Why Does Jesus Behave Badly? Interview with Author Mark Strauss
A few years ago Dr. Mark Strauss was kind enough to allow me to interview him for my GodQuest apologetics curriculum. I first heard of Mark through an interview on the historical with Lee Strobel. After seeing the interview, I instantly knew that Mark was both a first-rate scholar and had a deep concern for the next generation. And so I have been following his work ever since!
Mark recently wrote an interesting and provocative book called Jesus Behaving Badly. He was kind enough to answer a few of my questions. Enjoy the interview, and then think about getting his excellent book:
SEAN MCDOWELL: What motivated you to write a book on "Jesus Behaving Badly"?
MARK STRAUSS: I have to admit that I did not come up with the title myself. InterVarsity had published a book by David Lamb called God Behaving Badly and so decided to do a series (look also for Paul Behaving Badly by Randy Richards and Brandon O'Brien coming soon). But when the book was offered, I jumped at the chance. Jesus says and does some very provocative things—things we don’t talk about much in Sunday school! He tells people to hate their own families (Luke 14:26), to cut off body parts (Matt. 5:29), to sell their coats and buy a sword (Luke 22:36). He curses a fig tree, causing it to wither, and sends 2000 pigs to their death in the lake. This is provocative stuff!
So the book is about the difficult sayings and actions of Jesus. But as I looked more deeply into these passages, I found that when Jesus is at his most puzzling, he is also at his most profound. We get to the heart of Jesus’ message and mission when we deal candidly with these difficult, paradoxical and provocative words and deeds of Jesus.
MCDOWELL: Most people think of Jesus as a gentle shepherd. Yet you say he preached Hell more than the apostle Paul. Can you explain?
STRAUSS: It is certainly true that Jesus talked more about Hell than anyone else in the Bible. I believe this is closely related to his central message—“the kingdom of God is at hand.” At its most fundamental, the coming of the kingdom means that God is reestablishing his sovereign reign and authority over a fallen creation. He is in the process of setting all things right. Jesus truly believed in the justice of God. In this chapter I discuss various views of Hell and make the point that this doctrine is really about the justice of God. In the end he will make all things right.
MCDOWELL: You raise the question of whether Jesus was a pacificist or a violent revolutionary. Can you explain?
STRAUSS: Yes, this is one of those great paradoxes in the Gospels. Jesus said some remarkably provocative things that seem to suggest violent revolution. He said he didn’t come to bring peace, but a sword, and to turn family members against one another (Matt. 10:34-35). He said he came to bring fire on the earth (Luke 12:49) and told his followers to sell their cloaks and buy swords (Luke 22:36)! He was crucified—the Roman punishment for rebellion and insurrection.
Yet at the same time Jesus encouraged his followers to turn the other cheek and not to retaliate (Matt. 5:39; Luke 6:29). He called them to love even their enemies (Matt. 5:44). How do we square these apparently contradictory messages?
The answer, I think, is in the nature of the war Jesus is waging. His mission at his first coming was not to destroy the Roman legions and establish Israel’s independence in the Land. He had a much greater goal, which had profound spiritual and cosmic significance. He was here to restore fallen creation. To do this he needed to defeat humanity’s greatest foes—Satan, sin, and death. And he accomplished this through his atoning death on the cross. Victory is achieved through a self-sacrificial act of love, not through violent reprisal.
MCDOWELL: Jesus seemed to favor his ethnocentric group over others. Would he have been considered racist today?
STRAUSS: At times Jesus does seem ethnocentric. For example, he tells his disciples to go only to the “lost sheep of Israel,” not to the Gentiles (Matt. 10:6). Even more shocking, when a Gentile woman asks Jesus to heal her daughter, he says that it was not good to take the children’s bread and give it to the dogs (Mark 7:24-32; Matt. 15:21-28). “Children” here refers to the Jews and “dogs” is a derogatory term for Gentiles. Jesus rejects her request and calls her names!
Yet while this may at first seem ethnocentric or even racist, it is in fact one of the most profound passages in the Gospels. When the woman persists in her request and says that even the dogs get the crumbs from the table, Jesus commends her and heals her daughter. By “changing his mind,” Jesus teaches a profound lesson. On the one hand, he emphasizes the priority of the Jews in salvation-history. They get the gospel first because they were meant to be a “light to the Gentiles.” Yet he commends the woman because she recognizes that all along it was God’s plan for salvation to extend to the Gentiles. In this passage Jesus is subversively challenging his disciples’ bias that God’s salvation was meant exclusively for the Jews.
I also love the fact that this is the only time in the Gospels that somebody “beats” Jesus in debate (he changes his mind and heals the girl). And it is a Gentile and a woman who does it!
MCDOWELL: Overall, what is your hope that people take from the book?
STRAUSS: As far as Christian readers are concerned, I hope the book encourages them to look at the Gospels with fresh eyes. Some of us have been Christians for so long we think we know pretty much everything there is to know about Jesus. Our view of him is settled. But we tend to avoid or explain away these offensive or provocative passages. Yet I’ve come to see that these passages really do get to the heart of Jesus’ message.
As far as non-Christians or skeptical readers are concerned, I’m hoping the title and topics will draw them in and spark their interest. Part of my purpose is certainly apologetic. I don’t think we need to be afraid of these difficult sayings and actions of Jesus. I have found the deeper we dive into Jesus’ life the more impressive and profound his words and actions become. They are truly life transforming.
Sean McDowell, Ph.D.is a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, a best-selling author of over 15 books, an internationally recognized speaker, and a part-time high school teacher. Follow him on Twitter: @sean_mcdowell and his blog: seanmcdowell.org.