Acid Drops: Jesus’s use of Caustic Comments

My online dictionary defines “caustic” as “Corrosive and bitingly trenchant; cutting. See Synonyms at sarcastic.”

This is a style of wit associated with, say, Winston Churchill, describing Clement Atlee as “A modest man, who has much to be modest about,” or characterizing the Labour Party as “… not fit to manage a whelk stall.” On Neville Chamberlain’s attempts to “appease” Hitler, he retorted: “An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile hoping it will eat him last.” And, famously, when Lady Astor said: “Winston, if you were my husband I would flavour your coffee with poison,” he instantly replied: “Madam, if I were your husband, I should drink it.”

Such quips were probably a little more thought-out than the Dictionary of Quotations would seem to suggest (since Churchill himself said that his “best spontaneous asides took hours to prepare.” But there was no doubt of his mordant wit, biting sarcasm, and ability to silence critics with a joke.

Caustic? Sarcastic? Did Jesus ever speak like that? We sometimes snap back at people who have verbally wounded us in one way or another. But did Jesus ever resort to what Kenneth Williams called “Acid Drops” to put people in their place?

Certainly there was no shortage of provocation. The religious leaders hounded Jesus with the tenacity of paparazzi desperately seeking the inside scoop.

There are one or two moments when Jesus would appear to snap back a reply. Luke 13:32 has Jesus’s reply, in reference to Herod as “Go tell that fox…” It is always difficult to judge the contemporary feel of a remark spoken so long ago, but it certainly sounds mildly waspish. In contrast, the retort made to his mother (in John 2:1-12) when asked to intervene in a wedding reception (to avoid any embarrassment in an important social occasion):  “Woman, it is not my time” is almost certainly not caustic. That assessment is only based on the inability of the English language to convey the nuances of the Greek.

Similarly, there’s a moment in Matthew 15 when Jesus describes a Gentile lady seeking help as a “dog.” This is often cited as an unguarded moment of racism or intolerance – an acid reply! In this instance, it is not the nuances of translation that distorts understanding, but the cultural distance. This form of statement is non-derogatory and proverbial. The basis for the use of the proverb isn’t Jesus’s antipathy towards non-Jews but a necessary focus on a primary ministry to Israel (as many verses, such as Acts 1:8, indicate).

But when Jesus speaks to scribes, Pharisees and other religious bigshots, the impression is given of someone restraining his temper with some difficulty! All the Gospel give multiple accounts of conversations such as Matthew 23:27: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.”

We cannot argue that this kind of language is a snap reply: it is a considered and challenging response to any form of double-standards and religious self-importance. Within the purity culture of 1st Century Judaism, with its fixation on insider/outsider relations, ritual cleansings and multitudinous codes of conducts, Jesus’s claim for the grace and mercy of a loving Father who welcomed the prodigal home (Luke15) was a red rag to a bull. This is how Jesus replied to those kinds of charges:

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our forefathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of the sin of your forefathers!

“You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? Therefore I am sending you prophets and wise men and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town. And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. I tell you the truth, all this will come upon this generation” (Matthew 23).

This is not a collection of acidic retorts but rather a sustained verbal fury. Time and again, we read that they were simply not able to counter the force of his words and left, discomfited because “He spoke as no man spoke.”

In a similar vein, consider the account in Matthew 21:12-13: “And Jesus entered the temple and drove out all those who were buying and selling in the temple, and overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who were selling doves.  And He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer; but you are making it a den of thieves.’ ” One begins to see that, far from biting back an acid reply, Jesus’s words and actions were thought out and relentlessly specific. He had an enemy, in the dead religion of his day, and he fought it fearlessly on every possible occasion.

But what do you make of that famous moment when Jesus “curses” a fig tree simply because it has no fruit on it? The scene is recorded twice, in Matthew 21:18-19; 20-22 and in Mark 11:12-14; 20-25. Is that not a display of petulance, ill-temper –a snap response?

This needs a bit of explanation. First, note that the term “cursed” is used only once in the two accounts: “Rabbi, look! The fig tree which you cursed has withered” (Matt 21: 21).

It should be noted too that the term “curse” is not used in in the modern sense of profanity! A “curse” was a pronouncement of judgment (as in Matt 25:41). In this case, there was a command miracle by which Christ spoke words that would cause this tree to die. The significant point in the present discussion is that it was not a purposeless act of temper. It represented an object-lesson that the disciples needed to understand.

Scholars have noted that “in Palestine the fruit appears before the leaves . . .” (Edersheim: The Life & Times of Jesus the Messiah, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1947, Vol. II, p. 374). And so, to see a leafy fig tree (even out of season — v. 13b), warranted the assumption that there may be fruit on the tree. But this tree was fruitless. This phenomenon, therefore, served as a “visual aid” for something that Jesus was teaching.

And what was that? It was simply that God (and Jesus) had come to Israel (invariably symbolized by the fig-tree in Israel’s long checkered history) expecting fruit. Since there was none, then the fruitless tree was to be abandoned. Though Israel had enjoyed every conceivable spiritual advantage, they had become, for the most part, renegade. In the symbolism of the Scriptures, a fruitless, withered tree was worthy of nothing more than being cut down (cf. Psa. 90:6; Hos. 9:16). “Withering” was a symbol of imminent death (Joel 1:12). In the “cursing” of this fruitless fig tree, the Son of God was suggesting this. There was a very good reason why Jesus Christ acted as he did on this occasion. It was not an impulsive act, it was not a misguided, irresponsible gesture. It was a deliberate, highly instructive warning.

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