The Despised Doctrine of Judgment
Feb 11, 2010 by Craig Blomberg | 3 Comments
“But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut. Later the others also came. ‘Sir! Sir!’ they said. ‘Open the door for us!’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.’” (Matthew 25:10-12)
“Judgment in our time may well be the despised doctrine,” writes Klyne Snodgrass, professor of New Testament at North Park Seminary in Chicago and author of a recent magnum opus on interpreting the parables, entitled Stories with Intent (p. 491). All you have to do is read recent non-evangelical feminist and liberationist parable exposition to find examples. Vicky Balabanski, in an essay entitled, “Opening the Closed Door: A Feminist Rereading of the ‘Wise and Foolish Virgins’ (Mt. 25.1-13),” in The Lost Coin: Parables of Women, Work and Wisdom, edited by Mary Ann Beavis, objects to the ending of the parable of the ten bridesmaids. Imagine, half of these naïve young women excluded from the wedding reception for something as innocent as not accurately estimating the amount of oil they needed to have for their lamps for the evening. Exactly what one would expect from the heavy-handed patriarchal God of Jews and Christians. Balabanski insists that we shout back that we do not know such a God. For the Bible to be truly liberating, especially for women, the story must be rewritten so that the foolish bridesmaids are forgiven and welcomed in to the party!
You can imagine what critics from this perspective do to other parables that actually have harsher metaphors for final judgment than just a shut door, such as weeping and gnashing of teeth. Snodgrass is right. In an age of demanding one’s rights, of entitlement, of self-actualization, and even at times of religion that calls itself Christian but centers on me-first rather than others-first attitudes, the idea that God would ever finally exclude someone from his blessings is anathema. Hyper-Reformed formulations and/or misunderstandings of the biblical doctrine of predestination can exacerbate the situation more.
But here is a telling quotation from Ulrich Luz, liberal German commentator on Matthew, leader of many interfaith ventures and hardly a spokesman for soteriological restrictivism. After acknowledging that he longs for God’s love to have the final word in this parable (as we all should if we have tender hearts), he adds, “However, there is also the question whether a story of God’s pure love [such as the ending Balabanski demands] would not cause people to depend on the love in their own calculations and thus not take the holy God seriously. That is indeed what the foolish women have done.” To go a step further, if no beliefs or behaviors can ever damn a person, then there really is no finally compelling reason to pay any attention to God at all.
The wording Jesus has the bridegroom use in this story is telling. He insists he does not know the late-arriving bridesmaids. At the level of a wedding party, this makes no sense. The young couple deliberately chooses attendants who are close family members or friends. At the spiritual level, however, the reply makes perfect sense. These are not naïve young women innocently making a miscalculation; they are those who have claimed to be God’s people without really knowing God. One is reminded of Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount to those who masqueraded as his followers, even as church leaders: “I never knew you” (Matthew 7:23).
It may not be biblical to say, “God helps those who help themselves,” but it does seem to be fair to Scripture to say, “God excludes those who exclude themselves.” Anyone who shouts in God’s face that they will not know him unless he abandons all forms of final judgment should be recoiling in terror of what they are creating for themselves on Judgment Day. Conversely, with Daniel Castelo in the Journal for the Theological Interpretation of Scripture (2008: 160), “Fearing God is the only viable theological modus operandi, the only adequate ‘foundation’ that suggests conditionedness, tentativeness, and a terrorizing yet joyful disposition to refuse ‘control’. In this respect, theologians would be wise to follow the example of the two Marys, who unlike the guards, were able to leave the tomb with “fear and great joy” (Matt 28:8), and in doing so, they came face to face with Jesus himself along the way.”