In my previous editorial (“Gentleness Is Not Optional,” January 2023), I showed how gentleness is not optional for Christians, even when pursuing an urgent and noble goal such as ending abortions or ending racism. But some might think there should be exceptions.
Obviously, when confronted with immediate physical harm and violence, we might not have the luxury of being gentle and must defend ourselves and others. I am talking more about our verbal harshness in disagreement with our ideological opponents.
But, some might argue, Jesus was harsh with his opponents, denouncing the Pharisees as hypocrites and a “brood of vipers” (Matt. 23:33). They think Jesus’ example gives them license to be mean, insulting, and harsh. But we need to understand Jesus’ behavior in its context.
Jesus spoke harshly almost only to self-righteous religious leaders and politicians. He was kind to those classified as “sinners,” such as prostitutes or tax collectors. The only exception, it seems, was the Canaanite woman (Matt. 15:21-28; Mark 7:24-30), whom Jesus lumped in, by analogy, with dogs. But if we understood the customs and social context of Jesus’ time, we would realize Jesus was not only testing the Gentile woman’s faith (a test she passed with flying colors), but also correcting his watching disciples’ anti-Gentile prejudices.
When Jesus pronounced the infamous woes on the Pharisees in Matthew 23, it was not his first conflict with them. Jesus already had run-ins with them beginning in Matthew 9, when he healed the man with paralysis, followed by other encounters. He only started calling them a brood of vipers in Matthew 12, after the Pharisees plotted to kill him (Matt. 12:14) and accused him (for the second time) of being Satan’s servant (Matt. 12:24). Still, Jesus did give even the Pharisees and scribes respect and credit where it was due (Matt. 23:2-3; Mark 12:34). And to Pharisees like Nicodemus, who genuinely sought the truth, Jesus was not harsh (John 3).
Finally, those woes on the Pharisees ended with a heartfelt lament for Jerusalem (Matt. 23:37-39). Jesus longed to gather them lovingly, like a mother hen with her chicks. The harsh words might have been Jesus’ only (and final?) resort to break through their stubborn, self-righteous pride. Jesus, in his divine wisdom and knowledge, knew people’s hearts in ways we could not. Hence, we really should not use these extraordinary examples of Jesus with the Pharisees to justify our sinful tendency to be hurtful and mean.
Many think Jesus’ cleansing of the temple was a display of harsh anger and violence. However, Mark’s account shows that Jesus actually went to the temple the day before and “looked around at everything” (Mark 11:11). He returned the next day to drive out the money changers and merchants (11:12-17). Jesus did not lose his temper in a moment of unbridled rage. Rather, he reflected overnight on what he saw in the temple and decided to mount a symbolic public protest against the temple’s commercialization, among other things. Even though he made a whip out of cords (John 2:15), it was likely only to drive out the sheep and cattle and not used on any person. Otherwise, the religious leaders would have charged him with physical violence.
More can be said about all these events, but my point is that we cannot cherry-pick Jesus’ conflicts with the Pharisees to justify being harsh, rude, or even cruel in our treatment of those we disagree with.