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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Jesus Gets Angry
distributed 1/22/10 - ©2010

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Jerry Rees and Sallie Veenstra of Leawood, Kansas. Their generous support helps make this publication possible. (Jerry is a leader of the Sustainable Sanctuary Coalition of Greater Kansas City.)

I have a special fondness for the Bible passages where Jesus gets mad. In those moments of frustration and anger, we can see most vividly his passionate faith and commitments.

The scene with the money changers in the Temple -- which is so tellingly left out of the traditional observance of Holy Week -- speaks powerfully about the deep transformation and divine grace that Jesus promises. He has no patience with conventional religion and empty rituals that prop up the status quo.

When Jesus says about those who cause children to sin that "it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea", it is clear that he isn't voicing moral abstractions.

And there is a fascinating section in Matthew where Jesus lets loose about the people who don't respond to holy preaching and dramatic miracles. That is the one really resonates with me these days.

In Matthew 11, Jesus first responds to a question from John the Baptist: "Are you the one who is to come?" The answer points to what the people hear and see: "the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them." Dramatic things are going on that should make the in-breaking realm of God evident to anybody.

Then, Jesus affirms to the gathered crowds the bold prophetic witness of John, equating the Baptist with Elijah who is to come -- a bold recommendation, indeed! He reminds the crowd that, when they went out into the wilderness to hear John, they knew they were going to encounter a radical message and a strong challenge. John's words were not the reassuring ones that would be spoken by one who wears "the soft robes that are in royal palaces."

And then Jesus' frustration really boils out. "But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, 'We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.'" Invitations are put out to join in the emotional passion of both wedding celebrations and the public grief of funerals, and neither is accepted. The people of the cities don't respond to either Jesus or John, to either hope or judgement. John came fasting, and he is accused of having demons. Jesus comes feasting, and is accused of being a glutton who hangs out with sinners.

The section ends when Jesus, in a style that will never be mistaken for "meek and mild", lambastes the cities that have seen miracles and heard preaching. He says that, if the faithless and oblivious cities of the past -- Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom -- had witnessed these things, even they would have responded and repented. But the people who heard John and Jesus just go on with their ordinary lives.

Unfortunately, the story seems painfully familiar.

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I see echoes of John and Jesus in the modern environmental movement, and especially as that cause is expressed in and through faith communities. There is deep religious and spiritual grounding in calls for "greening the church" and a broader emphasis on "caring for creation". The expanding literature of eco-theology and ethics provides a strong base for work toward sustainability and environmental justice.

Like John and Jesus, people of faith speak and act with both a prophetic call and a liberating hope. And we can share in the holy frustration that 'we played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.' Whether our target audience is clergy and church leaders, politicians, the business world, or our friends and neighbors, neither threats nor promises seem to generate a significant response.

In church and society, we have cried out with warnings of impending crisis -- of climate change, the dangerous loss of biological diversity in this time of great extinctions, of toxic and biologically active chemicals in our food and water. Rachel Carson, Robert Bullard, Al Gore and Bill McKibben are among the folk who have committed their lives to persistent and prophetic alarms.

We have offered invitations toward better paths -- of voluntary simplicity, earth community, ecological spirituality and sustainable economies. Wendell Berry, Sallie McFague, John Cobb, David Korten and Rosemary Radford Ruether are just a few of those who have been eloquent and profound in naming the promise of transformed lives and society.

The witness has been long and clear, for both danger and hope. And yet the seduction, self-interest and inertia of business-as-usual seems more powerful and persusasive. In Copenhagen and in Congress, warnings and witness are not enough to create consensus. In our neighborhoods, churches, schools and jobs, the calls for change are dismissed as radical alarmism or naive idealism.

Along with Jesus, we can -- and should -- explode in frustration. "What do you need, people? We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn. What does it take to get you to listen, to respond, to change?"

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I like the passages when Jesus gets angry, because it reminds me that this work is not easy. The call to justice, righteousness and sustainability is a radical call to repentance and conversion. It involves both prophetic words of warning and hopeful invitations to new possibilities. It is holy work that is hard and long and frustrating. It strengthens me to know that even Jesus struggled with that complex and difficult reality.

It also strengthens me to know that Jesus went right back to work after venting his frustration. Immediately after the angry condemnation of cities who won't respond, we hear the invitation and promise: "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest." And then Matthew tells of multiple occasions when the actions of Jesus blatantly violate religious norms and stir up controversy.

When the cause is discouraging, when the people don't respond, may we follow in the path of Jesus. Give voice to the anger and frustration, and then get back to work at this good and holy calling.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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