An Angry Jesus? Redeeming Emotions (1)

Posted by on Feb 19, 2016 in Blog | 1 comment

Not sure which emotions you would rank as the most destructive. I suspect that hate would be right up there, as would jealousy, bitterness and yes, I imagine, anger.

It is not hard to see why we would include anger in the list. It wears out our bodies, being linked to hypertension, heart disease and strokes – but it is not just about what it does to us. Being in the orbit of an angry person is at best uncomfortable, and in some circumstances can be terrifying.

Which forces us to ask the question, ‘What are we to make of the “angry Jesus” portraits we find in the Bible?’ Contrary to the ‘gentle Jesus meek and mild’ sentiments we might have been taught to express in prayers during our childhood, the actual Jesus portrayed in the gospel is anything but a plastic Jesus. He pulsates with life and reality – and that reality is sometimes a tad explosive. Don’t agree? Well, what do you make of these four accounts, all selected from Mark’s gospel for convenience. For those who like to know where posts are going, this is the start of a series on redeeming emotions, and the first of two on anger – this one looking at the anger of Jesus, to see if his anger can in some way be a model for ours.

Let’s look at the four ‘angry Jesus’ accounts.

Angry Jesus 1: Mark 3:1-6

This is the account of Jesus healing a man with a shrivelled hand on the Sabbath day. Verse 5 tells us that ‘He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, “stretch out your hand.”‘ Jesus’ anger is matched by that of the Pharisees, for v6 tells us that after this healing, they ‘began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus’.

To understand this incident, we need to look at what preceded it.

Jesus’ teaching and miracles had met with opposition and negativity for some time. Ever since Jesus healed a man with leprosy (Mark 1:40-45), he had been hounded by religious leaders. They questioned his right to forgive the sins of the paralysed man (Mark 2:1-12), complained that he ate with sinners (Mark 2:13-17), and wanted to know why he and his disciples were not fasting (Mark 2:18-22). In short, they had been a right royal pain! Now it is the Sabbath day, and in the synagogue Jesus encounters a man with a shrivelled arm. He is aware that the Pharisees are watching him to see if he will ‘break’ the Sabbath laws by performing a miracle.

How would this break those laws? The rabbi’s had interpreted them to mean that healing could only take place on the Sabbath if someone’s life was threatened. If not, the miracle could wait for the next day. Clearly this man’s hand had been damaged for a very long time, so this was no life threatening condition. From the Pharisees perspective, if Jesus wanted to heal the man, he should wait until Sunday to do so. They eagerly watch to see if he will break this rule so that they can censure him. In this context, Jesus ‘looked around at them in anger…’

While anger sometimes sees people act irrationally, Jesus proceeds to act fairly deliberately. V3 tells us that he calls the man who is to be healed to come up in front of everyone. He is not going to try and avoid conflict by doing this quietly around the corner and out of sight. Furthermore, he tackles the ‘elephant in the room’ – the intent of the Sabbath laws (v4), getting to the heart of the matter with his question, ‘Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or evil, to save life or to kill?’

Their response – ‘they remained silent’ (v4). Nope, they weren’t going to budge one inch. No ‘good point, never seen it like that before’- just pursed lips and disdain. and so we reach v 5 – ‘He looked around at them in anger’ and then we are told of a second emotion ‘and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man “stretch out your hand”‘. Anger, followed by deep distress at stubborn hearts.

For those into the Greek, the reference to Jesus’ anger is in the aorist tense (in other words, it flared up and was quickly over) while his distress is recorded in the present tense. That is to say, his anger came up briefly and then settled into another emotion more permanently – distress at stubborn, uncaring, hardened hearts.

Those who study psychology usually agree that genuine anger is a momentary experience which we can extend by focusing on it (so we say that people work themselves up) or we can redirect it, either constructively or destructively.

The Jesus model here is that he redirects his anger into distress or sadness – sadness at a situation that revealed uncaring, hypocritical hearts. Was his brief burst of anger ‘wrong’. Don’t think so. He is no plastic Jesus. Can you really care if you don’t feel angry when things are so far from the way they should be. How could the Pharisees be the ‘God people’ of their day and yet be indifferent to the plight of a man whose hand was non-functional. How could they use him to try and trap Jesus and get his teaching silenced. Clearly he was a pawn for them in a game which was about their holding on to power. It is a game that continues to be played out in many different ways, and we should be angry about it for a brief moment. But then we should be sad… and pray that our sadness would move us to constructive, transformative action.

Angry Jesus 2: Mark 10:13-14

Strictly speaking this passage deals more with an indignant Jesus than an angry Jesus. People are bringing their children to Jesus to have him bless them. The disciples find it all rather tiresome. Somewhat officiously, they shoo the parents away. Their sub text, why would Jesus be bothered with you and your little world.

