54“Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?”
Fire from heaven. We still joke about this. Lightning strikes. The notion that God would act in such a way should be beyond us, but it isn’t entirely. We are often haunted by the thought that God might be punishing us. Or we are frustrated that God does not punish those we are convinced deserve to be struck down.
Stories of extraordinary divine punishment are rare in scripture. There was the fire and brimstone that took out Sodom and Gomorrah. And there was the earthquake that swallowed up Korah and his followes. But many of the stories that sound like punishment – or use the language of punishment – are not, really. The ten plagues visited upon Egypt were not retribution, but opportunities for Pharaoh to repent, opportunities to recognize and turn away from slaveholding and all its brutality. Most of what we identify as God’s wrath is simply the consequences of our rebellion working its way out in human society – and, unfortunately, often afflicting the innocent. We poison the water, poison the air, or poison sexuality and people get sick. It is a consequence of our sins and a chance to repent, to change direction, but we often do not and the consequences simply get worse. The passenger pigeon. DDT. Chernobyl/Three Mile Island/Fukushima. Global warming. AIDS and genital warts.
Lightening did strike two companies of men who came to arrest Elijah. Yet even this is more than simple divine vengeance; God was protecting his prophet. God was guarding his word. (It was only the leader of the third company coming to “escort” Elijah from the mountain who showed by his humility and regard for the prophet that Elijah would be safe in his custody.)
But God’s defense of his word somehow becomes, in our mind, God’s vengeance upon our enemies. These Samaritans treated Jesus with dishonor. “Do you want we should ask God to strike them dead?!” We like revenge, which is why God takes vengeance away from us, “Vengeance is mine, saith the LORD.”
With Jesus’ rebuke of James and John, God removes the possibility of religious war. Period. It may be necessary to exercise violence to protect my neighbor against violence, but vengeance is forbidden. We are not a religion of lynchings or crusades – though we are, in our fallen humanity, a people who like them. In contemporary America we do such things verbally now, rushing to judgment and condemnation, but we do them. Oh, the heady rush of crusading.
Were Jesus to call down lightning you would think he would call down lightning on those religious people so eager to invoke lightning. (See, I can crusade even against crusading.) But Jesus does not. He continues on with us: a rebuke followed by teaching. “If you are going to follow me, don’t think it will be easy.” “Leave the dead to bury their own dead.” Love of neighbor is a bigger challenge than smiling and waving and not playing basketball in your driveway after 10:00 pm.
The stories mentioned above can be found in 2 Kings 1 (Elijah), Genesis 13 (Sodom & Gomorrah), Numbers 16 (Korah) and Exodus 7 ff. (the plagues on Egypt).