Beckett: Jesus Is Not Nice

Yes, I purposefully gave this article a clickbaity title, and it got you here.

Jesus is not nice. What do I mean by this? Well, what do we usually mean when we say we want someone to be “nice”? Mothers want their daughters to find a nice guy. Teachers discipline students (especially boys) for not being “nice.” A single man suffering with loneliness often says, “Nice guys finish last.” To be a Christian is to be a “nice person.” Thus, “One of the cardinal sins in civilized society is to not be nice,” but niceness “is not a Christian virtue.” It is “akin to the word tolerance which is pop-culture speak for ‘Let me do whatever I want.'”[1] But Jesus does not permit you to do whatever you want. So, Jesus is not nice.

What we usually mean when we talk about niceness is that we want people to be “agreeable, mild-mannered,” and “not mean or harsh.”[2] These are certainly desirable qualities, but that’s not exactly what we mean either. When any Christian tells someone they’re living in sin, for example, they’re accused of being judgemental, not being a good Christian, not being “nice.” This happened to Jesus too, as we shall see.

The meaning behind the intended meaning is someone who’s demure and spineless. In its earliest use in English, “dating back to the 1300s, the word nice meant ‘foolish, simple, silly, or ignorant.’ …It’s not desirable to be nice.”[3] Thus, niceness as we intend it and its original meaning is neither a desirable quality to have in a person nor an appropriate description of Jesus.

When we read the Gospels, Jesus is the opposite of niceness. He is not demure and spineless. In fact, when we read the Gospels, He’s not very likable, at least by today’s standards of “being nice.”

Not a Nice Hometown Boy

When Jesus begins His earthly ministry, the first miracle He performs is at the wedding at Cana. When they run out of wine, His mother says, “They have no wine,” expecting Him to do something about it. Instead, He seems to impudently say, “Woman, what does this have to do with Me? My hour has not yet come” (John 2:4). Jesus is not violating the 4th Commandment here because, as the author of Hebrews makes clear, Jesus is sinless (4:15). “Nevertheless, for Jesus to treat His mother as just another disciple in need of his gentle correction is anything but nice in the modern sense of the term.”[4] If my mother told me we’re out of wine and I responded with, “Woman, what does this have to do with me,” she would slap me upside the head.

But how else does Jesus respond? He solves the problem! “Jesus doesn’t do half-measures. It’s the choicest vintage ever to cross the human palate,” having supplied about “120-180 gallons, or 600-750 bottles of wine,” which is “enough to keep the party going for a few more days… That’s not nice; it’s reckless.”[5]

When Jesus read from the scroll of Isaiah (61:1) in His hometown, Nazareth, declaring its Word of the Good News of forgiveness to them, the poor in spirit, in their hearing it, they did not respond so well. Instead of trying to diffuse the situation, “Jesus intensified it. No prophet is welcome in his hometown, He rebuffed. And sometimes it’s the outsiders, like the widow from Zarephath and Naaman the Syrian, to whom God shows favor instead of the insiders” like them.[6] Jesus clearly offended them, so they drove Him out of the synagogue and tried to throw Him off a cliff (Luke 4:16-30). Clearly, Jesus was not the nice hometown boy we often imagine Him to be.

Then again with His mother, a woman praises the Mother of God, “Blessed is the womb that bore You, and the breasts at which You nursed!” You’d think Jesus would concur—because she bore the Son of God! But He didn’t. Instead, He essentially interrupts this woman and redirects the praise to a different set of organs: Mary’s ears. “Blessed rather are those who hear the Word of God and keep it!” (Luke 11:27-28). After all, it was through Mary’s hearing the Word of God that she conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, and it was her continual hearing of the Word that she was one of Christ’s disciples. If Jesus did this today, Wokeists would accuse Him of mansplaining.

Jesus also isn’t very nice when He says to the crowds following Him, “If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple” (Luke 14:26-27). Ouch, Jesus. That hurts my feelings. Jesus’ point is clear, though. “If good gifts from God—family, friends, children, possessions, or anything else—become more important than the Giver of the gifts, then even they are idols.” Niceness “[makes] room for divided devotion,”[7] but you cannot serve two masters (Matthew 6:24).

Not a Nice Community Leader

Jesus isn’t a very nice person in the Jewish community either. Twice He wrecks the Temple. “Finding the temple courtyard filled with people profiting off the sale of animals for the ritual sacrifices, Jesus did what any respectable God with human flesh would do. He wove a whip out of cords[8] and, treating the profiteers as belligerent animals, He used the whip to drive them and their herds out of the temple. Then He overturned the tables of the money-changers and gave them a verbal tongue lashing (John 2:13-17).”[9] This is why my favourite response to the “What Would Jesus Do” crowd is, “Flipping over tables and chasing people around with a whip are within the realm of possibility.”

Matthew records a similar event in his Gospel account. He drove out the people and flipped over their tables and rebuked them, saying, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers” (21:12-13). “C’mon, Jesus! People are just trying to make a living,” right? So what? There is no room for “niceness” when God’s house is being dishonoured and disrespected.

