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Fear and trembling, as well as comfort, in reading the words of Jesus


Detail from « Christ the Judge » (1447) by Fra Angelico (WikiArt.org)

Nancy Pelosi, the radically pro-abortion Speaker of the House, is barred from communion. After the announcement by Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone of San Francisco, the internet lit up with complaints that was contrary to the message of Jesus, which was all about love, inclusion, unity and acceptance.

Have these people ever read the Bible?

The Jesus of the Bible is often frightening. This does not mean that He is not also loving, but it is not a tame love that flatters us and tells us that we are wonderful just as we are. Rather, it is a fiery love that challenges evil and condemns those who choose wickedness. There is fear and trembling, as well as comfort, in reading the words of Jesus.

As we read through the Gospels we find many sayings of Jesus that are alarming, rather than affirming and accepting. The first of these may be the words with which Jesus opened his public ministry: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mt 4:7). This call to repentance presumes that we are guilty and sinful. Repentance requires acknowledgment of sin and failure, rather than boasting that we are acceptable as we are.

Jesus’ message of repentance becomes even more discomfiting as He explains how much we have to repent of. The depth of our sinfulness is demonstrated in the famous Sermon on the Mount. A particularly challenging passage for modern culture is found in Matthew 5, where Jesus states:

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. (Mt 5:27-29)

Far from overturning or ignoring the Mosaic law, Jesus intensifies its demands, demanding purity of heart and mind, as well as action. Sex is one of several subjects, albeit a very countercultural one, about which Jesus emphasizes just how incapable of keeping the commandments we are, and how short of righteousness we fall. Jesus does not proclaim acceptance, but a standard of perfection that is unattainable.

He explains that we cannot really keep the commandments of the moral law because our hearts are corrupted. As He puts it in Mark 7, it is “from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” None of us are innocent of all of these, and so Jesus declares that sin is our master, saying in John 8:34 that, “everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin.”

The words of Jesus present us with an ugly portrait of our spiritual selves. We are sinful, indeed, we are enslaved to our sins and therefore incapable of righteousness. This is the background of Jesus’ explanation in Luke 5 of why he socialized with sinners: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Lk 5:31). The proclamation that Jesus has come to cure our spiritual illness is a comfort to those who despair over their sin, but a condemnation to those who deny it.

We are all spiritually sick, but those who claim not to need a spiritual physician keep themselves from Christ’s healing. This self-righteousness is a trap for both the scrupulously religious and the nonobservant nominal believer. It ensnares everyone who believes they have nothing to repent of, regardless of whether they believe this on account of their own strenuous moral effort or out of a complacent confidence that God must approve of them.

But Jesus came neither to preach salvation through moral effort nor to affirm us as we are. And he certainly did not promise us unity. Rather, in Matthew 10 he warns us, “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.” Instead of unity, tolerance, and acceptance, Jesus promises conflict.

Division is to be expected because Jesus’ teachings are divisive. They are not the generic feel-good pablum of a middle-school motivational banner. Rather, Jesus’ words will offend many. For example, in Mark 10 He declared,

But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate…Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery. (Mk 10:6ff)

This is not a comforting saying that affirms modern beliefs and behaviors. Not only does it contradict current LGBT orthodoxies, it also convicts the many people (including many churchgoers) who have broken their marriage vows. The idea the Jesus does not care about our sex lives is untenable in light of His words. He cares about what we do in bed, and what we do with our money, and, well, everything. He repeatedly warns that judgment is coming, and does not minimize the stakes of our sins. In Luke 17 he tells us, “Temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin” (Lk 17:1-2).

Jesus regularly uses this sort of dramatic imagery to describe the punishments that are due for sin. In Matthew 13 He proclaims that “The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Mt 13:40-41)

This is not a comforting verse. It is certainly not a depiction of a chill Christ who just wants us to accept each other and ourselves. And this is hardly the only passage in which Jesus tells us that he will judge the world. In Matthew 25 He reiterates the message, adding that what we do to others, good or ill, is what we do to Him:

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left…Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels…. And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.

The Jesus of the Bible is not a laid-back dude saying, “You do you, man.” Rather, He tells us that we are in danger of Hell and insists that we follow Him to be saved. Even what might be the most well-known verse of comfort in the Bible, John 3:16, has an ominous context. The famous verse formulates the good news of salvation, telling us that “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” The next verse continues the theme, telling us that “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” But Jesus then says that

Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.” (Jn 3:18ff)

In just a few verses Jesus takes us from love and salvation to condemnation and judgment and back again, from “God so loved the world” to “people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.” Fear and trembling indeed.

Someone who wants unconditional acceptance on easy terms is looking for a dog, not God.


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