A Precious Goblet

by Lois Tverberg

“And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.” Exodus 34: 6-7

We might struggle with the fact that the Bible portrays God as sometimes forgiving sin, and other times angrily punishing it. Sometimes we over-simplify this to say that the God of the Old Testament was full of judgment, and Jesus was all forgiveness. If we read more closely, we find that neither is the case. God forgave the Israelites for worshipping the golden calf, but then forbade Moses, his greatest prophet, from entering the promised land because of his sin in striking the rock. Likewise, Jesus spoke about the coming judgment more than anyone else in the New Testament, yet he told the woman caught in adultery that her sins had been forgiven. He said, “Woe to you, blind guides!” but later said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”.

This idea that God displays both judgment and mercy for sin was the subject of an interesting rabbinic parable:

Venetian GlassIn the day that the Lord God made earth and heaven, he said, “This may be compared to a king who had a craftsman make for him an extremely delicate, precious goblet. The king said, ‘If I pour hot liquid into it, it will burst, if I pour ice cold liquid into it, it will crack!’ What did the King do? He mixed the hot and the cold together and poured it into it, and it did not crack.” Even so did the Holy One, blessed be He, say: “If I create the world on the basis of the attribute of mercy alone, it will be overwhelmed with sin; but if I create it on the basis of the attribute of justice alone, how could the world endure? I will therefore create it with both the attributes of mercy and justice, and may it endure!” (Genesis Rabbah 12:15, adapted1)

This parable doesn’t use detailed theology to explain why God is merciful sometimes and why he chooses to judge at other times – it merely points out that he needs both in order to reign over his creation while allowing it to survive.

We find that this blend of mercy and judgment is often what we deal with in our lives. Parents struggle with the balance of enforcing rules along with showing grace to their kids — not being too strict, yet not letting their kids run wild either. Employers often deal with employees who are not performing and have to decide if they should fire them, or give them another chance. When our spouses do something that hurts us — should we forgive them and let it slide, or bring our hurt and anger to their attention?

We may think that we have to always act in the same way in these situations — never letting sin go unpunished, or always trying to be merciful and dismiss it. But the reality is that we need to balance these. Even God walks the difficult line between mercy and judgment. Making the right choice for a given situation requires great discernment. It is comforting to know that we can turn to him when we deal with these questions because he knows our struggles far beyond what we could ever imagine.


(1) See http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Judaism/Loving.html for more.

Photo: Queensland Museum

Punished for Parents’ Sin

by Lois Tverberg

The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation. Exodus 34:6-7

Hands of 3 generations

This description of God, that He is “gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness…” is quoted nine times in the Old Testament. The first place that this is heard is on Mt. Sinai, when the Lord passes by and shows all His glory to Moses. This description of God’s mercy comes up several times in the psalms (Psalm 86, 103, & 145 and others) and was probably part of many worship liturgies during Bible times.

Usually when this passage is quoted elsewhere in the Bible, the line about punishing children for the sins of the fathers is not included. This is satisfying to us, because we struggle with that line that seems quite unfair. It helps for us to see the cultural background of it, and that God responds the way we do.

African TribeAncient tribal peoples like the Israelites tended to see their identity as being a part of a family or clan rather than as an individual. They worked together in everything, and prospered or suffered together. It was understood that if one sinned, especially the leader, they would all bear guilt and suffer misfortune for it. To us it doesn’t seem at all just, but to their logic, it seemed reasonable.

In fact, in Ezekiel 18, the people quoted a proverb to that effect: ‘The fathers eat the sour grapes, but the children’s teeth are set on edge’ (Ezekiel 18:2). Interestingly, God tells them not to quote this proverb anymore. He strenuously disagrees with punishing children for the sins of their parents! Much of the chapter is written to make the point that God judges according the individual on his own terms, not in terms of the actions of his ancestors.

If a righteous man turns from his righteousness and commits sin, he will die for it; because of the sin he has committed he will die. But if a wicked man turns away from the wickedness he has committed and does what is just and right, he will save his life. Because he considers all the offenses he has committed and turns away from them, he will surely live; he will not die. (Ezekiel 18:25-27)

Therefore, O house of Israel, I will judge you, each one according to his ways, declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent! Turn away from all your offenses; then sin will not be your downfall. Rid yourselves of all the offenses you have committed, and get a new heart and a new spirit. Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent and live! (Ezekiel 18:30-32)

So, we see that God himself sees that each person himself is accountable before him, and that it is unjust to condemn people for sins committed before their time.

How do we interpret Exodus 34:6-7 in the light of this passage? The picture of several generations being condemned for a sin may be describing the generational pattern of sin that we see in families. A father who abuses his wife often has sons who are abuse their wives. Families do teach and reinforce patterns of sins (or righteousness) to their members that go on for generations. Could it be that the children aren’t being punished for their parent’s guilt, but that the children have carried on in the family sins themselves?

The answer from Ezekiel is that the consequences of sin only extend to the generations that keep on in the sin of the ancestors. There is always hope, if the children will just repent and change their ways. God doesn’t take pleasure in the judgment of anyone, but bids us all to repent and live!


