The Bible is boiling today with images of violence. Slow down. The steady nerves of a surgeon and the slow breath of a contemplative scholar are the required temperament in such dangerous territory. Nothing read today revokes an eternal and lingering love: Love begetting, love begotten, love communing. Not one syllable is a summons to violence.
Indeed, a love song begins concerning the house of Israel, the people of Judah, imagined as a beautiful vineyard. “[God] dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower … and hewed out a wine vat” (Isa. 5:2). The vines crept to mountain heights and treetops and water sources. “The mountains were covered with its shade, the mighty cedars with its branches; it sent out its branches to the sea, and its shoots to the River” (Ps. 80:10-11). A question is put to which the answer is known: “What more was there for me to do?” (Isa. 5:4).
God waits. Then the vine brings forth rotten grapes. An enemy has done this. The metaphor is interpreted and the judgment clear. The Lord of hosts “expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry” (Isa. 5:7).
What will God do? Remove hedges, break down walls, make a waste, and command the clouds to withhold rain. What won’t God do? Prune, hoe, and protect. The words are harsh. “Is not my word like fire, says the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?” (Jer. 23:29). Jesus too is restless with the world just as it is, smells the stench of human wickedness. “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled” (Luke 12:49).
God is love, and love has decided. In the council of the gods and among human beings, God presides and makes clear the obligation of those who rule. “Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked” (Ps. 82:3-4). God wants justice and righteousness. Love will not leave the lost alone, but intervenes decisively on behalf of the weak and forgotten. This intervention is a crisis and judgment against abuse and neglect.
The fire of judgment is an immersion (baptism) in the truth. The fire purifies and cleanses when the heart, mind, and soul drink the flaming river of God. It is a new day. God wants and calls into being a righteous community in which the rights of the destitute are acknowledged. Consider the burning bush. It burns and yet remains. So is the judgment of God. When God casts fire on the earth or pulls up the vine or breaks the hedge, he judges human wickedness while calling forth a righteous community. Judgment, then, is ordered toward redemption, renewal, justice, and righteousness.
Jesus bears the judgment of fire, the judgment against wickedness. A poet once spoke of a burning babe, an infant Jesus, in whom, strangely, fire and smoke and ash and blood become a testimony of love. “My faultless breast the furnace is, the fuel, wounding thorns, / Love is the fire, and sighs the smoke, the ashes shame and scorns; / The fuel Justice layeth on, And Mercy blows the coals, / The metal in this furnace wrought are men’s defile souls, / For which, as now on fire I am to work them to their good, / So will I melt into a bath and wash them in my blood” (Robert Southwell, SJ). Poetically, and not otherwise, this is perfectly clear.