An Angry Jesus for Our Times?

Charlottesville, VA. In today’s political climate, everything is taking on a hostile and confrontational tone. We are increasingly alienated, unable and unwilling to understand and respect one another anymore. Religious leaders, including priests like me, tend to say that we need to go back to the religious roots of respect, and in particular, to be and do as Jesus did, the great peacemaker, friend of the poor, friend of all.

Yes, that the nice Jesus is too easy a model. Jesus was also an angry man. This came home to me on the weekend, when I had to preach on the opening passages of Matthew 23: “Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, ‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it. But do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have people call them rabbi.” (Matthew 23:1-7) If one reads on beyond verse 12, we are confronted with the “seven woes,” Jesus’s fierce and unyielding blast against religious leaders who do more harm than good: snakes and vipers! (At Mass on Sunday, I pointed out that Jesus’ fierce critique of the Scribes and Pharisees is best taken as a harsh message to the early Christian community, not to censure the Jewish leaders, but to scrutinize their own souls. This chapter is no excuse for anti-Jewish sentiment.)

Jesus spoke fiercely and in anger, and blasted those who were hurting and not helping God’s people. It is true that you and I are not Jesus; we need to take the beam out of our own eye before criticizing another’s splinter. But still: after searching our souls, after accusing ourselves first, we too need to speak up, loudly and persistently, indicting those in power — in Washington, for instance — for callousness, greed, shortsightedness, for not living up to the standards of the Gospel.

To get angry in the name of Jesus, to speak as Jesus does in Matthew 23, we need not fall back into the fatal dream that this country is or should be a “Christian America.” As citizens, in the public arena, we need to respect people of all faiths, and those who are spiritual but not religious. We can be open and respectful and welcoming to all, because we are Christians. Let each of us speak against injustice by drawing on her own tradition. But those of us who are Christian should speak out as Jesus did, when we see the powerful harming the powerless.

(I am saying this, knowing very well that Christians disagree on these matters. We are terribly divided in the era of Trump. Some Christians voted for him and still support him; others among us – myself included – cannot think of a president we’ve ever had who acts, as president, less in accord with the values of Christ. We were terribly divided during last year’s election, and sadly seem still be to be all over the place on the key issues: abortion and the death penalty; gun control vs. the right to have as many deadly weapons as you care for; the forces for and against health care for women and children, the poor and the elderly; responsibility in the face of environmental degradation; facing up to or hiding our faces from the obscene gap between rich and poor, the comfortable and the homeless and refugee in today’s world; cheering on or rejecting an American-first policy that can succeed – though it will fail – only by trampling on the rest of the world. Christians should be arguing about these things among ourselves, lest we seem either to be complicit in the new status quo, or merely irrelevant. Cannot Christians become angry enough, as followers of Christ, to criticize one another?)

But if we do get angry, we need also to avoid mere, cheap anger that sees only enemies; merely exacerbating the divides in society is not enough. We need to get angry as Jesus did, speaking out while also pointing to a better way. Chapters 21 and 22 of Matthew narrate a long series of provocations by provocative parables (e.g., the wedding feast from which the original guests are excluded, plus arguments with the leaders and scholars of the people – real disagreement indeed, but by way of face to face encounter. Chapter 23 is the most fiercely heated, but Jesus’ wrath is tempered too: listen to what leaders say, if they speak in keeping with tradition (the Chair of Moses); learn and live a style of community that shows what a better society looks like: “The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (23:11-12)

And even when the bitterness seems unstoppable – after all, Jesus will soon be arrested, tried on trumped up charges, and murdered – Jesus spoke mixed with his anger a kind of desperate compassion: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you, desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”’ (23:37-29)

All this is necessary: anger; the insistence that religious people have to be held to higher standards; respect for authority, but also for deep equality; fierce speech on behalf of the most vulnerable members of society; no polite tolerance for corrupt and selfish power that cloaks itself in piety; but with all this, still a realistic, sad, deep compassion.

The thing we cannot justify, if we follow Christ, is a comfortable, safe silence that never erupts in anger.