Photo: hannahpirnie and William Warby

A Good Day’s Pay

by Lois Tverberg

“The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard… When those hired about the eleventh hour came, each one received a denarius. When those hired first came, they thought that they would receive more; but each of them also received a denarius…When they received it, they grumbled at the landowner, saying, `These last men have worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the scorching heat of the day.’ But he said, `Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius? `So the last shall be first, and the first last.” – Matthew 20:1, 9-13, 16

Jesus often used parables to describe the character of God. He did not try to define or categorize him with theological abstractions, but he did paint a picture of God’s personality with colorful stories that grab our attention and sometimes surprise us.

Field Workers

This story is one example of Jesus’ way of showing God’s grace to his audiences. His picture is that of a farmer at harvest time when the grape crop is ripe and needs to be brought in. There was probably some urgency to get the crop in before the fruit spoiled or the weather changed, so that the farmer would keep hiring workers to have as much help as possible. While this may be the case, the reason that he hired the last workers was that they had not found work for the day, so that they would have nothing to bring home to their families. Day workers usually had only sporadic work and lived in poverty. Giving the last workers a full-day’s pay demonstrated his great compassion for them and desire to supply their needs.

The problem comes from the workers who began work at the beginning of the day. He had shown them the same grace by employing them as day-workers too, and they would have known the desperate needs of the other laborers. But instead of appreciating the owner’s compassion, they expected him to shower them with even greater gifts. If the man is generous, certainly he must be rich too, they assumed. His compassion made them greedy for more.

The lesson we should learn is that God is not a paymaster, and we shouldn’t serve him with the expectation of being entitled to his favor. God is just as likely to answer the prayers and bless those who have not “earned it.” And most of all, we should be careful to not resent the “latecomers” – those who may have lived terrible lives and only repent at the very end. By God’s mercy he gives grace to us all, and does not repay us according to what we deserve.


Photo: Vincent Van Gogh at Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow

The Merciful Farmer

by Lois Tverberg

“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went away. When the wheat sprouted and bore grain, then the tares became evident also…The slaves said to him, `Do you want us, then, to go and gather them up?’ “But he said, `No; for while you are gathering up the tares, you may uproot the wheat with them.'” – Matthew 13:24-26, 29

Wheat When we read the parable of the wheat and the tares, it’s difficult to see Jesus’ reason for telling it. It is about the “kingdom of heaven,” which is the idea that God would establish his reign over the whole world when all peoples of the world would abandon their idols and worship only him. The picture that many had was that God’s judgment would come to wipe out all idolatry, a logical answer to the problem of evil. In one sudden event, God would assert his power and vanquish his enemies, the “wicked” nations around them, and those of their own nation who were “sinners.”

John the Baptist also shared this picture, and John warns that because Christ had arrived, judgment was right around the corner. He says that Christ had come to destroy the chaff and weeds, and that the harvest was at hand:

“His winnowing fork is in His hand to thoroughly clear His threshing floor, and to gather the wheat into His barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” (Luke 3:17).

Winnowing ForkJesus uses the parable of the wheat and tares to explain that God’s kingdom on earth was different than John expected – that this was not the time for God to destroy the wicked, but that he would allow his kingdom to grow in the midst of them. God’s mercy is displayed in that he does not destroy the tares among the wheat. Rather, the wheat would grow in the midst of the tares, so that there was still hope for the enemies if they chose to repent and enter. God would establish his kingdom, not by judgment, but by mercy to sinners, who would be reconciled with God through Jesus’ atoning death. Judgment would be delayed, and mercy extended to everyone who would enthrone God as their king.

Jesus’ picture of the kingdom of God gives us a powerful description of God’s character. It shows that God is, at his very heart, merciful and wanting no one to perish. Our response must be to examine ourselves, realize that no one is righteous, and repent and receive God as our King.


Photo: National Plant Germplasm System and Deror avi

The Logic of Mercy

by Lois Tverberg

Thus it came about, when God destroyed the cities of the valley, that God remembered Abraham, and sent Lot out of the midst of the overthrow, when He overthrew the cities in which Lot lived. – Genesis 19:29

In the book of Genesis, we are introduced to many biblical ideas that have transformed all of humanity. We often don’t think about how radical and surprising they are. One idea that was shocking in its time was that one powerful God created the world, and that this God was moral and demands morality of His people. This was radical and different than the pagan idea that there were many gods, and none of them cared what humans did.

Another surprising idea that comes from the Bible is that mercy is shown to the guilty for the sake of an innocent person. If you think about it, this is quite illogical. We don’t give a gift to one person because we appreciated what someone else had done for us. But yet we have gotten used to the idea that God will pardon many because of the faithfulness of just one or a few.

One example is that when Abraham begged God to spare Sodom, he assumed that God would spare an entire city for the sake of even 10 innocent people in it, and God agreed. He didn’t just ask God to remove the innocent and then punish the rest (which would be logical), he asks God to pardon everyone for the sake of just a few. This really is extravagant mercy, to release everyone for the sake of just a few.

When the angels went to Sodom, they couldn’t find even ten people which would spare the city from its fate. But God did save Lot and his family, although the Bible hints that they weren’t much different than the Sodomites. Lot had become a community leader and his children were intermarrying with the population.

Interestingly, as it says in today’s verse, God didn’t save Lot’s family for their own sake, but for the sake of Abraham, who had been faithful to him. Once again we see this “illogical” logic, that for some strange reason, because of the merit of the a faithful person, sinners are pardoned because of it.

It is as if God gradually preparing his people to understanding his future great act of redemption in Christ, whose righteousness was conferred on us, and we are pardoned for his sake.

Thank goodness for God’s illogical mercy!