they will interpret what you will say.
Some will say, “Amen!” and soak in the life-giving Gospel.
Others will shout, “Stone the heretic!” and march out in a huff.
I’ve heard both, many times.
Welcome to the world of Biblical interpretation and preaching.
If this topic interests you, I invite you to check out the course I taught at Grace this spring called “How to Study the Bible” or just watch the YouTube Playlist below: