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What makes Jesus mad?

What makes Jesus mad? by Bev Stratton

One way to draw closer to God is to use our imaginations. The Ignatian spiritual exercises, taught by Catholic Jesuits, invite Christians to imagine ourselves as characters in biblical stories. What if we imagine a modern-day Jesus? The story of the widow’s mite (Luke 21:1–4) tells about Jesus’ fury at an unjust temple system that deprived widows and orphans of what they needed to survive. Today, we might ask, “What makes Jesus mad?” not “What would Jesus do?”

Those who wear WWJD (What would Jesus do) bracelets may feel confident that they know the answer to this question. Often their proposals reflect their politics and prejudices. We may claim no better in suggesting what makes Jesus mad, but we can temper our imaginations by engaging with Scripture and with one another.

When we consider anger, whether Jesus’ or our own, we notice differences in how we handle emotions. I live in the land of “Minnesota nice”—we do our best not to let anyone know we’re angry. We fail, of course. Our anger seeps out in our body language and sometimes through snide comments or passive-aggressive actions.

Jesus was human too. Sometimes he let his anger get the best of him. But he also expressed it directly, denouncing the scribes and Pharisees for their hypocrisy or hardness of heart (Matthew 23; Mark 3:5). As Harriet Lerner in The Dance of Anger recommends, Jesus helped Martha to translate her anger at Mary into a clearer understanding of herself—as worried and anxious (Luke 10:38–42). Scripture gives us clues about what might make Jesus mad in our world today and where we may wish to use our anger to clarify our sense of self.

The story of the widow in Luke 21:1–4 suggests one area that would make Jesus furious—economic disparities and conditions that fail to meet basic human needs. My friend has not had a job since the 2009 recession. There are complicating factors, but she is a talented woman who could enrich many lives with her gifts. She needs to earn a living wage. Jesus would be furious that the richest nation in the world is not designing policies to promote just, sustainable livelihood for all—both within our borders and through our trade agreements that impact global labor practices.

An acquaintance of mine described a high school student whose mother lives with a serious mental illness. His siblings are in foster care, and he rarely attends school due to debilitating depression. Friends, students and colleagues of mine have had relatives die by suicide. In the gospels, Jesus repeatedly cast out demons that tormented people and cut them off from human relationships. Jesus would be furious at a mental health care system that is inadequately structured and funded to provide the care people need. Jesus would be livid that while rates are declining for many diseases, the World Health Organization still estimates that one person dies by suicide every 40 seconds.

Bev Stratton, professor of religion at Augsburg College, Minneapolis, Minn., spent the past year helping students at the St. Olaf College Counseling Center name and respond to their emotions.

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