While we read New Testament accounts that bolster the mild-mannered image of Jesus as portrayed in Charles Wesley’s famous hymn, “Gentle Jesus, Meek and Mild,” there is another side of Jesus we cannot ignore. “Do you think I have come to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division” (Luke 12:51), he said. Further, “I have come to ignite a fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” (Luke 12:49).
Jesus indeed ignited that fire. During the past two millennia, he has arguably emerged as the most influential person in the Western world, either directly or indirectly. So, what division did Jesus bring? What fire did he kindle?
In this post, we will refrain from fundamentalist interpretations (e.g., categorizing a person as either a believer or a nonbeliever) and we will not address Jesus’ messianic assertions (i.e., that he was the Jewish mashiach, albeit his was a spiritual and not a secular kingdom). Instead, we will look to Jesus’ primary work of injecting spirituality back into religion, much as Moses had done centuries earlier. Jesus shook up the religious establishment in his day, and he steadfastly refused to compromise his ideals. He took to task the religious leaders of his time in no uncertain terms.
Jesus never minced words when using terms such as “blind guides,” “hypocrites,” “snakes,” and “brood of vipers” to describe those who had usurped the ways of God and replaced them with the ways of man. He vividly demonstrated his opposition to the secularization of religion when overturning the money changer’s tables in the Temple (Matt. 21:12-13). Jesus was a spiritual reformer, and he radically sought to re-instill spiritual values and practices back into religion.
What really set Jesus off were the hypocrisies he witnessed by religious leaders. In Matthew 23, Jesus lets loose in a lengthy tirade comprised of seven “woes” directed at those who held religious power. Dictonary.com’s first definition of the word “invective” is, “vehement or violent denunciation, censure, or reproach.” The series of diatribes in Matthew 23 constitutes Jesus’ quintessential invective toward religious hypocrisy, and this certainly did nothing to endear him to the reigning religious elders in his day. We are fortunate to have this detailed account, because those same principles that applied then have equally applied throughout the subsequent centuries, and they apply now.
Jesus demonstrated singular courage for pointing out, as in the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, that the “religious emperors” of his day had no clothes. Nowadays we see factions of Christianity that entirely discount this all-important message. A certain percentage of those who overlook the lessons gleaned from Jesus’ teachings on religious hypocrisy are the very ones who personify it. Jesus’ uncompromising message applies all the more to so-called Christians who promote gospels of hatred, not love; war, not peace; exclusivity, not inclusiveness; and demonstrate a snobbish “holier-than-thou” sanctimonious arrogance. Such quote-unquote Christians and Christian churches actually lead people away from God, not to God.
The not so gentle Jesus kindled a fire to burn up all forms of religious hypocrisy and corruption. He created division on the one hand in order to rid the culture of empty, meaningless religious practices and beliefs, and on the other hand he sought to instill genuine inner transformation by counseling others to adhere to and embody pure spiritual values. He enjoined spiritual aspirants to practice what they preach, and to seek God above all things. He taught a path of limitless, unconditional love. “Those who have ears, let them hear!” (Matt. 11:15). Who is listening?