THE INDIGNATION OF JESUS
"And when he had looked round about on them with anger."
- Mark iii:5.
THERE are certain moods and feelings that we are reluctant to ascribe to Jesus, because they are so common and so human. Characteristics that are conspicuous and disconcerting in ourselves, we do not readily associate with him. For instance, was it possible for Jesus to be angry? If it was, he was amazingly like ourselves. The humblest and least gifted of us are adepts in the realm of indignation. Our capacity for wrath was manifested in us early, and we have developed it by constant use. No emotion is more nearly universal and none is more easily aroused. The very universality of the experience makes us reluctant to attribute it to one who is at so many points above us, and whose life, however like our own, has in it so many things which are unique.
Moreover, anger is associated in our mind with infirmity. Much of our own anger has been of the earth earthy. It has been a boiling of the blood, full of sound and fury, having no ethical significance. Sometimes it has been a burst of petulance, an explosion of nervous energy, a sort of madness bordering on the frontiers of insanity. While the fever was upon us we felt our wrath was justifiable, but on the cooling of the blood we repented in sackcloth and ashes. We have also noticed what anger does for others. It has not escaped us that when men and women are angry they usually make fools of themselves. This fact has made a deep impression on us. Most of the indignation that we have known has been so childish or so brutish, so full of fury and of bitterness, that we find it hard to give it place in the experience of a strong and holy man.
So prone is anger to mix itself with base and unlovely elements, and so frequently does it stir up the mud at the bottom of the soul, that it has been often classed among the vices as a passion which is always ignoble, and therefore to be condemned resisted, strangled. It was thus that the Stoics taught, contending that ever to be moved by anger is a sign of weakness and unworthy of a full-grown man. The philosophy of the Stoics is not consciously accepted by us, but the considerations that led them to their estimate of anger are still operative in us all. It is not easy to free oneís self from the feeling that anger has something sinful in it, or that if anger is not actually sinful, it is at any rate unlovely, a defect or flaw in conduct, a deformity in character, from which the lovers of the beautiful and good may wisely pray to be delivered. It is because of this assumption that anger is in its essence sinful that many persons find it impossible to think of Jesus in an angry mood. When the New Testament says that he was angry they glide over the sentence hurriedly, giving the words a Pickwickian sense, and breathe more freely when they have come out again into a paragraph which portrays his tenderness and love. Once decide that anger is a sinful or an animal passion, and you must deny it a place in the portrait of an ideal man.
But the evangelists were not Stoics, and they were not handicapped by the notions that bewilder us. They felt that they must write down clearly what they saw and heard, and prompted thus to tell a round, unvarnished tale they do not hesitate to inform us that Jesus sometimes blazed with anger. The blast of his scorn was so hot that it frightened and scorched those on whom it fell. They tell us that it was inhumanity and insincerity that always kindled his heart to furnace heat. When he saw men Ė ordained religious leaders of the people more interested in their petty regulations than in the welfare of their fellow men, his eyes burned with holy fire. Those who were present never forgot the flash of his eye as he slowly looked round upon the pedants whose hardness of heart he held in abhorrence. He despised the lying superstitions that had accumulated around the idea of death, and loathed the mummery that attended the burial of the dead. The hollow howling of paid mourners in the presence of the holy mystery of death aroused his soul to indignant protest. Any darkening of the world by cruelty or craft brought his soul to its feet fiery-eyed and defiant. He was angered by the desecration of the Temple. The sordid wretches who cared nothing for anthems and prayers and everything for money, kindled a fire in him which well nigh consumed him. The miscreants who fled before him had never seen such a flame as darted from his eyes. That a building erected for the purpose of adorning the name of God should be converted into a market was so abhorrent to his great soul that he was swept onward into action which astounded his disciples and which has been to many a scandal ever since. No one can understand the cleansing of the Temple who has never experienced the force and heat of righteous indignation. There are many sentences from his lips that after the lapse of nineteen hundred years still bum with fervent heat. Who can read the parable of Dives and Lazarus without feeling the fire of a holy scorn? Who can read the denunciation of the Pharisees without realizing that he is in the presence of a volcano belching molten lava? No one could speak language like that which the evangelists have recorded who was not capable of tremendous indignation. It is a wrath that leaps beyond the wrath of man. It is the very wrath of God Himself. One of the purposes of the New Testament is to give us a new revelation of anger. Take away Jesusí capacity for indignation and you destroy the Jesus of the Gospels. His anger was one of the powers by which he did his work. His blazing wrath is one of the most glorious features of his character. Had he been less emotional, he would not have stirred men as he did. Had his passion been less intense, the world would never have called him "Master."
