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Mythological Image of God and New Testament Words of Judgment
(Lecture at the COV&R-Conference "Mytholoy" at Stanford University (16. -18.May 1991))

Autor:Schwager Raymund
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Kategorieartikel
Abstrakt:Are the judgment sayings a sign, that the God of the New Testament remains in a subtle way a mythological God? A precise analysis reveals that the metaphorical language of the parables (of judgment) has to be interpreted with respect to their 'point' (la pointe). There are normally two 'points'. The first effects a dramatization within a typical course of action, and the second turns around this entire perspective. In this subtle way the parables of judgment reveal that the judgment is a self-judgment. The indirect and metaphorical speech is necessary because language as such is rooted in a world of violence, and the revelation of a nonviolent God includes the entire transformation of language.
Publiziert in:# Originalbeitrag für den Leseraum
Datum:2002-03-07

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If the identity of good and evil, of blessing and curse belongs to myth then one can also superficially categorize biblical texts as mythological. Alongside statements of the goodness of God, who forgives sinners, there are also many in which God appears as a fearsome and severe judge.

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Christian theology was aware of the problematic from the beginning and it has reponded to it in various ways. On the one hand, it has interpreted speech about God's anger allegorically, (1) and on the other hand it has introduced distinctions in order to prevent the confusion of goodness/forgiveness and anger/judgment in God. These efforts, however have not been able to eliminate all features of a double-faceted or mythological God. So, for example, Augustine's doctine of predestination divides up the two aspects of God between different groups of human beings. To the ones, the elect, God shows himself in inconceivable goodness, while the others, the non-elect, he encounters in terrible jugdment. The ones experience goodness, the others anger, but God himself remains simultaneously kind and oppressive in an incomprehensible fashion. (2)

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Another distinction plays a yet greater - role-above all in sermons - namely the one between the first and second coming of Christ. The first time the Son of God showed himself as a good shepherd; with his second coming at the end of days he will, however, be only an inexorable judge. Thus we read in a sermon collection that at the turn of this century had found a great international dissemination:

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"So the incarnate God is inclined to us here below, and generously reaches out the hand of reconciliation ... There (in the final judgment) the incarnate God no longer waits for souls as the good shepherd who hastens after the lost lamb ... No, he stands there as judge, invested with unlimited power, girded about with the sword of righteousness. He stands there in order to weigh everything according to the unchangeable laws of righteousness and after that to utter justice, without consideration and lenience." (3)

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How is it that from the good shepherd who searches for the lost lamb a judge suddenly appears who with the sword of righteousness so severely threatens sinners? The preacher already cited refers, for the clarification of this shift, to a psychological law:

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"We all know that goodness and love, if refused disdainfully and unjustly, indeed with scorn and mockery, turns into the precise opposite; it produces an anger, a hate that is as deep as the love had previosly been strong."(4)

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In correspondence to this psychological law the cross has a double function. While it appears to humans on the earth as sign of humble faith for those assembled for judgment it is a "sign of blessing, the victory flag of truth, a sign of fear and horror for all who refused to pay humble homage to it here below."(5)

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If goodness can so easily change into merciless righteousness, does Christian proclamation not thus remain in the spell of the sacred? Is a cross that changes suddenly from a sign of trust und humble faith to a sign of horror not a mythical sign?

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1) The Distinctions of René Girard and Karl Barth

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With his entire life's work Girard resists against a mythological misunderstanding of the Bible. In this regard he seems on first glance to make use of a similar distinction as the preacher cited above. He also clarifies the tension between the message of goodness (Basileia-message) and the apocalyptic speech of judgment through the refusal by human beings:

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"If men turn down the peace Jesus offers them - a peace which is not derived from violence and that, by virtue of this fact, passes human understanding, the effect of the gospel revelation will be made manifest through violence, through a sacrificial and cultural crises whose radical effect must be unprecedented since there is no longer any sacralized victim to stand in the way of its consequences. The failure of the Kingdom, from the viewpoint of the Gospels, does not amount to the failure of the mission Jesus undertakes; but it does amount to the inevitable abandonment of the direct and easy way, which would be for all to accept the principles of conduct that he has stated. It is now necessary to turn to the indirect way, the one that has to by-pass the consent of all mankind and instead pass through the Crucifixion and the Apocalypse." (6)

