I’ve wanted to pen this piece for a while since many people seem to have a lopsided conception of Jesus. I always think of the lyrics ‘Gentle Jesus meek and mild…” as a sign of this conception. The truth is that the historical Jesus was a multi dimensional figure with a message that touched on many important topics, and thus the purpose of this piece will be to examine some of the more shocking things he said. For our purposes we will put full trust in the gospel authors when it comes to the relevant words of Jesus. Further, I have no intention of “defending” Jesus over wanting to let him speak for himself. It still shall be the case that some statements will require some explaining.
1. Hating on the family?
To begin Jesus says, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26; also see Matt. 10:37).
Does Jesus really instruct us to hate our parents, spouse, children, and our brothers and sisters? On a prima facie reading it certainly sounds like it, but not really. Jesus is employing hyperbole through his use of the word “hate.” Jesus, although strict and harsh at times, projected and radiated unconditional love (Mark 12:31; Matt. 22:37-39; John 3:16, 13:34-36). It would thus be inconsistent for him to instruct his followers to hate their families and so on. What Jesus is saying is that our love for him should make our love for our families look small in comparison. We are instructed to prioritize our love for God and to orientate our lives around him. We are to love God first and then to love our family, friends, neighbours and so on.
2. Say what?
According to the Gospel of Luke Jesus says, “Now as for those enemies of mine who did not want me as their king, bring them here and slay them before me” (19:27).
On its own it looks like Jesus is commanding an evil act. However, the verse is part of a parable that he was using to teach his listeners; Jesus “went on to tell them a parable” (Luke 19:11). The story begins in Luke 19:12 about a king. The man in the story goes to receive his kingdom and then returns to find out that his subjects have rebelled against him. He then orders these rebels to be killed. The context is that Jesus was telling a story and not giving orders for his followers to kill people. Again, as mentioned, that Jesus commanded his followers to kill people cannot be the best reading of his intention since elsewhere we have him rebuking a disciple for drawing a sword on those who wished to arrest him (Matt. 26:51; Mark 14:47; Luke 22:51; John 18:10-11).
3. Not peace but a sword.
Rather strikingly Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law” (Matt 10:34).
It is quite obvious that Jesus does not literally mean a sword. What he is saying is that putting trust in him will result in the dividing of families. It is quite evident that those who choose to follow Jesus may be hated and turned away by their family. Other times it is the other way around where it is actually the Christians who are the perpetrators of hating dissenters within families. The point is that following in Jesus’ footsteps is no small task especially given that it requires spiritual transformation, a change of lifestyle, and mind. According to the Bible it is going from one who was previously dead in his sin (Eph. 2:1) to then becoming alive in Jesus (Romans 6:11). This will undoubtedly lead to conflict (a “sword) within family units.
4. Even the dogs are more worthy.
In this episode a Canaanite woman, who had evidently heard about Jesus and the many miraculous things he had done, comes to him desperate for the healing of her daughter saying, “Lord, help me.”
Well, Jesus doesn’t receive a pass grade in terms of how to speak to strangers, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” The woman replies, “Yes, Lord, “even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” This reply impresses Jesus, “your faith is great! Let it be done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed from that very hour.”
Simply put Jesus is saying that a dog, a dirty wild animal that was no friend of man back in 1st century Judea, is more worthy than this Canaanite woman (and Canaanites in general). That is quite insulting even though the woman seems to handle it quite well. This particular verse, and some general responses, requires some fleshing out. Personally, I think Jesus is deliberately insulting the woman. I don’t, however, think it is because she is a woman. Where women are concerned Jesus seemed to be radically counter cultural in his treatment of them given his 1st century Jewish milieu. He spoke to foreign women (John 4:7- 5:30), taught women (Luke 10:38-42), treated them as equal to men as children of wisdom (Luke 7:35-8:50), had them in his inner circle (Luke 8:1-3), appeared to them in his resurrected body, expressed concern for widows (Luke 2:36, 4:26, 7:11, 18:1, 20:47 and 21:1), and so on. Jesus seemed to run counter to centuries of tradition that informed men of how women were to be treated. So, I don’t think that is behind the insult.
However, some Christians have tried to explain this away by saying that the dog Jesus was referring to was a “small dog” or a “pet dog.” That, however, is just an attempt to dull the effect of Jesus really calling this Canaanite a dog. Another proposed explanation is that Jesus was just testing the faith of this Canaanite woman. Again, this is unconvincing for the simple reason that few people would “test” others by first insulting them or being nasty about it. There are many ways to test someone that does not involve insulting them or calling them a dog etc. I don’t think these proposed explanations allow Jesus to speak for himself (we will see elsewhere that Jesus wasn’t shy of calling his opponents names).