Here, then, we have in Jesus what seems to some a contradiction. He is a Lamb and at the same time he is the Lion of the Tribe of Judah. He caresses like a mother and he also strikes like a thunderbolt. He is tender but he is also terrible; he is loving but he also smites with a blow that crushes. How can we reconcile the indignation of Jesus with his love? Nothing is easier. His indignation is the creation of his love. His wrath proceeds from his holiness. His mercy would have no meaning were it not for his immeasurable capacity for anger. Take away his indignation and you destroy the basis of his holiness, his righteousness, his mercy, and his love. Love and indignation are not antagonists or rivals. They ever go together, each one unable to live without the other. Only those who have never loved have difficulty in understanding the heartís capacity for wrath. Did you ever see a lover stand calm-eyed and gentle-tempered in the presence of the villain who had dared insult the queen of his heart? When since the world began has love ever maintained a quiet pulse in the presence of the assailant of the loved one? A mother, all gentleness and sweetness as she moves among her children, passes into an avenging fury in the face of a foe who attempts to harm them. The dimensions of her indignation will be determined by the depth and heat of her love. It is the hottest love which when enlisted in the welfare of others scorches opposing forces to cinders. The power of loving and the power of hating must always go together. There is right and there is wrong, the first must be approved, the second must be condemned. The condemnation must not be cold but vehement. It must carry with it all the energy of the soul. It must have at the heart of it that heavenly fire which is known on earth as indignation.
In Jesus, then, we see what a normal man is and feels. He is full-orbed, complete. He gives sweep to every passion of the soul. He will not admit that in the garden of the heart there are any plants which the Heavenly Father has planted which ought to be rooted up. All the impulses, desires, and passions with which the Almighty has endowed us have a mission to perform, and lifeís task is not to strangle them but to train them for their work.
Jesus was angry but he did not sin. Anger because of its heat readily passes beyond its appointed limits. Like all kinds of fire, it is dangerous and difficult to control. But Jesus controlled it. "Thus far," he said, "and no farther." No sinful element mingled in that indignation which burned with a white and resistless heat. The irritation which we so often feel, the exasperation which lacerates and rends the heart, the bitterness of which we are ashamed Ė all these were absent from Jesusí anger. His wrath was the hottest ever known upon our earth, but the heart in which it burned was sinless. Our anger is frequently a manifestation of our selfishness. We become indignant over trifles. The streetcar does not stop, or somebody carelessly knocks off our hat, or a servant disappoints us, and we are all aflame. Our comfort has been molested, our rights have been entrenched upon, our dignity has been affronted, and we are downright mad. Ravelings and shavings can set us blazing. But in the presence of gigantic outrages perpetrated on the helpless and the weak, some of us are as calm as a summer morning. Bad men do not make us angry unless they interfere with our own personal affairs. If they wrong others we will make excuses for them, and cover them all over with the down of extenuating syllables, saying, "Poor men, they are more sinned against than sinning, they are the products of the age, the victims of the system," and thus do we take from guilt its heinousness by the flattering smile of a placid face.
Our indignation then is quite different from that of Jesus. His anger never had its roots in selfishness. When men abused him, he was unruffled. When they lied about him, his pulse beat was not quickened. When they nailed his hands to the cross, no trace of anger darkened his face. His calm lips kept on praying, "Forgive them, for they know not what they do." It was when he saw his brother men abused that his great soul rose in wrath. The more helpless the person who was mistreated, the hotter was the fire of his indignation. Against rich people who imposed upon the poor, and against clever people who took advantage of the ignorant, and against strong people who mistreated the weak, and against crafty people who laid traps for the innocent, his soul blazed with a heat which became an imperishable and awe-inspiring memory in the apostolic church. It was when he saw cruelty perpetrated on the defenseless that his indignation rose to the fury of a tempest. The thought of bad men leading innocent souls to sin, converted him into a furnace of fire. What a whirlwind of flame sweeps through a sentence like this, "Whoso shall cause one of these little ones which believe on me to stumble, it is profitable for him that a great mill-stone should be hanged about his neck, and that he should be sunk in the depth of the sea." Tender, indeed, must have been the heart from which could come such forked lightnings!