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Although Girard makes use of a similar distinction as the preacher cited above, he understands it completely differently. He sees in Christ not a sufferer whose love changes into hate, but he refers the necessity of the indirect way and the cross only to the acts of humans. According to him, out of the rejection of God's rule, as the apocalyptic texts in the Gospels show, a human self-judgment follows, a sacrificial crisis. Since Jesus proclaimed a God of pure goodness, from now on the earthly order cannot be rightly maintained by means of a heavenly menacing figure. If humans do not repent, then they become slave to their own malice. In the context of the universal crisis which follows from the rejection of the Basileia-message and which is described in judgment sayings, Girard interprets the crucifixion of Christ. He sees in this crisis a ganging-up of the many doers of violence against the one who is non-violent, who in the face of his enemies holds to the rule of God.

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This way of understandig can however still be integrated into a theology which posits a God with two faces. The New Testament idea that the Messiah must suffer (Acts 24:26) can, on the one hand, be explicated by the evil action of humans and, on the other hand, it can be understood as the direct deed of God. No less a theologian than Karl Barth has done this. From the New Testament statements about the eternal decree of God he inferred that those who rejected Jesus were only the instruments and agents of God:

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"The participants in what befell Jesus, both Jews and Gentiles, according to the commentary of the Acts of the Apostels (2:23; 4:28), which certainly fits the facts, were implicated in all guilt and wickedness of their own doing, yet they were only instruments in the hand of God, agents and executors of his 'definite counsel and foreknowledge'."  (7)

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Since Karl Barth refers the cross directly to the eternal plan of God, it belongs in his view to the radicality of the divine love that it shows itself in anger and first finds its satisfaction in the death and annihilation of the sinner. The cross is consequently a judgment in the sense that someone is judged and slain. The surprising and unheard of thing in the Christian message consists in this: in the place of sinners, which we ourselves are, the sinless one was killed and destroyed. (8)

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Karl Barth partially reinterprets the usual concept of judgment. Jesus who through his message of judgment has revealed himself as judge by God's commission, is judged by God himself in the subsequent event of the cross. "The judge ist judged" is the great key phrase in Barth's doctrine of reconciliation. In this view the concept of judgment is indeed reinterpreted, but God himself remains at the same time kind and wrathful. Are these not mythological carry-overs? (9) Must the concept of judgment not be radically called into question? Is there not in the New Testament judgment sayings a yet more encompassing reversal of perspective than Barth assumes?

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2) The Double Point in the Judgment Sayings

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Since the message of judgment (10) ist expressed above all in metaphoric and parabolic speech, one must attempt first of all to seperate the imagery from the intended content . For instance, in the parable of the clever administrator (Lk 16:1-8) it is narrated, how an unjust household steward, in a crisis situation, understands how to use the goods of his lord skillfully to his own advantage. The Gospel adds to the parable: "And the lord praised the cleverness of the dishonest administrator" (L 16:8). That Jesus (11) could have praised dishonesty as such ist irreconcilable with his entire message. But since the praise is stated by him, this parable surely indicates that one may not evaluate all particular elements of a narrative allegorically. The intended message must be carefully distinguished from the metaphoric language. This linguistic peculiarity of parable had long been recognized in research (12); one distinguished the components of metaphor and content (Bild- und Sachhälfte) and searched for the "tertium comparationis". The authentic meaning of parabolic speech should, however, be found more easily and clearly if one analyzes the narratives with respect to their point. (13) In this regard it is certainly of decisive significance as to whether parables have onlyone or several points.

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In the parable of the clever steward it is told how a steward, who acted dishonestly and therefore must give an account, employs the crisis in order to procure once more advantage for himself through a further dishonest deed. (14) The point of the parable resides consequently in showing how even in a situation of "crisis" an advantage can be obtained through decisive and skillful action. But in the subsequent word of Jesus in which he praises the dishonest steward this point is placed in an entirely new light, one in which a new point originates. With the situation of "crisis", the time of accounting in the parable, reference is clearly made to the judgment-situation, and Jesus' praise contains the demand to act decisively in light of the judgment that threatens. Judgment appears thus as an event to which humans are not simply passively handed over. Through clever and resolute action in the critical situation they can determine their own future.

