I’m no grouch about that. I want nice children. And as basic civic values go in a diverse society, decency, courtesy, and tolerance are important. “Nice” works a lot of the time. But when more serious matters of discipline and formation arise, we see its limitations. It is well and good to avoid the meanies on the playground; but it won’t do to say “You’re mean!” when loving parents deny children a third scoop of ice cream or won’t let them knock holes in the wall for fun. Nor is it faithful to diminish Gospel truth for the sake of not seeming “mean.” On the other hand, some things that might be labelled “not nice” are actually willfully malicious or downright psychopathic: e.g. everything from physical assault or cruel insults to spitting gum into a urinal or borrowing someone’s car and returning it with an empty gas tank.
But typical niceness is a far cry from true Christian virtue. We need look no further than Jesus himself, who, like the prophets of Israel, is rarely ever nice, easy-going, or even safe. As Mrs. Beaver says about Aslan in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, “He isn’t safe, but he’s good. He’s the king.” Jesus isn’t nice, but he’s good. Indeed, he is goodness incarnate. He would never remove the football right before the kick, as Lucy meanly does to Charlie Brown. But he never minces his words about how to live.
For our edification, in descending order, here are ten times Jesus wasn’t nice, but is always good.
10. The woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11). It may seem nice to save a woman from being stoned until we consider Jesus’s impossible challenge: “Go, and from now on sin no more” (v. 11). Jesus saves the woman from her accusers so that he may save her from doing whatever has pleased her. For all the marvelous “love” talk in John’s Gospel, it doesn’t always mean what we want it to mean.
9. The rich young man (Matthew 19:16-22, Mark 10:17-22, Luke 18:18). This guy gets everything right until Jesus asks him to give up all of his wealth. He can’t do it, and he goes away “sorrowful.” Nice people don’t let their friends stay sad! Moreover, when rich Zacchaeus decides to follow Jesus (Luke 19:1-10), he only has to give up half of his horde. Unfair!
8. Family hatred (Matthew 10:37-38, Luke 14:26). There’s nothing nice to say about the cost of discipleship: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sister, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). This even applies to the Holy Family (Matthew 12:46-50, Mark 3:31-35, Luke 8:19-21). Mary is the highly favored God-bearer, but when Jesus needs to make a point about belonging to the family of God, she has to wait outside.
7. James and John want good seats (Matthew 20:20-28, Mark 10:35-45, Luke 22:24-27). Who wouldn’t want to be close to Jesus? In Matthew’s Gospel, James and John even get their mom to ask for them. A nice guy would say, “Hey, plenty of room up close for everyone!” Jesus instead shows them how foolish they are: “You do not know what you are asking.”
6. “Shake off the dust from your feet” (Matthew 10:14, Mark 6:11, Luke 9:5). Preaching the Gospel isn’t easy, or at least it shouldn’t be. Most people want to stay the way they are rather than change. They will settle for nice. Jesus says, move on from them.
5. Cursing the fig tree (Mark 11:12-25). It’s not even fig season, and Jesus lets this poor tree have it: “May no one ever eat fruit from you again” (v. 14). The lesson, on the other side of cleansing the temple (another mean moment!) is wondrously baffling. The word of God is powerful and true.
4. Canaanite/Syrophoenician woman (Matthew 15:21-28, Mark 7:24-30). Jesus at his initially exclusive and later reluctantly inclusive best. The woman calls herself a dog, and Jesus agrees with her. The polite thing would have been to redirect: “But what a cute dog!” But again, niceness would have ruined the teaching moment. By grace, we dogs get to go to heaven too.
3. “You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?” (Matthew 23:33). Jesus’s opponents take it in the teeth here in the conclusion to his “woes.” Even Jerusalem herself receives Jesus’s curse (23:37-39). Politeness or agreeableness? Nope. Jesus even goes after their attire (23:5) – definitely not nice.
2. Jesus’s words to the churches (Revelation 2:1-3:22). To the Ephesians, Jesus offers a dire warning, along with one word of not nice solidarity: “This you have: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate” (2:6). As for the prophetess of Thyatira, Jesus promises to “throw…into a sickbed…and strike her children dead” (2:22-23). Of the lukewarm Laodiceans he says, “I will spit you out of my mouth” (3:16). Yuck!
1. “Get behind me, Satan” (Matthew 16:23). This is the granddaddy of all biblical rebukes, and the epitome of not being nice. Peter no sooner confesses his faith in the God-man than reverts to his usual misfiring. Our disagreeable savior says and does whatever it takes to transform Peter and us for life in the kingdom. Thank God.
“It would have been better for that man if he had not been born!” (Matthew 26:24) If not for its recipient, this one would have to be high up in the top ten. But it’s Judas. Even the tenderest hearted among us knows he had it coming.
Improper banquet garb (Matthew 22:1-14). Luke leaves the final detail out, but Matthew is clear. You have to follow Jesus’s dress code to come to Jesus’s party. No nice-guy exceptions.
“I never knew you” (Matthew 7:21-23). Nice people give A’s for effort. Not Jesus. As Yoda says, “Do or do not. There is no try.” Our best intentions and our hardest strivings won’t be enough to hide a rotten heart.
“I have come not to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34). Nice people value keeping the peace over deciding on truth: What is so important we have to fight about it? Jesus is having none of it.
“I am not praying for the world…” (John 17:9). Get in line behind Israel, Gentiles.
The Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:1-42). How impolite to bring up all those exes?!
Everything about Gehenna (Matthew 5:22, Luke 12:5, etc…). Jesus does not joke around about what life without him is like. It’s not nice. Don’t try it.
It wouldn’t hurt for most of us to be a little bit nicer.
But the next time your kids are overly concerned about who is being nice, remind them that the Lord and Savior of the universe wasn’t usually nice. But he is good.
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