(Originally posted January 29, 2017)
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what made Jesus mad.
Of the episodes in the Gospel where we see Jesus angry, I’m not aware of a single one where he was truly angry at a nonbeliever. The people who earned his righteous rage were people like the money changers and the Sadducees. They were believers — and in particular, they were people who occupied positions of authority or visibility within the church — who did evil and called it the will of God. They were people who misrepresented the call of God, and in so doing, led people away from Shalom, and toward division and greed and hate.
Those were the people about whom Jesus said “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’”
I’ll be honest: This scares me. It scares me because the Gospel is basically a series of stories about the people around Jesus misunderstanding what he was about. Even Peter — the rock on whom the church was built — earned a “Get behind me Satan!” for impeding Jesus’ work. If Peter got it wrong, what chance do the rest of us have?
It seems to me that our only hope is to work from the inside out, and from big to small; to start from the things we know clearly and beyond all doubt about the nature of Jesus, and then to interpret everything else in light of his fundamental nature. That seems too obvious to be worth saying, but I think lots of people take the opposite approach; that is, they start with the particular. They start from a particular passage of scripture (usually one that begins with “thou shalt not”), assign a meaning to that passage, and then force Jesus to stretch or contract as needed to fit their worldview.
Jesus gave us two commandments (or maybe one, depending on your interpretation) that are the absolute core of his teaching: Love God and love your neighbor. Everything else in scripture has to be read in light of those commands — every condemnation of sin, every reference to wrath, every “thou shalt not” — all of it has to be read in a way that preserves the integrity of those commands.
If your reading of a passage allows you to condemn your neighbor, you have to start over.
If your understanding of a verse allows you to ignore a neighbor in need, back to the drawing board.
If you think you’ve found justification for choosing your own self-interest over the needs of others, you’ve missed the point.
We don’t get to compromise the central message. And the central message is love — radical, undeserved, unyielding love.
If your reading of the Bible allows you to be unconcerned about Syrian refugees (or to say, as Franklin Graham did, that it’s not a “Bible issue”) you’ve enshrined your own prejudices over God’s law. If you use Leviticus 18 to condemn homosexuals as sinners, but ignore the commandment in Leviticus 19 to care for aliens — splitting a single, uninterrupted message from God in two — you’ve done violence to the word of God. If you think Muslim children are less precious than Christian children in the eyes of God, you’ve denied God’s grace.
I don’t pretend that any of this is simple, or that there any easy answers. But to have any hope of getting this right, we have to start with the central commandment of Jesus before us. We have to start from love.