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The parable of the entrusted money (Matt. 25:14-30/Lk 19:11-27) relates how servants are entrusted with a sum so that they may work to increase it. At the time of accounting it is shown that two of them worked well und so received a reward, whereas the third was punished for his inactivity. The imagery of the parable works on the basis of an understanding of reward and punishment, which was then current. However, the customary course of action is first broken by the fact that the wicked servant is not condemned by a common preordained norm. The master takes rather the words that the servant himself says with full seriousness: "You knew that I reap where I have not sowed, and gather where I have not winnowed. You ought at least to have invested my money with the bankers ..." (Matt. 25:26f). The servant discloses the norm himself with his telltale defense and by this he is measured, and he condemns himself: "I will judge you out of your own mouth" (Lk 19:22).

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After this surprise follows a second one. The money that the third servant had received ist taken away from him by the master and given to that one who already possessed the most. This striking command is justified by a common principle: "For to whoever has will be given, and he will have in abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away" (Matt 25:29). By means of this second point the self-judgment contains a quite new dimension. On the one hand, it turns into something positive and on the other it contains an encompassing dynamic. Those who open themselves to the message of Jesus and become involved with him, they are able to receive ever more; those by contrast (and indeed out of anxiety) who are closed to him lock themselves up more and more, so that even what they already have is taken away.

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In the parable of the wicked vinedressers (Matt 21:33-46/ Mk 12:1-12/ Lk 20:9-19) it is first of all reported how the tenants of a vineyard slay those servants whom their lord sends in order to obtain his portion of the fruits. The first surprise of the parable is that things come to a head improbably for both parties. The owner of the vineyard follows the rejection of his servants not with punishment, but risks even his own beloved son. This unlikely goodness corresponds to an unusually malicious will on the part of the vinedressers. They want to utilize the coming of the son in order to expropriate the vineyard for themselves through his murder. The first point consequently consists in the fact that the action of the owner and the action of the tenants totally differ. But then the story goes further to report or ask what fate the owner will prepare for the murderers. Since the answer to this question is expressed differently in the three Synoptics, this might be a sign that no further point is to be sought here. However all three Synoptics follow the parable with a saying of Jesus in which Psalm 118 is cited and which is directly related to the parable:

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"The stone which the builders rejected/ has become the head of the corner; this has the Lord brought about, and it is marvellous in our eyes." (Ps 118:22f)

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Within the parable the murder of the son has no further significance. It has only the function of showing up the stubbornness and murderous perversity of the vinedressers. Yet through the added lines from the psalm the violent death is suddenly moved into the center, and it contains its own deep meaning: God makes none other than his murdered son the cornerstone of a new house and thereby the foundation of a new community.

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Through the Psalm quotation the perspective of the whole parable is turned about, and so a new point is produced. The contrast between the benevolence of the owner and the malevolence of the vinedressers appears in a new light, and the question about punishment of the murderers, which already had a subordinate import in the narrative, disappears altogether. Thus the owner of the vineyard is now unambiguously identified with God, and what he does with respect to the murdered son, who can only be Jesus himself, moves completely into the foreground. The act of God with respect to the one murdered, which in the parable itself is not mentioned at all, becomes, through the subsequent Psalm-saying, the new key for the whole parable: Through the rejection and murder of his son God effects the creation of a new community (house).

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Double points are found also in parables which do not belong directly to the judgment parables. In the narrative of the prodigal son a younger son wastes his portion of the inheritance, falls into proverty, and finally returns to his father. The first surprise in the course of action, and so the first point of the parable is that the father goes out to meet his returning son und kisses him, even before the latter can make an apology. The parable speaks consequently of the prevenient goodness of a father in relation to his son who had incurred guilt. This part of the narrative is followed by a second in which the older son is represented as rising in anger over the kindness of his father, and he must be persuaded by the father to take part in the feast of joy. The second part contains a new point for the parable shows that not only the lost son, but also the upright one has need of the goodness and initiative of the father. The relationship between the two sons is even reversed in a certain sense, for the lost son goes into himself and of his own initiative turns back homeward, whereas the father must go out to the angered "upright one" in order to liberate him from his anger and refusal. It becomes clear in this second point that not only the unrighteous, but the (ostensibly) righteous have just as much - if not even more - need of the prevenient goodness of God. Therewith a challenge is posed to the entire theological tradition within which Jesus proclaimed his message.