This was of course the ancient world. Ours has turned children into mini gods. Not so then. There were so many of them – nothing unusual about a family having a dozen or so, and sadly on average half of them would die before their 5th birthday. In short, children had no special status in society. Their presence certainly didn’t warrant a famous preacher and teacher being interrupted to pray a blessing over them – or so the disciples thought. So if you asked the disciples why they scolded parents who wanted their children blessed by Jesus, they would have replied ‘no brainer. He was already far too busy. Why delay him further by such insignificant concerns?’ It is in this context that Jesus’ anger (or indignation) is expressed (v14). He tells them to let the children come to him and upholds them as exemplars of the way in which the kingdom of God should be received. He then very deliberately takes children in his arms and blesses them.

Does this outburst of indignant anger have anything to say to us today?

Perhaps Jesus is still indignant that we often act as though we own the church, and know who is nice enough to be converted. We often shape our programmes towards those who seem rather like us, and put up invisible (but very real) barriers to those who are different. It is hard to genuinely be open to the other, but it is worth pondering Matt 25:31-46 again and again, where Jesus reminds us that he does not come in the form of the respectable, but that we bump into him when we interact with those who are hungry, thirsty, without clothes, strangers (refugees?), sick and imprisoned. That doesn’t mean there is no space for the respectable (Jesus was willing to give an exclusive interview to Nicodemus – though,  is anyone really respectable when the façade is down?), but there is a clear leaning towards those who are most vulnerable. It is a portrait of Jesus worth thinking deeply about.

Angry Jesus 3: Mark 11:11, 15-19

Jesus driving the money changers out of the temple is the best know account of Jesus’ anger. Lest we think of it as an example of uncontrolled anger, it is important that we note Mark 11:11, which informs us that the ‘outburst’ had been preceded by an exploration of the scene. Jesus enters Jerusalem, goes and looks at the temple, leaves, and returns the next day to drive out the money changers. It is all very deliberate (I’ve used that word a fair few times about Jesus, and it is worth noting when we think about the anger of Jesus).

The context of the temple clearing is well know. Passover was one of three pilgrimage feasts. Those travelling long distances were expected to make an animal sacrifice at the temple, but keeping your offering unblemished (and meeting the kosher laws) on a long j0urney was nigh impossible. The solution? Buy your sacrifice at the temple. Ah – but who set the price… and with what currency? Not one you had, so you would have to change your money – and at what exchange rate? It all became so very expensive for those who simply wanted to worship God but had little of this world’s wealth.

Jesus is angry that these artificial barriers are being placed in the way of people worshipping God. The religious leaders pretended that their concern was over religious purity (you can’t just offer anything to God), but Jesus discerned the profit motive that lay behind this thin veneer of piety. It makes him angry – angry enough to deliberately clear the temple and to reclaim it as a place for genuine God worshippers.

The model is clear. There are times when it is right to act against things that are wrong. Righteous anger moves against injustice. It is anger on behalf of others. It often comes at great cost. You can’t ignore the fact that a few days after this outburst, Jesus is crucified. It was not the only factor, but it was an important one.

During its best moments, the church has allowed injustice to stir it to anger. It has been anger on behalf of others, not on its own behalf. That is often the most important test for anger. Is it anger because of what has happened to us (fair chance then that it might not be valid, for we often overlook our own role in such experiences – and yes, there are exceptions to this), or is it anger on behalf of others? Even then, we need an additional check. Am I angry because I am an angry person and this cause gives me a reason to justify my anger, or am I angry because my initial anger leads to sadness and distress at the way others suffer because things are not as they should be? And can I use my anger redemptively, to turn this situation around for good – even if it comes at a personal cost?

Angry Jesus 4: Mark 11:12-14, 20-21

I must admit that I find this the most perplexing of the ‘angry Jesus’ accounts. Jesus curses a fig tree for having no fruit. It withers away and dies. Trouble was, it wasn’t the season for figs. It seems a tad harsh. Perhaps the key is that the fig tree was filled with leaves. The placement of this account alongside the clearing of the temple is probably significant. Like the temple, which seemed to promise so much, but actually offered nothing, the fig tree, filled with so many leaves, seemed to offer something – but didn’t. It was all about appearances, not reality.

I am not going to pretend that I fully understand this account, but my best take is that it suggests that we shouldn’t pretend to be what we aren’t – and that Jesus is angry at and acts against fruitlessness. If this is the right zone for understanding this, it means that those of us who claim to be part of the church need to look deeply within. Are we full of leaves – big talk and promising much, but when it comes to the crunch, there is nothing there. Tough teaching this, but worth thinking about.

Well – the next post will look a little more generally at anger, and how we can redeem it as an emotion. Apparently Aristotle once wrote: Anyone can become angry – that is easy. But to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not easy. Aristotle, you are right. It isn’t easy. But my reading of Mark leads me to believe that Jesus, as always, was more than a little ahead of the pack on this one…

Nice chatting.

One Comment

  1. Thanks again Brian for some excellent thoughts. How often our anger is because we have been slighted, over-looked, not got our way etc. and how seldom do we get properly angry at the things that stir God’s heart.

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