Far be it from me to criticize Jesus, but he doesn’t always argue like a Christian.
For one thing, like an internet troll, he uses distraction and ad hominem (personal) attacks. Just look at Matthew 15: The Pharisees ask Jesus why his disciples don’t wash their hands before they eat, as is the custom. It’s a legitimate question. Imagine sitting down to a meal and watching the preacher skip the blessing! Of course, there’s no commandment in the Bible to say grace over meals, but if you don’t, you signal that you’re not really religious, right?
But instead of answering their question politely, Jesus goes on the attack. Jesus says that the Bible warns of hypocrites like them (making it personal). Then he brings up something totally irrelevant—their failure to adequately care for their elderly parents (verse 4). Finally, he talks in general about the pointlessness of dietary codes and concludes with vulgar language about all food being turned into poop (verse 17). It’s shocking. The religious leaders surely thought it was uncalled for. Maybe they even thought it was shrill. Arrogant.
Now, before anyone comes to Jesus’ defense and explains that it’s okay for Jesus to talk this way because he’s Jesus, let me also point out that this is not the only time that Jesus doesn’t argue like a Christian. Although he tells his followers not to call anyone a fool (Matthew 5:22), later on he calls his religious opponents fools and worse (Matthew 23:17). While most Bibles translate his invective against the religious leaders as “Woe to you” (23:13), the Scholars Bible bites the bullet and translates it as “Damn you.” (Considering what “woe” meant to the prophets, and the fact that we don’t ever say, “woe to you” in our own conversation, “damn” probably carries the appropriate rhetorical force. This is strong language.)
I think it’s important to recognize when Jesus loses his cool, because it indicates that these things are really important to him. Only a few times do the Gospels actually say Jesus was angry: when religious leaders opposed healing on the sabbath (Mark 3:5) and when his disciples prevented children from approaching him (Mark 10:14). But we can tell from his language when he has lost his composure in arguments with religious leaders.
I point this out because today, in these contentious times, when religious leaders are as polarized as their congregations over issues like poverty, LGBTQ rights, and health care, it’s common for well-meaning Christians to wring their hands about the fact that we who should be united are always arguing. We should be more civil. We shouldn’t make things personal. We should work toward justice without upsetting people—like Jesus did.
I believe that it is possible for friends to disagree and argue important issues without hatred. I’ve seen it happen in classrooms and restaurants. But in front of a hostile, heckling audience, Jesus went toe-to-toe with religious leaders to defend those they excluded: children, the disabled, and the ones they “locked out of the kingdom.”
For those of us who argue passionately for social justice, including LGBTQ acceptance, it sometimes feels as though we’re expected to be more Christian than Jesus. We’re expected to hear condescending rhetoric like “Love the sinner, hate the sin,” but not reply in a way that would make clear how that rhetoric actually sounds: “Love the bigot, hate the bigotry.”
The way most Christians read the Bible, the Pharisees are the bad guys, and there’s no reason to question or criticize Jesus’ response to them. This puts us safely beyond the reach of Jesus’ harshest criticisms. But the fact is, as religious leaders, most of us clergy are in the Pharisee’s position, trying to do our best to live according to God’s ethical commandments and to teach others to do the same (Matthew 5:19-20). Nobody wants to be a jerk. So we should at least try to imagine how we are like the Pharisees, and hear Jesus’ words to us:
Do we religious leaders today lock people out of the kingdom of God (Matthew 23:13)? Or was that just something that happened in Jesus’ day, and nobody does that anymore?
Does anyone obsess over minor matters of the law but neglect justice and mercy and faith (Matthew 23:23)? Or was that just a first century problem?
Do any religious leaders impose hard requirements (like life-long celibacy) on others (like LGBTQ persons) that they themselves don’t have to bear (23:4)? Or was Jesus only talking about a tendency of first-century Jewish religious leaders? When he criticized purity codes, was Jesus merely fighting for the rights of gentiles to eat bacon sandwiches?
When I hear Jesus’ at his angriest, I want to be on his side—but the truth is, as a religious leader, his judgment is heaviest on my tribe. It is unpleasant to have someone place you on the receiving end of biblical polemic, but I believe it is important for Christian leaders to feel the sharp edge of the sword they often wield against others. If Jesus called me a blind guide or a fool, I doubt I would embrace him as a friend who tells me hard truths. I would likely dismiss him as arrogant, insulting, and shrill. I can imagine religious leaders saying that Jesus should try to be more Christian.