In this chapter, Hamilton is mostly concerned with religious hypocrisy. Christians “get it wrong” when they act in ways that are inconsistent with the faith they profess. Who could disagree?
But then Hamilton writes something like this (emphasis mine):
If you read the Gospels carefully, Jesus never got angry with prostitutes, adulterers, or ordinary “sinners.” Nor did his actions turn such people away. In fact, Jesus drew “sinners” to himself by the thousands. He made such people feel at ease. The only people Jesus had words of judgment for in the Gospels were the religious folks. What angered him the most about these people, particularly the religious leaders, was their judgmentalism, their hypocrisy, and their failure to love.Where to begin? First, a quibble about the word “anger.” Is it accurate to say that Jesus got angry with anyone—at least in the sense of losing one’s temper? (How else do we use the word today?) If getting beaten, whipped, spat upon, and nailed to a cross failed to make Jesus angry, why would he get angry with mere Pharisees and other opponents?
Yes, I know that Jesus’ overturned the money-changers’ tables in the Temple and drove out the merchants and their livestock. If that’s “anger,” however, it’s a righteous kind of anger of which most of us are incapable. But our Lord is not guilty of the anger he describes in Matthew 5:21-22, which he says is on the same spectrum as murder. His prohibition against it is broad and severe: “everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.” We like to qualify our anger: “Yes, I agree with Jesus that most of the time anger is unwarranted, but in this particular case it’s justified. Let me explain why.” Instead, Jesus says, Don’t get angry. Ever! So we can assume that he didn’t, either.
More importantly, though—even with a nuanced understanding of the word “anger”—is it fair to say that Jesus “never” got angry with “prostitutes, adulterers, or ordinary ‘sinners,'” that he “drew ‘sinners’ by the thousands” and “made such people feel at ease”? What about Jesus’ fellow Nazarenes, who, far from feeling “at ease,” “took offense at him” (Mark 6:3). In fact, Luke tells us that when the townspeople heard his sermon, “all in the synagogue were filled with wrath. And they rose up and drove him out of the town and brought him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they could throw him down the cliff” (Luke 4:28-29). Jesus “marveled because of their unbelief” (Mark 6:6) and said, “A prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown and among his relatives and in his own household” (Mark 6:4). Was Jesus not “angry” with these “ordinary ‘sinners'”?
And while Jesus drew ordinary sinners “by the thousands,” the apostle John reports that when “many of his disciples”—at least a portion of the 5,000 who were miraculously fed by Jesus—heard Jesus’ preaching the Bread of Life discourse, they said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” (John 6:60) Consequently, “many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him” (John 6:66). Jesus’ teaching, in other words, repelled not merely ordinary sinners, but disciples as well. They did not feel “at ease.”
Jesus’ own family also failed to feel “at ease” with him. They believed he had literally lost his mind (Mark 3:21). Jesus spoke “words of judgment” against them when he said, “Who are my mother are my brothers?… Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.” Jesus was implying that his own immediate family were not doing God’s will, whereas the disciples gathered round him, who unlike his family believed in him, were his true family.
Jesus spoke words of judgment against the Rich Young Ruler (not one of the “religious folks” to whom Hamilton refers above) in Mark 10:17-31 (and parallels), against several Galilean towns and villages filled with ordinary sinners (Matthew 11:20-24)—indeed, against the entire city of Jerusalem (Matthew 23:37-39; Luke 19:41-44), the vast majority of whose citizens were ordinary sinners.
And what about the would-be disciples he risked chasing away with his startling demands (Luke 9:57-62):
As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” And Jesus said to him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Yet another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
There’s no indication here that he was talking to “religious folks” in this passage, yet who doubts that Jesus did the opposite of making his hearers feel “at ease”?
Was Jesus speaking of merely “religious folks” when he spoke the “words of judgment” found in Matthew 7:21-23,
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.”
And what about the parables of Jesus, whose judgments were often against both religious leaders and ordinary sinners. Is the man not wearing proper wedding attire in the frightening postscript to the Parable of the Wedding Banquet (see Matthew 22:1-14) only supposed to be a religious leader? What about the five unprepared virgins of Matthew 25:1-13, or the poor servant who buried his talent in Matthew 25:14-30, or—for that matter—any member of the human race identified as “goats” in Matthew 25:31-46.
You can probably think of other examples of Jesus getting “angry” or at least making ordinary sinners uncomfortable. These are enough to make my point.
While it’s true, as Jesus says, that “the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of” the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 21:31), that’s only because these ordinary sinners recognized the extent of their sinfulness and need for repentance. As Jesus elsewhere says, “Whoever has been forgiven little loves little” (Luke 7:47). The sinners to whom Hamilton refers knew they had been forgiven much.
If Jesus came down hard on religious leaders’ “judgmentalism, hypocrisy, and failure to love,” he did so because these sins, especially, had a way of insulating their practitioners from the gospel. After all, if your prayer begins, “God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are,” you won’t believe you need a Savior—that you are as other men are—helpless sinners in need of God’s rescue plan through his Son Jesus. This the necessary starting point, the sine qua non, of the gospel.
But as I’ve said before, our United Methodist tradition often fails to preach the first half of the gospel; we head straight for grace and forgiveness without first dealing with sin, God’s judgment, wrath, and hell. We tell our fellow sinners, “There, there… It’s not so bad” when, actually, it is that bad. In fact, apart from our faith in Christ and his atoning death on the cross, it’s much, much worse!
In the video that accompanies this chapter, Hamilton urges us Christians to be like Jesus. While that would be wonderful, of course, I wonder if it’s pastorally helpful advice. Do any of you have much success “being like Jesus” for any length of time? I don’t. Here’s a better idea: Read Luke 7:36-49. Identify with the “woman of the city, who was a sinner.” She is who we are or ought to be—sinners who have been “forgiven much” and who, therefore, delight in loving and serving Jesus.
1. When Christians Get It Wrong, rev. ed. (Nashville: Abingdon, 2013), 11.