If, then, we have ever been scandalized by the account of Jesusí indignation, we should examine ourselves and find out why we shrink from the thought that a man like him should burn with anger. Whenever we find in Jesus a word or deed which seems to us to be a departure from what we conceive, to be the standard of absolute rectitude, it is well to pause and study our standards of rectitude afresh, for it may be that what we conceive to be a defect in him may reveal to us a limitation in ourselves. If we find fault with him because he blazed with anger, it may be that our criticism springs from blood that has become impoverished. If we fail to burn in the presence of cruelty and injustice, it is because the higher faculties of the soul have become atrophied by sin. If wood does not burn, it is because it is green or rotten. If hearts do not burn with holy fire against wicked men and their wicked deeds, it is because the heart is too undeveloped to feel what manly hearts were meant to feel, or because the core of the heart has been eaten out by the base practices of a godless life.
It is one of the lamentable signs of our times our incapacity for anger. Many of us are lukewarm in the presence of evils that are colossal. Some of us are indifferent. Indifference to wrongdoing is always a sign of moral deterioration. If we do not flame against villainy, it is because there is so much of the villain in ourselves. We would despise graft with a consuming detestation if our own palms were not so itching. The healthy soul resents and resists every form of wrong. The unspoiled heart goes out like a man in wrath against the forces of iniquity. Nothing is more needed in our day than enlarged capacity for moral indignation. Nothing so clears the atmosphere as the heat of hearts heated by holy anger. There are evils so gigantic, and so deeply rooted that nothing less than a thunderstorm will overwhelm them. Bad men will abound more and more unless good men hurl thunderbolts. Criminals become brazen, wrongdoers walk insolently, rascals take possession of high places, until good men, aflame with indignation, arise and sweep them from the seats of power. Society would be cleansed of much of its pollution if we had more men and women capable of becoming genuinely angry. Let us pray then every day that a new indignation may sweep through the world. As Plutarch put it long ago, "Anger is one of the winds by which the sails of the soul are filled." Many a belated ship would have reached port long ago if anger had been allowed to do its perfect work. It is the devilís trick to keep good men from becoming angry. Not only are we permitted as Christians to be angry, but it also is our duty on occasion to allow this billow of fire to roll through the soul. Martin Luther is not the only man who has worked better when he was angry, and many of us limp to our task because we have lost one of the elements of moral power. He was a wise Englishman who wrote, "Anger is one of the sinews of the soul; he that wants it hath a maimed mind, and with Jacob sinew-shrunk in the hollow of his thigh must needs halt."
In the indignation of Jesus we get light upon the character of God. This manís anger flows from a fountain in the heart of the Eternal. The Ď wrath of the Lamb" is, as we have been often reminded, a figure of speech, but like all Biblical figures of speech, it is a window opening out on the infinite. The anger of Jesus is a revelation of the anger of God. It is significant that it is the beloved disciple and the man to whom tradition has ascribed a heart unusually loving and tender, who has most to say about the "wrath of the Lamb." As he brooded over the years of his intercourse with Jesus, there was one trait that rose before him again and again, and that was the anger of Jesus. When he speaks of it, it is always with syllables that hush the heart. The man who declares that "God is love" is the man who exhorts us to flee from the "wrath of the Lamb."
The New Testament is a glorious book. Its lines are straight, its discrimination is fine, it rings true. It is absolutely free from sentimentalism. It has no sickly fondness for bad people. It does not deal in excuses and in extenuations. It has no abnormal tenderness. The world is full of sentimentalists, men and women who gush of love, and who do not know what love is. After listening to their flimsy talk it is refreshing to get into a book where every bad deed is held up to scorn and every bad man, if unrepentant, is overwhelmed with shame. Nowhere in the Gospels is there a soft or flabby thought, a doughy or mushy feeling, All is high and straight and fine and firm and true. Under such a sky, life becomes august, solemn, beautiful. It is worth while to strive, to work, to suffer. One feels sure that God is in His heaven, and that though wickedness may flourish for a season, Godís heart burns with quenchless fire against it, and that at the end of the days every impure man, and every cruel man, and every man who loves and makes a lie, will find himself outside the city whose streets are gold and whose gates are pearl.