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In a discussion over the way to eternal life (Lk 10:25-37) Jesus answers the question of a teacher of the law concerning who his neighbor was by relating the example of the compassionate Samaritan. The first surprise of this parable is that those who stand in a special way in the service of God, the priest and the Levite, do not turn aside to help the wounded person at the edge of the road. Unmoved, they pass by. The Samaritan, however, who from the perspective of the true Israel is a semipagan, has compassion for the victim of the violent act and takes care of him. But a second surprise (point) follows the first. In direct connection with the parable Jesus poses a question in his own turn to the teacher of the law who has questioned him, and this further question is one which is confusing at first glance. Jesus does not ask, as one would expect, who was the neighbor to the three who travelled the road or who of them loved his neighbor. To this question the teacher of the law would surely have responded: the person wounded at the roadside was the neighbor. Jesus asks a different question, namely, "Who of these three do you think has become neighbor to the one who fell among thieves?" The teacher of the law answers this surprising question correctly: "The one who showed mercy to him." The injured man was not the neighbor to the three who were travelling, but the Samaritan proved himself a neighbor to him. If one should love the neighbor as oneself, as Jesus and the teacher of the law agreed before the parable was told, then the result is clear: The injured person should love as himself the Samaritan who proved himself as neighbor to him. The question of Jesus following the parable and the lawyer's answer change the whole perspective of the original question around. The parable itself says: thou shouldst turn compassionately toward the victim on the way whom thou accidentally meetest and devote thyself to him as neighbor. But the subsequent question and the answer to it indicate that the victim should love the one who acted as neighbor to him.

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Also in narratives that do not belong directly to the parables there are double surprises and changes. The representation of judgment of the world in Matt 25:31-46 is unfolded initially within a religious conceptual framework which was quite widespread in Jesus' cultural environment. The subject is the judgment of the world in the sense of a juridical-forensic judgment, (15) at which the judge appears on his throne, with the peoples assembled, in order to seperate sheep and goats, upright and evil-doers from one another. Within this familiar course of action, however, there are surprising changes. While for Judaism "The norm of judgment is in principle the Torah"(16), here judgment occurs according to another norm, namely according to the attitude of human beings toward the Son of man/ Judge. This judge rewards or punishes in each instance according to whether those to be judged have come to his aid or not. Since a law that is independent of the judge belongs necessarily to juridical-forensic judgment, this first change already deeply problematizes the concept of judgment.

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But upon the first surprise a second immediately follows. Neither those to the right nor to the left of the judge understand the basis of the decree of judgment. Then this decree clarifies yet more profoundly the standard by which they are measured: "What you did to the least of my brothers, you did to me" (Matt 25:40). The attitude toward the humblest brother is decisive. This kind of deed is identified with one's attitude toward the Son of man/ Judge. The norm of judgment shifts consequently not only from the letter of the law to the attitude toward the judge. Finally, the concrete deed for the most insignificant brother is striking. Through these two shifts the whole perspective is turned around. It is not simply a matter of the value of compassionate works in the last judgment, for the Jewish faith knew that also and that would have been a surprise for no one. What is new is that everything is decided with respect to the attitude toward the humblest person. It is no longer asked whether the command of mercy, along with many other commandments has been fulfilled. The service to the brother becomes rather the new norm by which everything else is measured. Both the righteous and the unrighteous have through their attitude toward the least ones and without realizing the significance of what they do, performed a deed which comes to be the norm deciding their entire destiny. -- Through these two points or displacements the conventional idea of a forensic heavenly judgment is overcome. Those who are to be judged set for themselves a deed which becomes the norm by which everything is measured. To the heavenly judge belongs only the function of showing the concealed depth in that event, which plays itself out as judgment between human beings.

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In sum, we can hold that both in judgment parables and in other narratives told by Jesus double surprises and displacements are found. The narratives always offer, to start with, a typical course of action as this was known from the contemporary secular or religious environment. Within this process a surprising sharpening or heigtening appears. This first point effects a dramatization while leaving the typical property of the action still untouched. (17) - Partially within the parable, partially in the immediately attached word of Jesus a second surprise occurs. This new point brings no additional linear heightening, but turns around the entire previous perspective . The customary course of action is now broken and all elements of the narrative appear in a new light. From these double surprises or points the proper signification of the judgment sayings may be ascertained. Through dramatization and reversal a new context is produced. (18) The preliminarily stated problematic of a narrative must consequently always be considered in a changed light from its end, from a newly won standpoint. (19)

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Through these two points, through a first surprising dramatization and through the subsequent reversal of perspective, the hearer of New Testament sayings and parables is gradually called out of familiar concepts and well-practiced courses of action. In this fashion the prior familiar concepts of judgment (20) become fundamentally problematized and transformed.

