Distributed Mind

Jesus' Anger and Rhetoric

(A rather sketchy post, I admit, but I wanted to get this down while I was thinking about it.)

I stopped in at Christian Challenge's weekly meeting tonight. Toby Havens was talking about the humanity of Christ, and in the process pointed out that Jesus was known to occasionally display emotion, including anger. How that is all related to Jesus' divinity is actually irrelevant to my present point, because bringing up Jesus being angry made me think about something much more concrete: I remembered what made Jesus angry. Now, that's not too hard for me to remember because it makes me angry too, but I find it interesting nonetheless.

So what made Jesus angry? Well, I suppose it depends on how you read certain passages whether Jesus was angry, but there's a very clear instance that almost no one would question: driving the money changers and the vendors out of the Temple. Angry - he was downright violent. And his disciples, the Gospel of John reports, remember that it is written, "Zeal for your house will consume me."

Well, anyway, this got me to thinking some more. What other things could I think of that Jesus appeared worked up over. Well, one obvious one is the religious leadership. The "Seven Woes" passage of Matthew 23, where Jesus goes through a list of things the teachers of the law and the Pharisees do wrong. There are several other passages in a similar vein. Luke 11, for example, also contains many condemnations by Jesus of the Pharisees and the the teachers of the law.

There is a distinct pattern here: hypocrites and those using religion for temporal gain are consistently, and vehemently, condemned. The only other people he calls down "woe" onto are those who lead others in to sin (e.g. Matthew 18:6), the rich (Luke 6), and cities that do not repent (e.g. Matthew 11:21) - and two of those three acategories re closely related to the ones already mentioned. And there are numerous passages where Jesus gives stern warnings about not believing him. But the most specific condemnation of any sinners other than the religious leaders for any sin other than for not accepting his mission and message are at the city level - and still it is related to not listening to Jesus. Whenever Jesus yells about sin he takes on the sin directly. Only competing teachers are directly condemned.

What is equally interesting is what Jesus does not yell about. He rarely gets loud about sin - which is not to say he does not say a lot of negative things about sin, quite the contrary, but it does say something about how he addresses sin rhetorically. First, the occasions where he is loud about it: As we have already seen, he addresses the issue of leading others into sin and hypocrisy very strongly. He is very harsh about sin as as an activity in and of itself (say, for example, Matthew 5:29-30), but even that is usually in the middle of a section of moral teaching. He also brings up the penalties for sin - in a very general meaning - in parables. He has strong words in some of his ethical sermons about specific sins, for example, his condemnation of hate as murder in Matthew 5:21-22. But notice how he addresses sin in the lif of individuals. Look at how he talks to the Samaritan woman in John 4, or Zaccheus. He doesn't beat people over the head with their sins as individuals, or even, usually as categories of people. He doesn't say "Woe, adulterers!" though he does condemn immorality - but that's a different way of saying it. And it's in marked contrast to when he condemns the Pharisees as a group. Which wasn't to say every Pharisee was a sinner, we know Jesus had followers from the Pharisees, such as Joseph of Arimathea, but as a group he had something to say about them.

Other things Jesus is almost completely silent on. He never condemns the Romans - whom just about everyone expects him to take on, whether physically or spiritually. Jesus is not like the Zealots, and he seems to be careful about making that point.

So why yell at the Pharisees and physically chase profiteers, but be almost silent about adulterers and even tax collectors and tyrants? I think that must be a delicate question to answer. I mean, I think the condemnation of the religious leaders is easy to handle. And even the Temple sellers makes sense, at least to me (though the message has clearly been lost on many). But we might be more comfortable if he did say, "Pilate, shape up you tyrant!" But he chose not to - I suspect because Jesus really wanted to focus on Israel, and also because he did not want to get mired down in politics. Perhaps he did have strong feelings about the Romans, but he at the very least kept quiet about it (though he may not indeed have been worried about them). (It does occur to me, though, that indeed John the Baptist, not Jesus, criticized Herod, and for adultery, not even oppression.) His approach to "small-timers" is probably the most interesting, though. I think part of this is sensitivity. The outsideres - such as prostitutes and tax collectors, but also the disabled and the Samaritans - needed more gentle treatment. The confident hypocrites needed shaking up. All of them needed a message, but they needed to hear different things about that message to understand it. Anyway, that is my working theory.

It is hard to say how far we could go with these examples. Certainly others, such as John, Paul, the other writers of the New Testament, and the prophets, addressed different things different ways (though I think I would argue Paul's approach is eerily similar, while not identical, to Jesus'). But I think also that, specifically in the United States, there are definitely some similarities today to Jesus' place and time. And I think that we too might do better to go after Zondervan and Christian record labels and hypocrititcal religious leaders, and hypocritical sermonizing politicians than "sodomites" or secular humanists or "liberals." We need to address all those groups - but in appropriate ways. Preach reform to those who need to reform, and the good news to those who need to hear that.

I am saddened that the more vocal religious leadership seems to so closely resemble that of two millenia ago. But I think that we too can't be too confident. One of the passages I cited when talking about what Jesus' condemned was Luke 6; specifically I was thinking of Luke 6:24-26:

“But woe to you who are rich!
For you have received your consolation.
Woe to you, you who are full now!
For you will be hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now!
For you will mourn and weep.
Woe, when men speak well of you!
For their fathers did the same thing to the false prophets.
(WEB)

The prophets always go after the arrogant. Let us be humble, but courageous.

posted at 23:05:01 on 02/07/06 by ben - Category: Religion

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