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Jesus' Teaching on Purgatory

by Brant Pitre August 05, 2019 0 Comments


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The second parable shift’s slightly, now it’s a parable of a Thief in the Night. It has the same basic meaning, it has the same upshot, be ready for the son of man when he comes. But here, instead of comparing the son of man to a master returning from a wedding feast, he does another twist. Now the son of man is like a thief who comes in the middle of the night to break into your home. Now those are two kinds of readiness. He says, “know this, that if the householder had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would have been awake and would not have left his house to be broken into.” Think about this. There’s a certain kind of expectation and anticipation that you might have as servant if you’re waiting for your master to return. It’s very different if someone calls you and says “tonight, I know that your house is going to be broken into.” Are you going to be able to sleep that night or are you going to stay awake? Well, you’re not even going to be able to rest. There’s going to be a certain level of anxiety about the unknown hour of the thief’s arrival. So Jesus here uses both these parables, the master’s return from the wedding and the thief in the night to talk about the importance of being ready for the coming of the son of man, but also the fact that you don’t know exactly when he’s going to come. This is going to be a standard theme in all of Jesus’ preaching. Whenever he talks about the final judgment and the second coming, its crucial to emphasize that he always tells the disciples, you don’t know when it’s going to happen. There’s a certain ignorance about the timing of the end.

And we see this elsewhere in the gospels of Matthew and Mark, Jesus says (you know), “Neither the angels in Heaven, nor the Son but only the Father know the day and the hour when Heaven and earth are going to pass away.” So this “ignorance of the end”, it’s just important because every now and then (well actually pretty frequently), people will rise up and they’ll set a timeline. The final judgment, it’s going to happen at this time on this day. This is a very famous example, this is from the 1980’s. It was a book that came out, 88 reasons the world will end in 1988. And of course when 1988 came and nothing happened, the next year, another book came out, 89 reasons the world will end in 1989. As you might imagine, the 2nd edition did not sell as well as the first (which sold millions of copies) because of the fact that the deadline that was given, the timeline that was given, didn’t actually happen. So here we see Jesus affirming that the son of man is coming, but at the same time telling you, at an hour you do not expect. So the thief in the night gives a powerful image of the unexpected nature of the son of man’s coming. So Jesus’ disciples, their responsibility, their duty, is just to be ready and to stay awake; to be vigilant, to keep alert.

And then good old Peter, once Jesus gives this parable (well really it’s kind of two parables, of the master and the thief), Peter says “Lord, are you telling this parable for us or for everyone?” So Peter wants to know, “Wait. Does this apply to us or who’s this parable addressed to?” And it’s fascinating here that Jesus responds with a question (if you ask Jesus a question, you can basically bank on the fact that he’s going to respond with a question. And if you know anyone who does this, it can be a little annoying. If you ask a question and they respond with a question and they ask a question, professors like to do this kind of thing). Anyway, it’s a good teaching method though because it helps a person, it leads them into the truth you want them to be lead to, but in an active way. So when Peter asks the question, Jesus says “Well, who then is the faithful and wise steward whom his master will set over his household to give them their portion of food at the proper time?” Now, pause there. He’s going to go into a parable here about servants who are ready for their master and do what servants are supposed to do, and servants who aren’t, but I can’t help but notice here that he’s responding to Peter with the story of a steward who is set over the master’s household and put in charge of all of his possessions.

The reason I bring that up is that in the Gospel of Matthew 16, when Jesus gives Peter the keys of the kingdom and says “whatever you bind is bound in Heaven and whatever you loose is loosed in Heaven”, it’s an illusion to Isaiah 22, where Eliakim is made the chief steward over the house of King David. In the Old Testament, there was this figure called the al bayith, literally the “over the house.” Sometimes he’s called the prime minister, but chief steward would be a better translation. So the chief steward in the Old Testament was 2nd only to the king and he had the authority of the king to bind and loose and he held the keys of the kingdom. That’s how you knew who the chief steward was. Well it’s fascinating that Peter, in Matthew 16, is being described as the chief steward of the kingdom of God. Jesus gives him the keys of the kingdom. In Luke, it’s interesting here in chapter 12 when Peter says “hey, are you telling this parable for us?” Jesus says, “Well who is the faithful steward whom the master sets over his household?” It’s the exact same expression there, the over the house in the Old Testament with regards to the kingdom was the chief steward of King David. Now Jesus is talking about a parable of a chief steward of the master’s household, which is basically the role that Peter’s going to take as chief of the 12 apostles. He’s 2nd in rank only to Jesus himself. That’s just a little side note, but it’s kind of interesting there.