When Mary and Martha summon Jesus to heal their brother, Lazarus, who is sick and dying, Jesus takes His sweet time getting there. You would think He’d rush to get over there to heal His friend. Instead, He takes the time to raise the son of the widow from Nain from the dead as well as the daughter of the synagogue official, Jairus. He delays for two days, and Lazarus dies (John 11:1-44). Sure, Jesus raises him from the dead once He gets there, but (a) He could’ve prevented the grief of Lazarus’ sisters watch him die, and (b) He could’ve simply said the word from miles away to heal him like He did with the centurion’s servant (Luke 7:1-10)! But Jesus deliberately delays. Not very nice.

Not a Nice Adversary

Sometimes Jesus is even deliberately aggressive. Nice people are not like this. Usually, they allow their adversaries to walk all over them. Not Jesus. Rather, He doubles down on His spoken Word and stands His ground when His adversaries test Him (Matthew 19:3; 22:35; Mark 8:11; Luke 10:25). But He also goes on the offensive, “inciting His adversaries to respond.”[10] To use modern lingo, He trolls them.

For example, when He encounters a man with a withered hand, He knows what the scribes and Pharisees are thinking. He knows they’re waiting to bushwhack Him to see if He’ll heal on the Sabbath so they can accuse Him of profaning the Sabbath. So, what does He do? Does He refrain from healing the man or come up with some nice away of speaking with them? No. Rather, “He pokes the hornets’ nest.”[11] He brings up exactly what they’re thinking, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to destroy it?” When they don’t answer, He heals the man (Luke 6:6-11). In Mark’s account, Jesus looked at them “with anger” and “grieved at their hardness of heart” (3:5). Against our pictures of Mr. Nice Guy Jesus, we get this image of anger on His face. Imagine Jesus looking at you in anger! That’s terrifying.

Jesus’ words toward His opponents are kind of mean. He calls them a “brood of vipers” (Matthew 12:34), an “evil and adulterous generation” (v. 39), “hypocrites… blind guides… blind fools… blind men… hypocrites… whitewashed tombs… sons of those who murdered the prophets… serpents… brood of vipers” (23:13-36). This is hardly the language of a nice guy.

Not a Nice Rabbi

Jesus doesn’t even speak very nicely toward His own disciples! (What self-respecting teacher does when they mess up?) Jesus makes up some new words in His discourses during His earthly ministry, and one of these words is ὀλιγόπιστος (oligopistos) for the singular, or ὀλιγόπιστοι (oligopistoi) for the plural. Breaking it down, it’s two words combined into one: oligos for “few/little” and pistis for “faith,” essentially “littlefaiths,”[12] which is often translated as, “O you of little faith.” Jesus uses this word five times.

The first time He uses it is when He criticises people for being anxious about food, drink, and clothing. God provides for the sparrows every day; He sustains their very life and breaths. He clothes the earth itself. How much more, then, will He care for you, “you littlefaiths?”[13] (Matthew 6:25-34). Later, when Jesus is sleeping during a storm on the Sea of Galilee and the disciples, terrified for their life, wake Him up and beg Him to save them from the storm, He says, “Why are you afraid, you littlefaiths?” (8:26).

After Jesus fed the 10,000+ people “with the lunch of one little boy clever enough to have brought food for the day-long confirmation class,” when the disciples leave in a boat while Jesus goes off to pray by Himself and later catches up with them by walking on water, the “ever-impetuous Peter challenges Jesus to bid him walk out on the water to Him, to prove that Jesus is really Jesus.”[14] But when Peter gets distracted by the wind, becomes afraid, and begins to sink, after Jesus grabs him by the hand He says, “You littlefaith, why did you doubt?” (Matthew 14:31).

Jesus uses this word two more times when His disciples freak out that they don’t have any food, forgetting how Jesus fed over 10,000 people with food barely enough for two people (Matthew 14:13-21; 15:32-39; 16:8). This last time He uses the word follows on the heels of when He laments over His people, “O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you?” (17:17). Nobody likes to be told they have little faith, or to be accused of faithlessness. We wouldn’t call that nice behaviour.

But we’re hardly finished. Once again, Peter “finds himself the object of Jesus’ not-so-nice rebuking when he thinks he can play the hero and prevent Jesus from suffering crucifixion at the hands of the Gentiles.”[15] Just before this, Jesus commends Peter for his confession, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus commends him by saying, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Directly following this, Jesus tells His disciples that He’s on His way to Jerusalem to be crucified and later raised on the third day, and Peter reacts, “Far be it from You, Lord! This shall never happen to You!” And how does Jesus respond? Not with, “O you littlefaith” or something far nicer, but, “Get behind Me, Satan! You are a hindrance to Me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God but on the things of man” (Matthew 16:13-23). As Rev. Hemmer puts it, “Holy smokes! Overreact much, Jesus?”[16]