The episode thus rightfully stands in as one of the most shocking things Jesus is recorded to have said. However, how the story ends is quite illuminating. Jesus ends by granting her request simply because of her faith. This is informative in that it doesn’t matter what race or culture one is when it comes to belief in Jesus and what he has done on the cross. Rather it is the faith we put in Jesus that counts, and that is the reason why Jesus lovingly healed the Canaanite woman’s daughter.
5. Going only half way?
The synoptics put Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane just before his arrest. Jesus “falls to the ground” and in desperation asks for God to remove “the cup” from him. He wants to opt out. This doesn’t have the shock factor that some of the other statements we’ve looked at have but it is “shocking” in the context of salvation. Is Jesus opting out in the middle of God’s mission of saving mankind from sin and separation? Is Jesus really putting our eternal salvation on the line? In this way one may consider it shocking.
However, Jesus was well aware that a torturous crucifixion awaited him. The cup he refers to is symbolic for the pain that he would experience; in other words, he was expressing the natural human desire to avoid pain and suffering. In fact, Jesus, while saying this prayer, underwent hematidrosis in which extreme anxiety causes certain chemicals to release into the capillaries in the sweat glands. And when the sweat came out of Jesus it was tinged with blood, and is surely illustrative of Jesus’ mental condition. Simply put, Jesus was very scared. But he knew, and was completely convinced, that he had to go through with God’s plan. However, what Jesus would experience would also transcend just the nails being hammered into his wrists/hands; it was also spiritual. A clue for this are his words on the very cross itself, “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?” Theologically speaking Jesus, as the second person of the Trinity, has had constant fellowship with God the Father for all eternity. So how he was severed or broken from this fellowship while on the cross might not have felt very nice.
Jesus’ last resort inquiry of God to allow him to be spared from such an end, or to find a different means for such an end, in fulfilling God’s redemptive plan, is quite understandable given Jesus’ fully human nature.
6. Name calling the hypocrites.
Many aren’t aware that Jesus spoke harshly against his opponents. He loved them but he also rebuked them for their hypocrisy, wicked deeds, and opposition to God’s redemptive plan in history. In this case Jesus had enough of some Pharisees, “You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matt. 12:34). Jesus was warning them of the “day of judgment” and that they will face condemnation (Matt. 12:36) should they continue in their wicked ways.
Jesus was also irked by Herod the Great and goes on to call him a fox (Luke 13:32). He was responding to a group of Pharisees who came to warn him to “Leave this place and get away, because Herod wants to kill You” (13:32). But Jesus isn’t one to back down from a little tussle with the big guy on the block, “Go tell that fox, ‘Look, I will keep driving out demons and healing people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach My goal.” A fox is an effective metaphor since it signifies a sly, cunning creature. It is also an unclean animal in the Israelite holiness code which makes it even more of an insult. Herod was a nasty character who allegedly, according to Matthew (2:16-18), killed infants with the hope of killing child Jesus since he already then perceived Jesus as a threat. He also has John the Baptist decapitated according to the synoptics (and 1st century historian Josephus Flavius). No wonder Jesus didn’t like him much.
7. Hell, a fiery furnace, and a weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Jesus says that “while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 8:12). The gnashing of teeth is clearly some graphic imagery. It literally means the grinding of one’s teeth together, to experience anguish and/or anger. The context concerns the final judgment and the torments of those in hell. Many will find Jesus’ message of judgment and hell tough to swallow since they cannot stand the idea. How can God, for example, dish out eternal punishment if he is all-loving and so on? These are good theological questions for another time. Jesus clearly believed this and it was part and parcel of his teachings. However, of the weeping and gnashing of teeth Jesus is employing hyperbole to communicate the eternal consequences for how we respond to his gift of salvation. Hell lasts for eternity and once you’ve decided to put yourself there there’s no going back (see Jesus’ parable of the rich man, Luke 16:26). Further, Jesus describes hell as being “the fiery furnace” (Matt. 13:41) and a place of “outer darkness” (Matt. 8:12). Most biblical scholars and theologians will inform us that these aren’t literal descriptions as opposed to Jesus’ employing graphic shock imagery. In other words, Jesus is given man sufficient warning that hell exists for those who freely reject the grace and salvation offered by God. According to the Gospel of John (5:24), Jesus, rather radically, says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.” Only through accepting Jesus’ act of salvation on the cross can man enjoy heaven for an eternity.