In any case, it leads into a parable in which Jesus gives another Beatitude: “Blessed is that servant whom his master when he comes will find so doing. Truly, I tell you, he will set him over all his possessions. But if that servant says to himself, ‘My master is delayed in coming,’ and begins to beat the menservants and the maidservants, and to eat and drink and get drunk, the master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know.”  The RSV says “will punish him, and put him with the unfaithful”, but literally it says, “will cut him in two” or “cut him in pieces”, “will dismember him and put him with the unfaithful”, the apistōn, the unbelievers, the unfaithful. Ok, so press pause there. So what Jesus is doing in this parable is he’s going to give four different outcomes, four different fates for four different kinds of servants. I want you to pay close attention to what these four servants are. The first one is the servant who does what his master wills him to do and who is ready for his return. That servant will be set over all the master’s possessions.  That is the first servant. The second one is the one who says “my master is delayed” and begins to beat his fellow servants and to eat and drink and get drunk. What happens to that servant? He gets cut in two and put with the unfaithful.

Now if you press pause right there, one more time, these are clearly images of entering into the kingdom of God or being cast out of the kingdom into the punishment of Gehenna, right? We’ll see this elsewhere in the gospels, right? “Enter into the glory of the kingdom,” that’s what Jesus is describing here. If you are being set over all his possessions, he’s entering into the master’s household, the master’s kingdom. But if this is a parable, and it’s an allegory for the kingdom of God, then the good servant is rewarded by being elevated in the kingdom. “He who humbles himself in will be exalted” and then the wicked servant goes to Gehenna, or goes to Hell, experiences punishment and put with the unfaithful. Think here about other places where Jesus says “they’ll be cast into the outer darkness where there’s weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Here the servant is cast among the unfaithful. Now if this parable were written by a later Christian in the Protestant tradition, who only believed those were the two fates possible, it should’ve stopped there, but there are two other outcomes that Jesus gives us in this parable and it’s really fascinating. There’s a third servant, it’s the servant who knew his master’s will but didn’t prepare or act according to his will. Ok, so in other words, this servant isn’t ready for his master to come, but unlike the wicked servant he doesn’t start abusing other people. He’s not getting drunk, he’s not beating his fellow manservants and maidservants. He’s just not as ready as he should be. He’s not ready for the master’s return. So what’s his punishment? It doesn’t say that he’s cut in two or put with the unfaithful. It says that he receives a severe beating. And then the fourth servant is a different one. This is the one who didn’t know his master’s will, but did what deserved the beating. That person shall receive a light beating. So this servant is what later moral theologians would call “invincibly ignorant.” In other words, they didn’t know what the master’s commands were for whatever reason, and they did not prepare, they did what deserved the beating like the third servant, but they were less culpable because they didn’t know what they were supposed to do. They received a light beating.

Now it should be pointed out that this image of a master beating his servants is obviously going to be repugnant, especially for modern day readers, but in antiquity, servants and slaves would have been part of the ancient landscape. So Jesus is using what people know, earthly realities, to illustrate what they don’t understand, which is the kingdom of God, eternal realities. So if the first blessed servant is the image of being rewarded in Heaven,  the second wicked servant is an image of being punished forever in Hell, then what are these other two servants who received either a severe beating or a light beating? Well, I’ll let you figure that out. No, no, I won’t let you figure it out. I’ll answer it for you. This is obviously an image of eschatological punishment. It is a beating, so there’s a punishment involved, but it’s temporary, not permanent, because the second servant, how is he punished? By being cut in two. Now, apart from modern medical methods, that was a permanent condition in antiquity. If someone cut you in two, you would remain cut in two; it’s an image of death. But the beating means that it is finite, temporary punishment. This image will go on to lay a foundation in Jesus’ own teaching for the later church doctrine that comes to be known as Purgatory. The idea that after death at our judgment, there are some people whose sins will not be so grave that they’re cast in the outer darkness of Gehenna, but yet at the same time their deeds are not so righteous that they would enter immediately into the glory of the kingdom, but that they must be purified and experience the temporal punishment for venial sin that their sins require (that justice requires) before they can be purified and enter into the kingdom of Heaven. Well that’s the last two servants in the parable, right?

This punishment of Purgatory can be severe for some people who knew what was wrong and did it anyway. This is why deliberate venial sin is, by the way, not something to play around with. Sometimes Catholics make it light, “Oh, venial sin.” No, no, no, deliberate venial sin is not something to play around with. Then there’s venial sin in which the person is unaware that it’s even wrong and I’m sure you can probably think of examples of that as well. Those sins still have consequences, the servant in the parable still is punished, but it’s a lighter punishment; literally “light” is the word venial, that’s what venial mean. It’s a lighter punishment than those that knew what was wrong and did it anyway. So sometimes, you know, people would say “Dr. Pitre, where’s the doctrine of Purgatory in the Bible?” There’s lots of different places you can point to, you can point to 2nd Maccabees 12, where they’re praying for the dead; you can point to Paul, 1st Corinthians 3, about being “saved through fire”; but what people often don’t do is actually point to Jesus in the gospels. Jesus’ parable here in Luke 12 gives us one of the clearest, scriptural foundations for the fact that Heaven and Hell are not the only eschatological options when it comes to judgment. There’s also a third area (third realm) which is a temporary punishment for sin that doesn’t exclude one ultimately from the kingdom, but has to be undergone before you can enter into the joy of the master’s household.

Brant Pitre
Brant Pitre


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