Converting Jesus: Anger and the Pharisees

Converting Jesus: Anger and the Pharisees October 7, 2013

One of the big hurdles when it comes to teaching nonviolent Atonement is the anger, or wrath, of God. Those of us who promote mimetic theory and the nonviolent view of Atonement claim that there is no wrath within God. Which means that when it comes to the Atonement on the cross, it’s not God’s wrath that needs to be appeased. As Michael Hardin says in his book The Jesus Driven Life, when it comes to wrath “We humans are the ones who need to be appeased” (227).

I’m taking Introduction to Pastoral Care at my seminary. Our reading for the week is about the positive and theological aspects of anger. The argument runs like this: God is angry at the injustice in the world. And we know that God is angry because Jesus was angry at injustice. In fact, Jesus was enraged by the Pharisees. Mark chapter 3 tells us that Jesus entered a synagogue where there was a man with a withered hand. The Pharisees watched Jesus “to see whether he would cure him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him” of breaking the commandment to rest on the Sabbath. Mark tells us that Jesus “looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart.” After looking around with a mixture of anger and grief, Jesus healed the man. The Pharisees then “went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.”

Probably the most famous scene that presents Jesus’ anger is the cleansing of the Temple. All four Gospels tell the story of Jesus driving out the buyers and the sellers of sacrificial animals and overturning the tables of the money changers. In addition to the Temple incident, in Matthew 23:33 Jesus seems to dehumanize the scribes and Pharisees, calling them a “brood of vipers.”

No one can deny it. The dude was angry in the face of injustice.

But here’s the issue when it comes to anger: Do we want others to be converted? Jesus’s anger didn’t convert the Pharisees; it only hardened their hearts. Whenever Jesus became angry with the Pharisees, they were bolstered in their desire to kill him.

Anger is mimetic. Jesus and the Pharisees responded to one another with anger, which only reinforced and escalated their mutual anger toward one another. This is a truth of being human. When someone comes to us in anger, we naturally respond with anger – and each of us feels completely justified in our anger. In addition to feeling justified, anger makes it nearly impossible to listen to the other side. We see this not only in personal relationships, but also in in our current politics. The government shut down can be attributed to mimetic anger, each side responding to the other with mutual hostility and accusing one another of being unreasonable.

Before someone accuses me of being a heretic for calling Jesus out on his anger, I’d like to point out that Jesus didn’t always respond with anger to the Pharisees. In fact, the only time that Jesus converted an angry Pharisee was when he responded in a different way.

Acts chapter 9 states that Saul was on the road to Damascus, “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.” Obviously, Saul was angry with the disciples. As the story continues, the risen Jesus confronted Saul and said, “Saul! Saul! You viper! What the hell do you think you are doing!?! I’m SUPER ANGRY! HULK SMASH!!!”

Okay. Jesus didn’t turn into the Incredible Hulk when he confronted Saul. Instead, he responded to Saul’s anger with meekness, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? … I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”

That was the beginning of Saul’s conversion to Paul. If Jesus mimicked Saul’s anger, Saul would have responded like all the other Pharisees. His heart would have been hardened. The only thing that converted Saul was being forgiven. Anger doesn’t lead to conversion; only forgiveness and meekness can do that.

Luke tells us that Jesus changed; that he “increased in wisdom.” We see this increase in wisdom throughout his life, death, and resurrection. Jesus even had conversion experiences. For example, Jesus was converted by the Syrophoenician woman. Jesus dehumanized her by referring to her as a dog. She responded to Jesus not with anger, which after being called a dog we could understand a little anger. Rather, she responded to Jesus with meekness, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Her meekness converted Jesus from seeing her as a dog to seeing her as a full human being, worthy of love and respect.

It is on the cross and in the resurrection when we definitively see Jesus increase in wisdom about anger. No longer did he respond with anger, but rather with forgiveness. Here the God of Jesus has no anger, no wrath. Jesus prayed for forgiveness while he hung on the cross. In the resurrection he offered the disciples who abandoned him during his time of need peace, not anger. And finally, when he encountered the angry Saul, he responded with meekness, not anger.

I don’t know about you, but I find this conversion hard to swallow. I like being angry. It makes me feel righteous about my cause. But I also know that it doesn’t help. Sure, I may win a battle with anger, but anyone married for more than six months will tell you that more battles will come.

Anger is a natural human emotion, but it rarely transforms broken relationships. It usually hardens our hearts. Even in the life of Jesus, anger only made his relationship with the Pharisees worse. Fortunately, Jesus provides an alternative. Jesus “grew in wisdom” and was converted from the spirit of anger into the resurrected spirit of meekness and forgiveness. In the resurrection of Jesus we discover what the author of 1 John discovered, “that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.”

{Editor’s Note: This is the weekly post for our Mimetic Monday series.}

For more conversation and resources on Mimetic Theory, visit the Teaching Nonviolent Atonement Premium blog here. 


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118 responses to “Converting Jesus: Anger and the Pharisees”

  1. I love the description from Mark 3, that Jesus “looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart.” I think it’s telling that this anger at its core was grief, rather than rejection or hatred. If you read Jesus’ words to the Pharisees in Matthew 23 as coming from the same tone, the words come across differently – not as words of contempt, but as words of exhortation coming from a deep grief. Without this tone, it makes no sense for Jesus to conclude His “woes” with those heart-rending words in Matthew 23:37: ” “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!”

    I don’t tend to read Jesus’ anger in cleansing the temple as something He later would have thought better of; I think there is a place for zealous exhortation, but it is a very tricky thing, and a very little goes a long way.

    (Incidentally, I’m coming from a Swedenborgian tradition, and just last week I blogged on this topic from a Swedenborgian perspective: (on the “wrath of God”) and (on “good” anger).)