Jesus also doesn’t respond very nicely to those outside His inner circle. His response to the Canaanite woman is such an infamous account. She’s an outsider. As a Canaanite, her very existence is a reminder that the people of Israel failed to obey Yahweh’s command to kill every living Canaanite as they took the Promised Land (Deuteronomy 20:17). Even worse, she is also a reminder that the Israelites intermarried with them and abandoned Yahweh to worship their false gods. So, here she comes, and she has this beautiful, concise prayer that hardly any Jews were able to articulate, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” And how does Mr. Nice Guy Jesus respond? “He doesn’t. He ignores her. The silence is deafening. The crowd is hushed by the awkwardness of this interaction. But she persists. She keeps crying out. It gets so uncomfortable for the rest of the crowd that the disciples have to intervene, ‘Send her away; she keeps crying out after us’ (v. 23). So Jesus answers, ‘I was sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’ (v. 24). Ouch. Not a Jew? Not for you.”[17]

But she persists, “Lord, help me.” Then comes Jesus’ response that lead many—even so-called Christians—to accuse Jesus of racism, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” In our culture, we love dogs; we even idolise them. But this is no compliment; this is a deep insult. We might be offended on her behalf, but notice how the woman is not offended. She knows she doesn’t need a nice guy; she knows that she needs a Saviour. So, she agrees with Him, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” She’s essentially saying, “I’d rather be a dog at Your table than an enemy not invited” (cf. Psalm 23:5). And Jesus commends her faith and heals her daughter (Matthew 15:21-28).

The Gospel reading for this past Sunday (the 10th Sunday after Pentecost) was Luke 12:49-56In that discourse, Jesus says, “I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled! …Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” What?! A fiery Word? Divisions in families? Nice guys don’t cause division and say mean things! But wherever Christ’s Word is preached and taught in all its purity and truth, division will abound, and offence is given because we don’t like being told we’re sinners in need of a Saviour.

Nice guys aren’t accused of anything, but Jesus was wrongfully accused of being a glutton and a drunkard and rightfully identified as a friend of tax collectors and sinners (Luke 7:34; Matthew 11:19). That’s not nice. That’s offensive—scandalous, even. But that’s Jesus for ya’.

If Jesus Isn’t Nice, What Is He?

Hopefully you get the point by now. So, what’s the point in saying all this? You’ve probably noticed by now that I’ve quoted a lot from Rev. Jeff Hemmer’s book, Man Up!, which is what inspired me to write this article. His book is intended for a male audience that brings men to look at Jesus as the exemplar of true masculinity. Thus, as men look to Him as what it means to be a real man, we will always be embarrassed at how short we always come. This is the point of what Hemmer says:

No, Jesus is not a nice guy. But He’s good… This is the lesson for masculinity. No, you don’t get to drive people out of congregations with a whip. But you should make a firm defense for what is good, even if it irritates people. No, you don’t get to needlessly call people names. But you should avoid mincing words when the choice is between hurting someone’s feelings and allowing evil to continue… Jesus is good… And yet He doesn’t fit the mold of a twenty-first-century emasculated nice guy. He hates injustice, offense, and false righteousness. He won’t tolerate anything that separates His people from Him. He will fight against false doctrine. He is intensely compassionate. He perfectly and completely loves all the people He has to treat with rough language. His goal in everything is their good, their salvation. When He offends, He does so in the same way that the Word of God is offensive. The Law, which calls all men sinners, is offensive. Moreover, the Gospel, which declares that men are saved from their sinfulness and, ultimately, from themselves, is even more offensive [and scandalous!]. The cross is always an offense. It is not nice. But it is good. (Hemmer, 141-142)

So, Jesus is not nice, but He is good. So, Jesus does good. Jesus speaks good. Whatever, therefore, is not good will find Him offensive, not nice. This means evil—sin, death, and the devil—are offended by Him. As Christians, therefore, this means we do not speak what is “nice” but what is good. As Hemmer rightly says, this does not give us a licence to be jerks. Rather, we have a duty to do and to say what is good. This means those who don’t like what we have to say—that is, what Christ has to say—won’t find us as very nice. That’s why they say you’re not “being nice” or you’re “not a good Christian” when you call out sin for what it is: it results in death, “but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23). This message of Law and Gospel—the message Christ preached and for which He died and rose again, the message He passed down to the Apostles and the church—is not a nice message, but it is good because it comes from the Good One for the good of those who love Him (Romans 8:28). It is not nice, but it is bold. It is risky. It is assertive.

Just as Jesus preached to His hometown, it is Good News—news that doesn’t leave you in the cesspool of your own sin for the sake of “niceness.”

[1] Jeffrey Hemmer, Man Up! The Quest for Masculinity (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2017), 128.

[2] Ibid., 128.

[3] Ibid., 129.

[4] Ibid., 129.

[5] Ibid., 129-130.

[6] Ibid., 130.

[7] Ibid., 131.

[8] “Where, pray tell, did He get those? Are the raw materials for a whip just part of the everyday carry for the Son of God?” Ibid., 131.

[9] Ibid., 131-132.

[10] Ibid., 133.

[11] Ibid., 133.

[12] Ibid., 134-135.

[13] The following “littlefaiths” translations are all from Rev. Jeff Hemmer.

[14] Ibid., 135.

[15] Ibid., 136.

[16] Ibid., 136.

[17] Ibid., 137.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close