The judgment parable in Matthew 21:33-44 (par. Mark 12:1-12; Luke 20:9-19) is based on Isaiah’s song of the vineyard in Isaiah 5:1-7. Isaiah’s love song is an allegory. The vineyard represents God’s covenant people, called out to communicate to the world the grace and goodness of their God. Judgment falls because “God expected justice, but saw bloodshed.” God expected that the people he called to be divine image bearers to the world would reflect God’s passion for the downtrodden, the outcasts, the poor, and the aliens in the land. God expected the fruit of (social, restorative) justice and mercy. But instead, God’s vineyard, God’s covenant people bore the sour fruit of violence and bloodshed. Instead of justice, they took advantage of the vulnerable.
In the judgment parable in Matthew 21 the same type of allegory is developed. The “tenants” represent the leaders of the covenant people. The landowner is God. The vineyard is God’s kingdom (unlike in Isaiah where the vineyard more specifically represents the covenant people of God). The servants who are rejected, mistreated, and killed represent the prophets. The son, of course, is Jesus. The other tenants symbolize the new community of Christ made of both Jews and Gentiles committed to Christ’s teachings.
While judgment falls on the violent tenants of the land, it only falls as the last resort, after all attempts at reconciliation have been exhausted. In Matthew’s postscript Jesus says, “The kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom” (21:43). Throughout Matthew’s Gospel there is an emphasis on fruits. Judgment falls because they failed to produce fruits — they failed to pursue justice, dispense mercy, and walk humbly with God. When Isaiah calls the people of his time to seek justice, he makes clear the kind of justice God wants, namely, to “rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (1:17). These are the fruits of the kingdom that will create a just world. The fruits of the kingdom are about the will of God being done on earth as it is in heaven — liberating the oppressed, opening the eyes of the blind, freeing those captive to the demonic systems and powers of the world, and bringing good news to the poor (Luke 4:16-21).
Consider for a moment Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7). The conclusion to this body of teaching puts all the emphasis on bearing fruit. Isn’t it interesting that in this entire body of teaching there is not a single instruction about what to believe? Every single teaching is about what to do and how to live. In conclusion Jesus says, “Every tree [doesn’t matter if you are a Christian, a Buddhist, a Muslim, or an atheist] that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits” (7:19-20).
All the judgment parables in Matthew (as well as all the judgment texts in Mark and Luke) have to do with fruits — the consequences of our faith, rather than the content of our faith. I think we should be honest and acknowledge that most of us were not taught this. I grew up in a typical conservative Baptist church and I was taught that one would be judged on the basis of whether or not one believes in Jesus as Savior, but that is not what the gospels teach. In every single judgment text in Matthew, Mark, and Luke participants in God’s kingdom are not identified by what they believe, but by what they do. This emphasis is found in John’s Gospel as well (see especially John 5:28-29; to believe in John’s Gospel includes the idea of being faithful to the love command of Jesus). When we, as participants in God’s new creation called to be Christ’s body in the world, fail to produce the fruits of justice and mercy, then we, too, fall under the judgment of God. God is no respecter of persons.
Does that scare you? It shouldn’t. And here’s why. The judge is full of grace. The judge is an unconditional lover. The judge is Abba, the loving Father/Mother Jesus prayed to and spoke about. I do not presume to even guess what God’s judgment might look like or what form it might take. But what I am convinced of is that whatever God’s judgment involves, however painful it might be, or whatever suffering it might cause, it’s all for the purpose of restoration and redemption. God’s judgment is not punitive or retributive. God’s anger is but for a moment, say the prophets. God’s grace and mercy are forever.
We all will pass through the “fire.” The fire of divine judgment is not intended to consume us, but rather to purge and purify us, to refine us and teach us how to be like our Abba. I have no idea what God’s judgment in the future state of our souls will look like, but I’m confident that whatever form it takes it will be for our good, because God is good. God is not going to torture anyone. I’m not saying that divine judgment will not be painful; it might be very painful, but it will be ultimately for our good. I can imagine lives being terminated if no redemption is possible, but I can’t imagine the God of Jesus torturing anyone. We are the ones who want vengeance, not God. We project our desire for vengeance on God. The biblical writers did it, and we do it too.
I was writing about this via social media and a minister friend responded by saying, “I believe in hell because I have lived in hell before.” He went on to define hell not as a geographical place but as separation from love, as well as separation from self and others. He’s right. Hell is a state of being. All of us who have ever felt alienated and unloved, or been helplessly entrapped in an addiction know what it’s like to live in hell.
One of my great passions in ministry has been (and still is) helping people nurture healthier images of God. In one sense what we believe about God is not that important. What matters is how well we pursue (social/restorative) justice, mercy, and humility, for these are the fruits of the kingdom that form the basis of our judgment. However, I have discovered that we tend to live “up” or “down” to our beliefs. Healthier images of God usually result in the pursuit of justice, mercy, and humility. So helping others nurture a healthy image of God has been an important aspect of my preaching, teaching, and writing.
Do you know what God wants from us? God wants us to share God’s heart, to treat one another in love and grace, forgiving one another, defending the helpless and liberating the oppressed. God wants us to engage in works of mercy and justice. And I believe God will do whatever God can do to get us to that level of maturity, just the way we attempt to do with our own children. God’s judgment is about the discipline and correction that is needed to rid us of our prejudice and hate, and turn us into little Christs.
It’s what we do that counts. If what we believe does not translate into what we do (the fruits of the kingdom), then maybe we need to ask ourselves what exactly we believe and if our beliefs are doing us any good. The work of the kingdom of God will take us into the criminal justice system, the economic system, the educational system, the political system, into our work place and our family dynamics, into our relationships and friendships, and into every area of our lives. This is what discipleship to Jesus and participation in the kingdom of God involves. What we do will be the basis of our judgment.
But you know, there is no need to be afraid. Because whatever form the judgment of God takes, whatever it may involve, if it does its job, it will always lead us back to the loving Abba of Jesus and God’s infinite mercy and grace.