Jan Johnson
Jan Johnson

WisBits Archive

November 2008


Would a Savior so full of compassion also be angry?  If Jesus got angry, what did it look like compared to my anger?

Many people claim Jesus was angry and they seem pleased by this. Why? Perhaps they think it makes Jesus more human and more approachable. Others, especially those who as children experienced adults’ ferocious anger, hope Jesus wasn’t.

It’s important to set aside what we want to be true and look carefully at the gospel texts because the truth is more nuanced and more marvelous than this. For example, most people assume Jesus was angry when he cleansed the temple (Matthew 21:12-17; Mark 11:15-18; Luke 19:45-46; John 2:13-17). None of the texts, however, say he was angry or mention his feelings or tone of voice. Some say that his using a whip is a clue that he was angry but would Jesus vent anger on animals by beating them? Or was he looking for an efficient way to move multi-hundred pound animals?

A clue is provided the worshipful response of the weak and vulnerable people standing by:  “the blind and the lame came to him at the temple, and he healed them. But when the chief priests and the teachers of the law saw the wonderful things he did and the children shouting in the temple area, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David,’ they were indignant” (Matthew 21:14-15).

The blind (who could hear by not see the commotion) and the lame (who couldn’t flee) were not frightened by Jesus throwing over the tables of the moneychangers and driving out the animals. Instead they were drawn to him to be healed. The children, who might have even hidden from an angry person, were so mesmerized by Jesus that they sang the song they’d sung as he entered Jerusalem. The only persons described as “indignant” were the chief priests and the teachers of the law.

If, indeed, this scene portrays the anger of Jesus, his anger is very different from ours. Jesus’ attitude, demeanor and behavior resulted in people being healed and praising God. My anger has never resulted in people being healed or praising God.

Most instructive is the only instance in the Gospels in which it’s explicitly stated that Jesus was angry (Mark 3:1-6). Put yourself in the synagogue crowd in Capernaum and try to picture the scene. A man stands there with a withered arm. He seems to be stationed there by the Pharisees “so they might accuse him” (2:26; 3:2). What does Jesus do? Instead of ignoring the disabled man (something Jesus wouldn’t do), he calls the man up front. Then he addresses everyone else (most likely the Pharisees) and asks, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?” (v. 3). Ever the teacher, Jesus asks them if the deep goodness of the perfect law of God urges us to heal a disfigured person or ignore him. Is God a life-giver or a life-minimizer? But they are silent.

Then Jesus looks “around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart (v. 5, NRSV). The stated reason behind Jesus’ anger is his grief at their stubborn hearts. He isn’t upset because the religious leaders harass him or thwart his ministry (as we would be). He is angry because of the self-destructive, wretched condition of their hearts. What they are doing to themselves with their long-cultivated hardness of heart grieves him.

In this moment of grief-drenched anger, Jesus tells the man to stretch out his hand and as he does so, it is healed. This no-longer-disabled man can now: earn a living, hug his wife, hold his baby, play an instrument, repair his living space. What is now normal for him was not normal before.

The Pharisees’ response to this glorious event is not joy but to “plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus” (v. 6). It’s at this point that we would expect the text to say: “and then Jesus got really mad.”  If your life is threatened, you experience fear, defensiveness and anger, but anger is not mentioned now. Apparently Jesus didn’t take death threats personally. How can that be? We take nearly everything personally.

For Jesus, anger was about grieving over the sad condition of his enemies, not impatient frustration for people.

Invitation to the Jesus LifeThis is an excerpt from chapter 8 of Invitation to the Jesus Life. Each chapter takes you into a scene in the life of Jesus and helps you encounter him, explains what that quality of Jesus’ life would look like today and offers specific practices (disciplines) that help people receive that quality of Jesus into themselves.

Grace and peace,
Jan Johnson




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