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.

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In her essay “Nice Is Not the Point,” Marilyn Chandler McEntyre writes, “One of my husband’s finer moments in parenting came one day when, after he had uttered an unwelcome word of correction to a disgruntled child, he leaned down, looked her in the eye, and said, ‘Honey, this is what love looks like.’ Love, in that case, must have seemed to her a far cry from nice.”

When Jesus speaks sternly to the healed leper, when he castigates the Pharisees, when he rebukes Peter, it seems like a far cry from nice. But it isn’t a far cry from love. Simply put, when Jesus is not nice, he’s trying to get people to do the right thing.

Take the healed leper. The context of Jesus’ sternness is quickly made clear: “After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, saying to him, ‘See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.’ But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter” (Mark 1:43-45).

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Jesus realizes that the leper is grateful and that he wants to do something extraordinary for Jesus. But Jesus does not want the extraordinary. He wants the man to do what the day’s religious conventions (as outlined in Leviticus 14) told him to do. If the man really wanted to do something for Jesus, he would have played it by the book. This would have demonstrated to the authorities that Jesus was no law breaker (an accusation he knew he’d have to confront sooner or later), and this would have allowed Jesus to continue his ministry in towns throughout Galilee.

As commentator Ben Witherington puts it, the man healed of leprosy “bore witness about the wrong thing in the wrong way.” Thus Jesus could no longer enter towns and therefore synagogues--houses of worship and education, the richly symbolic place where he would have preferred to speak about the fulfillment of Israel. Now people began to mob him, not to hear his message so much as to be healed of their infirmities.

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