I’ve been hoping to one day write a devotion to the Wrath of God. Perhaps a Novena ending on the Feast of Lepanto or St. John the Baptist, or maybe a Chaplet of Divine Wrath with the refrain “…bring justice on us, and on the whole world.”
I’m not going to go into the typical “we live in a sissy world full of sissies and it’s all the fault of praise and worship music and participation trophies” tirade, both because it’s been done and because it’s only part of the story, and the most boring part at that. I’m drawn to the idea of the Wrath of God because it reminds me that there is more to God than I would sometimes like to remember, and parallel to that, that there is more to Christian love as well. And if there’s more to love than just being nice, which I think there is, then there’s more to the Gospel.
Being nice is about making others feel good, if it’s anything. But it’s possible to be nice and never help someone at all. If someone’s car is stuck in the mud, there are a lot of pleasant things you can say. But if you really want to help, you’ll have to get dirty and push, and that means you won’t look as good in the end.
Christ wasn’t nice. He was certainly gentle much of the time, but gentle and nice aren’t the same thing. Gentle implies that there is something you’re being gentle about. There’s content to being gentle. Being nice is just being nice. And it’s nice to be nice, but it’s not always good, and it’s rarely ever helpful. The Messiah, and therefore the Gospel, and therefore the authentic love that comes from them, are gentle when needed and mean when needed – and the need comes from the soul in question. I know that sometimes I need a friend to knock some sense into me, and when it’s done according to my need (rather than according to their anger or frustration), it does me a lot of good.
Here then, in no particular order, are my ten favorite mean moments of Jesus. I’ve deliberately skipped the cleansing of the temple for a couple reasons, the main one being I’m not sure how often making a whip of cords and driving people out of the temple is something meant for us to emulate. Also I’m kind of saving that image for the Divine Wrath Novena I want to write.
10. The Thunder Boyz
And he appointed twelve, to be with him, and to be sent out to preach and have authority to cast out demons: Simon whom he surnamed Peter; James the son of Zeb’edee and John the brother of James, whom he surnamed Bo-aner’ges, that is, sons of thunder… (Mark 3:14-17)
Why it’s mean
Imagine one time you wore a green shirt, and then someone said “hey Captain Green Shirt.” Pretty annoying, right? Now imagine that for the rest of your life, no matter what you wore, all your friends kept calling you “Captain Green Shirt.”
ONE TIME, James and John asked Jesus if they should call down fire from heaven:
And he sent messengers ahead of him, who went and entered a village of the Samaritans, to make ready for him; but the people would not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. And when his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to bid fire come down from heaven and consume them?” But he turned and rebuked them. (Luke 9:52-55)
It might as well say “but he turned and said ‘calm down, Captain Green Shirt.’” It looks like Christ’s rebuke to James and John was to call them “sons of thunder,” which in Aramaic has the sense of “the thunder-boys,” a nickname meant to mock them for wanting to destroy people that didn’t want to talk to them. Decades later, Mark’s Gospel retains this nickname of James and John. Decades of “Captain Green Shirt” for one slip-up.
What it means
Maybe there’s more to the story. Maybe this isn’t so much about two guys being pigeon-holed for one mistake. Maybe it took on another meaning as the years went by, and the Thunder-Boys turned their overzealous vengeance into well-zealoused zeal for souls, and maybe Christ’s little bit of teasing was the first nudge in the right direction. Maybe this means that even our flaws can be transformed and made to be strengths in Christ’ hands, and that some well-placed mockery can sometimes be good for the soul. Or maybe it was just a mean nickname. But come on, they wanted to DESTROY A VILLAGE for not listening to them. Calm down Captain Green Shirt.
Jesus doesn’t like you destroying people who reject you.
9. The God-Damned Fig Tree
On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. And seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see if he could find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. And he said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.”… As they passed by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. And Peter remembered and said to him, “Master, look! The fig tree which you cursed has withered.” (Mark 11:12-14, 20-21)
Why it’s mean
This is a bewildering moment in the life of Christ, at best. He’s about to be crucified for the salvation of the human race, so he decides to go back and forth from Bethany to Jerusalem a couple times for absolutely no reason except to argue with a tree. What did the tree do to deserve this, you might ask? Nothing. Ignoring the fact that it was a TREE, it WASN’T EVEN THE SEASON FOR FIGS. Not the tree’s fault. And yet he curses it, and the next day it’s dead from top to bottom, as is pointed out by Peter, the officially-ordained Captain Obvious of the Apostles (as opposed to the two Captain Green Shirts, James and John).
Message: don’t cross Jesus when he’s hungry? Jesus had low blood sugar? If so, I can relate. But I don’t think so.
What it means
I spent a while a few years back trying to find a commentary that made any sense of this event, and discovered that almost all Biblical commentaries are extremely boring. What isn’t boring, however, is the fact that this fig tree might not just be a fig tree. It might also be a symbol of the biggest wild-goose chase in the history of Biblical interpretation.
I don’t know who it was, but at some point somebody decided that Adam and Eve sinned by eating an apple. That decision, like the original sin itself, ruined everything. It wasn’t an apple. There are no apples mentioned anywhere in Genesis. The first mention of an apple in the Bible is at the end of Deuteronomy, where it’s not even a real apple – it’s Jacob being the “apple of God’s eye.”
NO APPLES ANYWHERE. I’m yelling because I’m angry, and I’m angry because whoever decided it was an apple set everybody off on the wrong path.
You know those dreams where you imagine you’re at school taking a philosophy exam, and you suddenly realize you’re naked? In those dreams, do you casually stand up and calmly stroll around the school looking for fashionable clothing? Or are you a sane person who grabs anything you can to cover up? If you’re sane, keep reading. If you’re not, stop reading here and keep thinking Adam and Eve ate an apple.
You could probably guess where this is going. Guess what is THE ONLY FRUIT TREE MENTIONED BY NAME in the whole story of the original sin? Yup. Figs (hint: figs are not apples). They’re mentioned in this awesome verse:
Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves aprons. (Genesis 3:7)
Before moving on, just take a second to imagine Adam barbecuing while wearing a fig-leaf apron that says “kiss the cook” on it in Hebrew. Somebody photoshop that for me please.
Now go back to the dream where you’re naked. You grab whatever’s nearest you to cover up. So did Adam and Eve. They grabbed what was nearest: the leaves of the tree that they had just eaten from. Therefore, they ate a fig when they sinned. Not an apple. Sorry for logic. And I don’t care if you take the story literally or figuratively or anything else. It was either a literal or a figurative FIG that was involved in the original sin of humanity, and NOT a literal OR figurative APPLE.
Ok so now go back to Christ yelling at the fig tree:
“May no one ever eat fruit from you again.”
This interpretation is based on some of the much-neglected Eastern Church Fathers (Isho’dad of Merv, for example). If you don’t buy it, that’s fine. You’re quite free to go back to none of this making any sense at all.
Jesus doesn’t like sin.