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There is no mild language used by Jesus when he talks about the judgment. 
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How often do you ever encounter the word “gnashing” in ordinary conversation?  Hardly ever.  It’s a word we associate almost exclusively with the parables of Jesus.

About a third of Jesus’s parables are about judgment: reward given to the faithful and condemnation of the unfaithful.  The reward is glorious.  The condemnation is horrific.

We don’t always absorb the shocking nature of the language used by Jesus to depict what will happen—what Jesus himself will do—to the unfaithful.  In various parables, the king / judge / ruler orders them to be executed in his presence (Luke 19:27), to be cut in pieces (Matthew 24:50-51), to be disowned (Luke 13:25-28), to be bound hand and foot and thrown into outer darkness (Matthew 22:13), to be thrown into a fiery furnace (Matthew 13:41-42).  And others.

There is no mild language used by Jesus when he talks about the judgment.  He intends us to be energized by the glory of the reward of eternal life.  And he intends us to be shocked by the alternative—he takes us by the shoulders and shakes us till our teeth rattle, looking directly into our eyes, so that we know he is serious.

In some of the parables, Jesus gives an additional detail of what happens to those he calls “the wicked”.  He says that there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth”.  We understand “weeping”—it’s more than just crying.  Some translations capture the intensity by rendering it “wailing” or even “loud wailing”.  Jesus is talking about intense sorrow.

But “gnashing”?  What does he mean?  Some translations render the word as “grinding”, which is correct.  Think about it:  What makes teeth grind?  It happens when the jaw muscles are clenched intensely hard.  What causes clenched teeth?  Anger.  Intense anger.

What Jesus says is that those rejected by him will have intense sorrow.  Or intense anger.  The sorrow arising from the realization of what could have been if only better choices had been made.  And the anger?  I think this reaction must be because people think they deserve the reward, and they are instead condemned.  This seems to be the picture in the Luke 13 passage and others such as Matthew 25:41-46.

Of course we don’t want to end up with either the sorrow or the anger.  It seems to me that it’s relatively easy to put a finger on failures that we sorrow over.  We know that if we repent of these, they are forgiven.  They are wiped away, and will not result in sorrow at the judgment.  As long as we do not turn our backs on the grace offered to us—but if we do turn our back, sorrow at the judgment awaits. 

I think it’s harder for us to identify how we might think we are doing right, serving the Lord, but in actuality we are serving some other agenda.  Anger mostly arises from expectations not being met.  Jesus tells us there will be those who expect life, but are condemned—and they are furious.

Introspection is required for us to avoid both the weeping and the gnashing.  This is why, I believe, Jesus told so many parables about the judgment.  The parables aren’t all the same.  Each one has nuances intended to help us.  Jesus has no interest in saying, “Gotcha!” at the judgment.  He tells the parables specifically to coach us to avoid the weeping and gnashing.  The Father has “no pleasure in the death of the wicked,” much preferring that they turn. (Ezekiel 33:11, 1 Timothy 2:4, 2 Peter 3:9)  This is what Jesus reflects in these parables.

We wouldn’t have so many depictions of the judgment outcomes if they weren’t really important.  We wouldn’t have any at all if the Father and the Son weren’t trying to help us avoid the weeping and gnashing.  What they really want is the same thing we want, for us to hear, “Enter the joy of your Lord!”

Love, Paul

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