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I love the the way that passion, compassion and righteous indignation flow together in the outworking of Jesus’ life and ministry. This article explores some of these aspects of the Lord’s heart, with a view to enabling our own world view, prayers, giving and actions to be the more closely aligned to His.

When we find our spirits sinking as we read distressing headlines from around the world, let’s take time to explore the ache within the Lord’s own heart for His fallen creation. It was His concern and compassion that bought and brought us our redemption. Acting always in the conviction of His love as fully man and fully God and led by the Spirit, He not only instructed His hearers and set an example to future generations, but experienced the full accompanying range of human and divine emotions.

Whilst John guides us in his gospel to mystical heights concerning the eternal nature of the Lord Jesus, Luke summarises Jesus’ ministry by saying that He ‘went around doing good and healing all that were oppressed.’ (Acts 10:38) It is this oppression, in all its varied and ugly forms, that our Lord is angry with and opposes.

Mark’s gospel is the most seemingly ‘functionally focused’ of them all, portraying Jesus as a man committed to His ministry and to serving God – but even here we find a handful of precious and important extra incidents, subtle strokes of the Artist’s brush. It is only here, for example, that we see Jesus taking children into His arms to bless them.

Most versions of the Bible translate Mark 1:41 along the lines of, ‘Moved with compassion, Jesus reached out His hand and touched the leper who had asked for healing.’ We know from elsewhere in the gospels that whenever Jesus feels the depths of such heart-stirringly deep compassion, He moves immediately in power to bring about some mighty miracle. There is nothing blandly sentimental about such compassion, despite what might be suggested by certain religious images along the lines of ‘gentle Jesus, meek and mild.’ This is the Lord addressing people’s deepest needs – the same Lord whom we see in Revelation 1 in His mighty glorified state.

Mark’s gospel also hints at His truest feelings in ways and places it would be easy to pass over. The Lexham (Literal) Bible and the current version of the NIV are intriguing in this respect: Instead of saying, ‘moved with compassion’, Lexham translates the phrase as, ‘Becoming angry . . .’ The latest version of the NIV has it that ‘Jesus was indignant.’ There is indeed some limited manuscript evidence to support this reference to Jesus’ anger and indignation as being the more accurate rendering, even though we most would find the idea of compassion more ‘attractive’.

What was it, then, that Jesus was indignant about? Discounting as unlikely that this was due to the leper’s uncertainty as to whether Jesus was willing to heal him, it seems far more likely that Jesus was deeply stirred, even to the point of anger, at the damage done to this man by his illness, which had led to long years of isolation and lack of human touch.

In the face of all the disease, death, decay and destruction that the Fall has brought in its train Jesus responds in righteous anger and profound compassion, reaching out to touch the leper – something which the Law of Moses stipulates that only a priest has the right and responsibility to do in order to pronounce them clean.

Even today, indeed perhaps more so today, we do not engage well with death, for all its inevitability. Fully human, but with all the heart and passion of God Himself, Jesus reacts against a society that isolates its victims and forces them to live alone, even to the point of having to ring a bell so that none would come close and risk contamination. Leprosy was, and is, a devastating illness to bear. Lepers were, effectively, ‘the living dead.’

But is there not much in our world too that does the same by refusing to thinking properly about death? As Linda Entwistle put it, ‘Rather than seeing death and sickness as things to be kept away from, by engaging with them He transformed them, ultimately through His own sacrificial death. By doing what only a priest could only He was acting as the go-between of life and death, and defying a system intent on maintaining the status quo.’

There are other occasions when we see the sting of death provoking Jesus to deep, deep anger. Even though He knew full well that He was about to raise His friend from the dead, Jesus was profoundly stirred as He made His way to Lazarus’ tomb. The Greek phrase commonly translated ‘deeply moved’, can literally be rendered, ‘snorted like a horse (with indignation)’ (Jn. 11:38).[1] Jesus is so profoundly provoked by the loss that it stirs Him into action. Can you think of times when you have been similarly stirred in spirit to both pray and act?

When Jesus becomes highly indignant . . .

Jesus becomes still more intensely indignant  when He sees children being manipulated and abused. Likewise, when His disciples thought they were doing Him a favour by shooing children away from coming to Him for a blessing, it is recorded that He was ‘highly indignant.’ (Mark 10:13-16) The Greek word here, eganaktesen, is a compound of two words: agan and achthos. Together, these indicate that Jesus was greatly afflicted; angry and indignant to the point of being incensed. Remember how He said, ‘If he were thrown into the sea with a huge rock tied to his neck, he would be far better off than facing the punishment in store for those who harm these little children’s souls. I am warning you!’ (Luke 17:2 TLB.)[2]

What we do well to recognise is that there is holy wrath in the heart of Jesus just as there is in the heart of His Father.[3] He is passionately concerned for those who are marginalised, put down, ignored and overlooked. He loved children for who and what they were, as well as for what He knew that they could become. He demonstrated this perfectly when He placed a child in the midst of His disciples as an example of how we must all be. ‘Let the little children come to Me,’ He insisted, ‘and do not hinder them, for the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to such as these.’ (Matt. 19:14) ‘Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.’ (Mark 10:15)

Why Jesus loves and honours the childlike in spirit

Embracing childlikeness is entirely different from settling for, or relapsing into, self-indulgent childishness. The more childlike trusting and accepting we are, the easier He finds it to reach our hearts. Such childlikeness is something to cultivate rather than to grow out of. It is worth stressing here, however, that it is was not the desire to achieve that Jesus was decrying – but rather His hatred of all that stains and hinders children from becoming all they can be in Him.

