Was Jesus Mean?
When Jesus speaks or acts sternly, it seems like a far cry from nice. But it isn't a far cry from love.
BY: Mark Galli
Jesus opens his ministry as a rather exacting rabbi. He suddenly appears before two groups of fishermen and starkly commands them, “Follow me!” (Mark 1:16-20). He tells a deranged man to shut up and then causes him to writhe in pain (Mark 1:25-26). After Jesus heals a helpless leper, Mark says, “sternly warning him, [Jesus] sent him away at once” (Mark 1:43).
The Greek behind the phrase “sternly warning him” can mean “to denounce harshly, to scold.” And the phrase, “he sent him away at once” is a translation of the Greek verbekballo
, which elsewhere is translated “to drive out,” and “to throw out.” A plain reading of the passage suggests that Jesus scolds the man and then throws him out. It is no wonder that some ancient manuscripts read that at the opening of this incident Jesus, after being interrupted by this leper, is moved not with “pity” but with “anger.” That reading at least accords with Jesus' overall demeanor here.
This is not unusual behavior for our Messiah. Jesus throws people out of a room (ekballo again) so he can heal a child, and then he “strictly ordered” witnesses of the miracle to keep quiet (Mark 5:40, 43). He and Peter get into a row, each rebuking the other (Mark 8:32-33). Jesus becomes exasperated with a crowd and his disciples: “You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you?” (Mark 9:19). He curses a fig tree (Mark 11:13-14). He drives people out of the temple area (with a whip, according to John 2:15), overturning tables, and physically intimidating people to prevent their passing through (Mark 11:15-17).
Jesus' attitude toward authorities is hardly respectful. He calls Herod a fox (Luke 13:32), and he castigates the scribes and Pharisees at length, mocking them as “blind guides” and “hypocrites” (Matt. 23:24-25), and practically curses them, saying, “You are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth” (Matt. 23:27).
Such incidents crop up again and again in the Jesus story. That story, in fact, is inexplicable without them. If Jesus was merely loving, compassionate, and kind—if Jesus was only nice—why did both Jews and Romans feel compelled to murder him?
Naturally enough, these are not passages upon which we meditate in morning devotions, nor do we memorize them for inspiration. Why bother when, if we just keep reading, we’ll find something edifying? And so, despite their prominence in the Gospels, these passages remain foreign to us. And there’s a reason for that.
Today we are adherents of the Religion of Niceness. In this religion, God is a benevolent grandfather who winks at human mistakes, and it goes without saying that he always understands—after all, it is human to err, divine to forgive.