In the thread of my essay “What if I stumble? Arguing against Christianity from the lives of Christians” Mike Gantt commented on the moral excellence of Jesus as follows:
the moral excellence implied by his conduct, and made explicit by his teaching, were so elevated when compared to typical human behavior that even unbelievers will usually admit being impressed even if not won over.
This prompted the following reply from Ray Ingles:
Mark 11:11-14, Mark 11:20-22. Comes across as awfully petty.
Let’s take a look at the passage in question.
Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the temple courts. He looked around at everything, but since it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the Twelve.
12 The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. 13 Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. 14 Then he said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard him say it.
20 In the morning, as they went along, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots. 21 Peter remembered and said to Jesus, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!”
22 “Have faith in God,” Jesus answered.
So what’s the problem here? Presumably Ray is reading this pericope simply as a straightforward account of a time when Jesus lost his temper and lashed out at a poor fig tree. Understood in this way, this account would be roughly equivalent to a man stubbing his toe on a concrete step to his house and then responding by yelping “Damn step!” and punching the front door.
This certainly is unbecoming behavior, is it not?
However, this kind of reading fails to ask the obvious question: why did Mark include this pericope in his gospel? What kind of point was he aiming to make?
The answer is not hard to find. Jesus’ arrival at the fig tree is simultaneous to his arrival at the temple courts. These are the very same temple courts that should be mediating a way for Jew and Gentile to be reconciled to God. That is, the figurative branches of the temple courts should be laden with fruit. But instead Jesus finds the corruption of the money lenders, and brings God’s judgment accordingly. Thus it is quite obvious that the fig tree serves in the narrative minimally (if not exhaustively) as a symbol for the failure of Israel generally, and the temple in particular, to provide fruit.
If this “hard saying” of Jesus is relatively simple to deal with, others are more complex. Surely one of the hardest is the account of Jesus’ interaction with the Canaanite woman. Here it is in Matthew 15:
21 Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. 22 A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.”
23 Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”
24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”
25 The woman came and knelt before him.“Lord, help me!” she said.
26 He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
27 “Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
28 Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.
Let’s try to put this passage in context by dressing it up in modern terms. Let’s say that our concern is with the moral reputation of a black Southern preacher and reformer named Dr. Jones who labored in the deep south in the 1950s and 1960s to bring economic and social justice to black communities. You are writing a paper for university in which you argue that Dr. Jones was exemplary of the very best of the civil rights movement. However, you then come across the following account from an exchange in 1958 between Dr. Jones and a Latina housekeeper in Montgomery, Alabama:
Leaving the church, Dr. Jones walked down to the home of Fred Smith to plan the following week’s meeting. A Latina woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Dr. Jones, have mercy on me! My daughter has been falsely arrested for theft.”
Dr. Jones did not answer a word. So the other leaders came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”
He answered, “I was sent only to help black people.”
The woman came and knelt before him.“Dr. Jones, help me!” she said.
He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
“Yes it is, Reverend,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
Then Dr. Jones said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And at that moment Dr. Jones called the best lawyer in three counties to go down to the station and ensure the quick release of the lady’s daughter.
Certainly this exchange would seem to count against the moral excellence of Dr. Jones. He comes across as cold and uncaring, and perhaps even racist. A natural reading of the passage in Matthew is equally disturbing. Consequently, this pericope seems to count against the moral excellence of Jesus.
Every one of the so-called “hard sayings of Jesus” has generated much discussion. But whether it be cursing a fig tree or giving the brush off to a desperate mother, my purpose here is not to focus on offering standard replies to the various hard sayings.
My interest, instead, is to ask whether the hard sayings of Jesus constitute defeaters to claims for his moral excellence.
The simple way to look at this is by adding up all Jesus’ teaching and draw our independent assessment of its moral value. Now assuming that we take this method, it does not automatically follow that if we find some incident we cannot explain — such as the fig tree or the Canaanite woman — that we are obliged automatically to surrender belief in Jesus’ moral perfection.
Why is that? Well it is always possible that we haven’t figured out how what Jesus says and/or does fits into his moral vision. Take the example of Mr. Miyagi from “The Karate Kid” (I’m thinking here of the original 1984 film). Daniel wants to learn Karate and has been led to believe that Mr. Miyagi is a great Karate master. So the master has him painting fences and waxing cars. What’s with that? It makes no sense. But little does Daniel know that Miyagi has been using these techniques to prepare him for battle. It turns out that the instruction Daniel has received is brilliant after all. He just couldn’t appreciate its brilliance.
It is certainly possible that we can fail to appreciate the moral excellence of Jesus in a given circumstance just like Daniel failed to grasp Miyagi’s brilliance as a Karate trainer. And so the presence of a smattering of problematic hard sayings does not necessarily constitute a defeater for the belief in Jesus’ moral excellence.
I said that that is the simple way to look at things. There is a slightly more complicated way as well. On this view we don’t start with an assessment of the moral teachings of Jesus. Instead, we begin with some other hard sayings of Jesus, namely claims about his uniqueness and divinity including his unique Sonship language, I Am sayings, his authority to forgive sins, reinterpret the Law, reconstitute Israel in his twelve apostles, interpret himself as the Son of Man of Daniel 7, and so on. The cumulative impact of all these claims is significant, to say the least.
Next, we turn to evidence for the historical resurrection of Jesus. As Richard Swinburne (and many others) have pointed out, the extent to which we have evidence that Jesus was resurrected is the extent to which we have evidence that God was retroactively giving his stamp of approval on these many exalted claims and actions that Jesus made.
So if we have good reasons to accept that Jesus made unique claims, and that God affirmed those unique claims through the resurrection, then we also have good reasons to accept that God indirectly affirmed those unique claims.
And that means that we have a good, independent line of evidence to support the divine status of Jesus. However, once we have reason to believe that Jesus was divine (in addition to being human, of course), we also have independent reason to believe in the moral excellence of his teaching.
Thus, we have two distinct but mutually reinforcing ways to continue to affirm the moral excellence of Jesus despite the existence of hard sayings for which we may lack a satisfactory explanation.