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3) The Sacred World and the New Message

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What weight have these subtle distinctions which we have been able to exhibit in the New Testament judgment sayings? Are they theologically decisive? Is datum, that truly massive images of judgment endure in spite of all transformations, finally not more important for the interpreation? If we wanted to pose these questions directly to the New Testament text then we could only expect an answer by way of complex detours. In my book Jesus im Heilsdrama  (21) I have sought such an answer both form the Synoptics and from John and Paul. In our present context, however, we can take a simpler way. If one turns to Girard's theory for assistance, then the sought-for answer is produced fairly quickly. According to Violence and the Sacred the mechanism of violence and scapegoating creates not only the social order, but it determines also language, culture and the world of the sacred. All of reality - with all later differentiations - is perceived through this first foundational model. As long as humans remain bound to violence they are able to see God only in the context of a sacred and mythical world. For these humans a God utterly disengaged from the world of violence would not be a matter of serious concern at all. He would not be a being before whom they could tremble and shiver, but only an insignificant figure at the edge of their serious world. For humans whose entire social, cultural and religious world is rooted in violence, a power can only demonstrate itself as divine that itself assumes inscrutable qualities.

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The NT judgment sayings address themselves now precisely to those who have refused the message of God's rule and non-violence and so are rooted even deeper in the dark world. If the judgment words are to be understandable and simultaneously lead the hearers further, they must then satisfy a double and contradictory demand. On the one hand they must issue forth in a language that corresponds to the hearers. They must let God himself appear in the context of violent judgment. On the other hand they must remove themselves from this world in order to free sinners from their imprisonment and lead them to an encounter with the true God. The two contradictory demands may be made as one only if the familiar representations of the threatening and frightening God are constantly taken up, but also transformed through unexpected changes and points. Thus the hearers can gradually be liberated from their world and led to an intuition of a God who has nothing to do with their previous world.

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Therewith we are propelled by these fundamental considerations to postulate a complex text-form which almost exactly corresponds to that which we actually find in the judgment parables and similar narratives of the New Testament. These narratives do justice to two demands that are contradictory in themselves. They correspond to the world of the hearers and place it simultaneously in question. They want - through dramatization and a reversal of perspective - to lead the sinner from one perspective to another. The external adherence of the New Testament to the traditional picture of judgment should thus neither be criticized as deplorable weakness nor should one hold this picture as the specific content of the NT message.

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The significance of the judgment speeches must have a still more general meaning. There is no language that can free itself utterly from its origin. In each a strong mythological background plays a part, viz the open or subtle language of violence, of the sacred, of the victim, of accusation, of concealment, of exclusion, and of pious lies. Only through linguistic sharpenings, displacements and transformations can something be said that simultaneously removes itself therefrom. The God of Jesus Christ is indeed no longer the God of violence, yet even he remains related indirectly to this dark world. He is the God of that one who preferred to let himself be killed rather than to kill.

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Translated by James G. Williams.

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References:  

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 1. Cf.R.Schwager.The Theology of the Wrath of God , in Violence and Truth: On the Work of René Girard , ed P. Dumouchel, London 1988, 44-52.

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2. "ein schauererregender Gottesbegriff": B. Altaner, A. Stuiber. Patrologie, Leben, Schriften und Lehre der Kirchenväter . Freiburg im Breisgau 1978, 442.

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3. G. Diessel. Die Rechenschaft nach dem Tode . Regensburg-Rom-NewYork-Cincinnati 1911, 74f.

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4. G. Diessel. Der große Tag der Ernte . Regensburg-New York-Cincinnati 1894. 18.

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5. Ibid., 28.

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6. R. Girard. Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World. Research undertaken in collaboration with J.M. Oughourlian and G. Lefort. Tr.S. Bann und M. Metteer. Stanford 1987. 203.

