[Tuesday’s Passion Week Reading: Matthew 21:20-25:46]
One of the fastest ways you can raise the ire of fellow believers is to take a swing at the cherished interpretation of the moment shared between Jesus and the Pharisees in Matthew 23. Tell them the image we conjure up in our mind – the one that has Jesus spitty-lipped and flushed, jugular vein protruding like some ropey root just under the soil as he shoves a finger in the collective chest of the religious leaders – is only half the image offered us (and the lesser half at that). Tell them they can keep the spit, the crimson shade, the punched-up vein, but tell them they must add snot and tears. Tell them they must do this because every student of Matthew 23 has to come to terms with the term “woe,” a word used throughout the Bible by prophets and poets to speak not only of anger over the state of things, but also – and perhaps more so – of guttural sadness. And then tell them the snot and tears streaming or stopped up in the lines of Jesus’ face are not only for the good folk the Pharisees are making “twice the sons of hell,” but for the Pharisees who are sons of hell themselves. Tell them Matthew 23 is Jesus calling Pharisees home as much as it is a picture of Jesus driving them away in judgment. Tell them all of this and then come to terms with the fact that you are probably not going to be invited over for Easter brunch.
It’s a curious thing that when we read of Jesus interacting with a tax collector or a prostitute, we imagine without much effort a river of tears from his eyes and a ribbon of snot from his nose as he pleads with them to know they can come home, regardless the table of greed they’ve manned (much to the impoverishment of innocent families) or the bed they’ve kept at night (much to the vandalizing of marriages). But when we read of Jesus interacting with a pharisee, all we can picture are eyes and a nose as dry as a desert. All we see – and want to see – is the spit, the flush, the vein.
Of course, we need a pictorial exception for the moment shared between Jesus and the pharisee named Nicodemus, deep in the night as the wind blew. Yes, a river of tears to go with the spit, the flush, the vein. It’s Nicodemus, after all!
Oh! And another exception for Paul, the pharisee blinded and sprawled before Jesus in the road to Damascus. A ribbon of snot to go with the spit, the flush, the vein. It’s Paul, for goodness sake!
And an exception for a pharisee I know quite well – me. I’ve earned the spit, the flush, the vein, as I’ve made someone twice the son of hell by my active judgment. Please do keep the tears and snot for me.
Remove the spit, the flush, the vein, and the picture of Jesus presented us in Matthew 23 is certainly poorer for having done so. Some anger is worth seeing. But remove the tears and the snot, and it’s not a picture worth our time, really, because we have already seen a thousand like it already, offered up in giddy fashion by an unrelentingly angry and unforgiving world. Keep it all – the spit, the flush, the vein, the tears, the snot – for by them all, and even more so, by the blood of the one to whom they all belong, we are kept.
To read Monday’s Passion Week reflection, click here.