It is also significant how Jesus mightily countered the menial status of the least and last in the way He respected women. He included them in those He called His own, and elevated them for all time by making a woman the very first witness to His resurrection.

Jesus loved children for who and what they were, as well as for what He knew that they could become. He demonstrated this perfectly when He placed a child in the midst of His disciples as an example of how we must all be. ‘Let the little children come to Me,’ He insisted, ‘and do not hinder them, for the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to such as these.’ (Matt. 19:14) ‘Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.’ (Mark 10:15)

Embracing childlikeness is entirely different from settling for, or relapsing into, self-indulgent childishness. The more childlike trusting and accepting we are, the easier He finds it to reach our hearts. Such childlikeness is something to cultivate, therefore, rather than to grow out of.

It is worth stressing here, however, that it is was not the desire to achieve that Jesus was decrying – but rather His hatred of all that stains and hinders children from becoming all they can be in Him.

Taking Jesus’ sternest warnings to heart

We know that Jesus’ was roused most strongly to ire when He encountered the self-righteousness and judgmental attitudes of the Pharisees and Sadducees, who looked down on everyone except themselves, and denounced them as ‘sinners’. Jesus’ strongest charges were reserved for those He discerned to be hypocrites, denouncing them as a ‘brood of vipers:’ ‘blind guides’, ‘fools’ and ‘whitewashed tombs’– ‘children of the devil’ even.

Since this is the Son of God, the Lord of Love, who is speaking, we must take His words deeply to heart. He was never afraid to call a spade, a spade, or to denounce those who were hindering people from entering His Father’s Kingdom. When He looks around the world today, what does He see? What does He say about those who are putting their own interests, even national ones, ahead of His own?

In what ways am I a hypocrite Lord?

Before pointing at others, however, it is vital that we reflect on how easily we can play the Pharisee ourselves – for example, when we vent unholy and unloving anger against other Christians who believe or practise their faith in different ways to ourselves. Let’s not underestimate the grief this causes the Lord Jesus, but rather ask ourselves essential questions: ‘Lord, am I sitting in ungodly judgement on anyone? Am I offending You by offending against Your little ones, Your poor ones, Your wounded ones? Are there areas of my life in which I myself am hypocritical, Lord?’

Sometimes, we will find ourselves being tested to the hilt when we come up against people who are forever setting us the equivalent of chess conundrums. We may well experience righteous anger then over the mess and tangles we see them snaring and embroiling people in. Discovering how to respond to such barbed manipulation is a major topic in its own right. We learn, often by painful trial and experiment, trying first this approach and then trying  another – and above all by asking the Lord to show us how He would have us respond. Increasingly we become familiar with patterns for control and manipulation operate, and learn to adapt and adjust our response accordingly.

So far from being driven to impulsive overreaction by His own needs and hurts, or allowing Himself to become distracted by the many people of ill will He came up against, Jesus’ own responses are a true reflection of His Father’s heart, revealing both a profound trust in his Father’s justice and ability, and an unshakable concern to pursue the work of the Kingdom Himself.

Have you known times when you have experienced real and forceful godly anger, fuelled by powerful compassion? Has it stirred you into prayer and action? Although our response will vary according to makeup and callings, it is good to know that it is safe to feel such emotions!

Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever. (Heb. 13:8) If He was stirred and angry at the damage done by leprosy, or by the death of His friend Lazarus and the abuse of children, we can be sure He is deeply grieved by the oppression of people in countries such as Zimbabwe, Venezuela, Myanmar and in so many other places too.

He who is Truth as well as Justice hates a lying tongue. (Prov. 6:16-17) Sadly, our post truth generation has only too many of them. He is indignant when He sees rulers deliberately twisting truth for their own political purposes and economic gain.

We are accustomed to the stream of propaganda that Russian government sources pour forth in their multi-faceted attempts to destabilise the West. It comes as no surprise to find Russia staunchly defending the present President of Venezuela; it must be equally as outrageous to Jesus to see misinformation and disinformation being wielded as a weapon right at the heart of the White House.

Lord, we welcome You and Your Word into the depths of our being, allowing Your perspectives to shape our response into a more perfect reflection of Jesus’ own. May we move beyond the purely human anger, for that can never bring about Your fullest purposes (James 1:19-21), and experience more of Your righteous indignation against all that opposes the work of Your Kingdom – as well as more compassion for those traumatised by events beyond their control or suffering under the yoke of tyrannical demands and regimes. 

[1] https://biblehub.com/greek/1690.htm The NLT actually says that He was ‘angry’. The KJV and the ISV both prefer ‘groaning deeply’.

[2] Steve Walton points out in Guidelines December 2018 BRF notes: “It was common in the Greek and Roman worlds for unwanted babies (especially girls) to be ‘exposed’ – left on the street to die unless someone picked them up.” Children are so often the first to suffer when human life is devalued. Perhaps some of the children brought to Jesus were ‘nobody’s children’ – street urchins?

[3] https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/five-truths-about-the-wrath-of-god