If Jesus believed that the coming destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, with massive loss of life, would be an act of deliberate divine punishment, why didn’t he say so explicitly? Why is it that so many of the sayings about judgment that I listed from Luke’s Gospel come in the form of parables or rather cryptic allusions? Why is there no direct statement to the effect that the God who sent Jesus to Israel would violently punish his people within a generation.
When Jeremiah complained that the people of Judah had made the temple a “den of robbers”, he went on to make it clear that YHWH would “do to the house that is called by my name, and in which you trust, and to the place that I gave to you and to your fathers, as I did to Shiloh. And I will cast you out of my sight” (Jer. 7:14–15). Why didn’t Jesus do the same? Spell it out. Why didn’t he go on to say that God would do to Herod’s temple what he did to Solomon’s temple and the sanctuary at Shiloh before that? Then we would know what he meant.
If you’re getting weary of the subject, I apologise. But I think it’s a good question, and one that perhaps sheds a broader light on how Jesus addressed Israel.
Part of the answer is likely to be that when a Gospel writer puts into the mouth of a devout Jewish speaker a few words from an Old Testament text, it was on the understanding that devout Jewish or Jewish-Christian hearers would automatically recall the whole narrative or psalm or oracle. They knew the context. There was no reason to quote the continuation of the passage in Jeremiah. Most people would immediately have understood that if a prophet claimed that the temple has been made a “den of robbers”, he meant that it would soon be destroyed as an act of punishment for the sins of Judah/Judea.
To me that seems a very reasonable literary-historical assumption to make, but a more literally-minded reader, who is troubled by the level of divine violence in the Old Testament, can always object that Jesus didn’t actually say it.
There are a few other considerations that may have a bearing. Perhaps some of the judgment sayings would have been heard as “divine passives”: the unrepentant cities of Galilee would be “brought down to Hades”, for example, with reference to the death and destruction that they would suffer in the course of the war (Matt. 11:23; Lk. 10:15). A couple of statements appear to make Jesus the author of a devastating judgment: he will burn the chaff with unquenchable fire (Matt. 3:12); he has not come to bring peace to the land of Israel, but a sword (Matt. 10:34; cf. Rev. 6:4). But the fact remains that Jesus seems unwilling to say unequivocally that YHWH was about to punish his people by means of Roman invasion and war. Can we explain this reticence? I think we can.
A good proportion of the violent judgment texts are parables or symbolic actions or Old Testament allusions: a storm will destroy a house (Matt. 7:26-27; Lk. 6:49); in the judgment at the end of the age the weeds will be separated from the wheat and “burned with fire”, the bad fish will be separated from the good and thrown away, thrown into a “fiery furnace” (Matt. 13:24-30, 37-43, 47-50); the unrighteous will be thrown into the valley of the Son of Hinnom, into the “unquenchable fire” (Mk. 9:43); a fruitless fig tree will be cut down (Lk. 13:8-9); a nobleman’s enemies, who do not want him to reign over them, will be slaughtered (Lk. 19:27); traders are driven from the temple (Matt. 21:12; Jn. 2:14-16); the wicked tenants of the vineyard will be destroyed (Matt. 21:33-44; Lk. 20:15); the rejected stone will crush the people on whom it falls (Lk. 20:17-18); the barren fig tree is made to wither (Matt. 21:19); and the angry king destroys the city of the guests who fail to come to the wedding of his Son (Matt. 22:7).
When Jesus is asked by the disciples why he speaks to the people in parables, he quotes the words that Isaiah was instructed to say to the rebellious house of Israel:
You will indeed hear but never understand, and you will indeed see but never perceive.” For this people’s heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and turn, and I would heal them. (Matt. 13:14–15; cf. Is. 6:9-10)
Isaiah asks “how long?”, and God’s response is:
Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is a desolate waste, and the LORD removes people far away, and the forsaken places are many in the midst of the land. (Is. 6:11–12)
If we assume that the context in Isaiah is relevant, the point would be that Jesus speaks in parables precisely to signal to Israel that they are a stubborn, disobedient, hard-of-hearing people, and that before long God will judge and punish them by destroying Jerusalem and scattering surviving Jews among the nations. But even if we discount the context, it still appears that there is something intentionally elusive and misleading about Jesus’ characteristic manner of teaching, which I think would account for the lack of categorical statements about the coming violent judgment.
Matthew later explains the fact that Jesus said nothing to the crowds “without a parable” by quoting Psalm 78:2:
This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet: “I will open my mouth in parables; I will utter what has been hidden since the foundation of the world.” (Matt. 13:35)
What the psalmist utters to the coming generation is the story of how God established his people, but they continually sinned against him, and “he was full of wrath; a fire was kindled against Jacob; his anger rose against Israel”: (Ps. 78:21).
So Jesus’ habitual use of parables and parabolic actions was in itself a sign to Israel that they were not hearing what God had to say to them, or were not understanding what they heard, and that they would suffer a devastating judgment as a consequence.
But it is also the prophetic speaking and acting in parables that removes the explicit reference to God as the author of the coming catastrophe in Jesus’ pronouncements of judgment. Instead we have the passive statements, the angels sorting the good from the bad and burning the bad, the farmer who cuts down a fig tree, the nobleman who slaughters his enemies, the vineyard owner who destroys the rebellious tenants, the king who destroys a city—and the people are left to draw their own conclusions. This is exactly Jesus’ rhetorical method.
The disciples, in contrast, are those to whom “it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 13:11). What they are given, in the end, is a detailed, realistic, more or less plausible narrative about the events that would lead up to the siege of Jerusalem, the destruction of the temple, and the end of the age (Matt. 24:3-28; Mk. 13:3-23; Lk. 21:5-24). This is the historical counterpart to the parables of judgment that Jesus had spoken to Israel, though it is here, significantly, that we get perhaps the sharpest evaluation of the war in theological terms, when Jesus describes the period as “days of vengeance (hēmerai ekdikēseōs), to fulfil all that is written” (Lk. 21:22). Anything that is done as fulfilment of the scriptures must be an act of God.
Hosea 9:7 LXX makes clear how what was written would be fulfilled: “The days of punishment (hai hēmerai tēs ekdikēseōs) have come; the days of your recompense have come, and Israel will be afflicted as the deranged prophet, as the spirit–crazed person.” God will set fire to the cities of Judah; he “will remember their iniquity; he will punish their sins”; he will drive them from his house; they will become wanderers among the nations (Hos. 8:14; 9:9, 15, 17; cf. Deut. 32:35 LXX).
The realistic narrative about the war against Rome also grounds another set of parables, spoken not to the people or to the leadership of Israel but to the disciples who are called to stay faithful to their mission through to the end of this period of tribulation (Mk. 13:13), when they will finally be vindicated and rewarded: when the bridegroom comes, the foolish virgins will be shut out, when the master of the house returns his servants will be rewarded or punished (Matt. 24:45-25:30; Lk. 19:11-27).
The hermeneutical point to stress is that the prophetic-apocalyptic language cannot be dissociated from the immediate historical experience of Israel and of the followers of Jesus. This is what the narrative-historical method is all about: biblical “theological” material is almost always a way of speaking about the concrete historical experience of God’s people.