It’s true that sometimes, as believers, we “defang” Jesus.
Philip Yancey laments this at length in The Jesus I Never Knew, commenting that most movies portray Jesus as a zen-like Messiah unperturbed by either emotion or feeling, drifting through life on a holy mission, untouchable. And the real Jesus, Yancey points out, is nothing like that: he engaged with people, he felt deeply, he laughed and wept, he rebuked and taught. He loved. Fiercely.
But in our desire to get at the “real” Jesus rather than the whitewashed, inhuman Jesus of the movies or of medieval paintings, we must not lose touch with or diminish the nature of who Jesus was. And one of the things that occasionally disturbs me is how easy it is to diminish Jesus’ peaceful nature. In fact, I’ve heard in certain circles that by emphasizing Jesus’ peacefulness and His nature as the Prince of Peace, we somehow minimize His strength. “Well, sure, Jesus was peaceful,” this line of thinking goes, “but don’t forget he also rebuked the moneychangers in the temple! And when He comes back to earth – well, hoo boy, look out!”
This interpretation of the Gospel says that we focus too much on how “nice” Jesus was, instead of how strong and mighty he can be. The translation is simple: Enough of this “peace” stuff. Let’s talk about Jesus’ strength and power instead.
But peace is strength. And if we give in to that mistaken assumption that is it not in our narratives of Christ, I fear that this important truth will be lost. For one of the clearest examples of this in the Gospels, look no further than Luke 22:49-51:
When Jesus’ followers saw what was going to happen, they said, “Lord, should we strike with our swords?” And one of them struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his right ear. But Jesus answered, “No more of this!” And he touched the man’s ear and healed him.
Although Peter gets the credit for being the swordsman in the accounts of this event in both Matthew and John, it’s worth noting that in Luke’s telling all the disciples had violence in mind – and worth noting, too, that they carried weapons with them. (It’s also interesting they might have been aware of Jesus’ mind on this matter, since they felt they had to ask for permission.) Either way, it is Jesus who stops what most would consider a show of physical strength and power – and who deliberately reverses its consequences.
Is Jesus “weak” in this instance because he refuses to pick up a sword? Because he prevents his disciples from fighting? I don’t think most would say so. Jesus clarifies, in fact, that He has the ability to act – the power to call down angels on His behalf – and yet chooses not to do so.
Peacefulness, the refusal to depend on the self or on physical strength, the healing of those who would harm us, the deliberate avoidance of indulging one’s “right” to retribution: if we interpret those things as weakness, we miss the point of the Gospel.
Anyone can swing a sword. Anyone can lunge forward without thinking. Anyone can be hotheaded and go in swinging. But not everyone can master self-restraint. Not everyone can control themselves. Not everyone can soothe the impulses of the human nature, its rights and wants and entitlements, to do that which seems in the moment unnatural.
Strength is not physical force. Strength is not exercising power over someone else. Strength is not obliterating the opposition, wounding them, or making them cower. From Jesus’ example, we learn that strength is two things only: a) a denial of the self, and b) a submission to God’s will. That’s it. That’s all.
Would that we were all so mighty.