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7. K. Barth. Kirchliche Dogmatik (4 Bde.). Zollikon 1932 - 1967. VI/1. 262 G. Schwarz goes a step further with this argument and infers from the "must" of salvation-history that Jesus commanded Judas to betray him. (Jesus der Menschenson . Stuttgart 1986. 234)

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8. Op.cit., 279ff.

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9. One cannot solve the problem by globally pushing the judgment sayings forward to the post-Easter community and thus devaluing them theologically to silence, for W.Reiser shows convincingly that central statements go back to Jesus himself(Die Gerichtspredigt Jesus. Eine Untersuchung zur eschatologischen Verkündigung Jesus und ihrem frühjüdischen Hintergrund [NA.NF 23]. Aschendorff 1990.

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10. "Trotz der großen Zahl überlieferter Jesusworte und -gleichnisse, die vom Gericht reden, hat die Gerichtspredigt Jesu in der Forschung dieses Jahrhunderts nur wenig Beachtung gefunden. Es gibt keine Monographie dazu,..." ibid. 184.

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11. That the "Lord" Jesus and not the lord of the steward is intended. see Reiser. ibid. 281

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12. See A. Jülicher. Die Gleichnisreden Jesu. Freiburg 1899.

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13. "Das Gleichnis verwickelt den Hörer in ein dramatisches Geschehen, das von einem Ausgangspunkt, der den Fall und seine Person vorstellt, so geradlinig und zielstrebig wie möglich und so knapp und ausführlich wie nötig zu einem Endpunkt führt, der in Form der Pointe die einzig denkbare Bilanz des Ganzen sieht. Der Schlüsselfunktion, die Anfang und Schluß für alle Ebenen der Interpretation haben, wird man am ehesten gerecht, wenn man die Überschrift eines Gleichnisses immer in enger Anlehnung an die Eröffnung formuliert und die mit der Hypothek der Vorstellung von den beiden 'Hälften' belastete Kategorie des 'tertium comparationis' durch die Pointe ersetzt." E. Rau. Reden in Vollmach. Hintergrund, Form und Anliegen der Gleichnisse Jesu . (FRLANT 149). Göttingen 1990. 396f.

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14. See Reiser. op. cit., 288-291.

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15. "Im wesentlichen lassen sich zwei Formen [des Gerichts] unterscheiden: das Straf- und Vernichtungsgericht und das juridisch-forensische Gericht." Reiser. op. cit. 134.

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16. Ibid., 147.

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17. The dishonest steward employs even the hour in which his dishonesty is uncovered in order to procure yet another advantage by dishonest means. - The third servant shows through his own words that he has acted falsely. - The wicked vinedressers lay violent hands upon the son of the owner of the vineyard. - The father embraces the son returning home even before the latter can say he is sorry. - It is not the priest or the Levite who show compassion but the Samaritan. - Judgment occurs not according to the law but according to the attitude toward the judge.

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18. In certain cases a further point through the Gospel itself and thus a larger context can be added. But in the framework of our problematic we may disregard this.

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19. The dishonesty of the steward is filtered out so his cleverness becomes a prototype in the situation of judgment. - It is no longer a matter of punishment in an individual case (lazy servant) but of a new law of action for those who are trusting and untrusting. - The question about the punishment of the murderous vinedressers is dissolved by the new attitude of God toward his murdered son. - Not only the unrighteous but above all even the (ostensibly) "righteous" have need a fatherly goodness. - The neighbor for the wounded victim is not his countryman, but that Samaritan who helped him. - The attitude toward the least persons itself becomes, startlingly, the norm by which everything is measured.

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20. An initial important problematizing of the concept of judgment already took place in the Jewish tradition. So e.g. "in eschatological descriptions found in early Jewish literature the frequent occurrence of the passive" is striking (Reiser, op. cit., 259). This preference for passive formulations might "obviously have been motivated especially by the preference for leaving the agent in this form of speech undetermined. Thus it need not be said who sets up the thrones in the final judgment, opens the books and kills the beast (see Dan 7:10f.), who puts the sword in the hand of the righteous and who builds the eschatological temple (Enoch 91:12f.) who destroys sinners and redeems the righteous, preserves and has compassion on them (see Ps.Sol 15:23)." (Ibid. 260.)

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21. R. Schwager. Jesus im Heilsdrama. Entwurf einer biblischen Erlösungslehre (ITS 29). Innsbruck 1990.

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