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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 verb ekballo, 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.

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).

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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