“Wow, Jesus! Really? You said that?” I would say to myself.
After a 30-day New Testament reading plan, I was left surprised with how Jesus interacted with people.
He wasn’t always nice; he often dismissed, rebuked, challenged, questioned, and even ignored people. It wasn’t that I had never read these passages before, but being forced to read these stories back-to-back put forth an aspect of Jesus I had not noticed.
Jesus was much more confrontational, unpleasant, and “unkind” than I would have imagined. But why? Jesus models for us how being good does not always mean being nice.
Jesus’s Unexpected Responses
In Luke 11, a woman raised her voice in front of a crowd of people, drawing attention to herself, and complimented Jesus and his mother’s nurturing.
“Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts which you nursed!” she said.
It’s as if she’s saying, “You’re awesome and you have an awesome mom!” But Jesus responded, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!”
Not the response I’m sure she was expecting.
Again in Mark 10, a rich man compliments Jesus when he greeted him and says, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherent eternal life?” Jesus questions the rich man’s motives and responds, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.” Again, Jesus responds in a very confrontational, unfriendly manner.
He Didn’t Mean It Like That Though Did He?
You might be thinking I’m reading too much into these passages. We weren’t there; maybe Jesus said it in a humorous way that was actually very pleasant.
Alright, how should we interpret Matthew 16:23 when Jesus turned to his disciple Peter and said, “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”?
How do we make sense of Matthew 23? Jesus goes on a long rant and calls the scribes and Pharisees a family of snakes, blind guides, hypocrites, sons of murderers, etc. He insults them and undermines their authority. Or in John 8:44, where he says their father is the devil and that they desire to do what their devil-father wants them to do.
I could go on and on with examples, but none of these things are very nice. Nice people don’t talk like that … “good” Christians don’t talk like that. But, Jesus talked like that.
So how are we to interpret these verses? Was Jesus just a jerk? Why did he talk to people like this?
Jesus Valued People’s Well Being
Jesus was not just some jerk who didn’t care about people. We find that Jesus was never unpleasant because he didn’t care about people; he was unpleasant because he deeply cared about people.
Jesus’s sometimes unpleasant demeanor teaches us a lot about who God is, who we are, what we value, and what God values. These Bible passage lead us to the conclusion that Jesus wasn’t always nice, but he was always good.
The woman who raised her voice in the crowd just witnessed Jesus’s authority, insight, and teaching and as a result praised his mother’s child care. With all eyes and ears on her and Jesus, he took this opportunity to tell the crowd to focus rather on hearing God’s Word and keeping it.
The rich man wanted to know how to get into heaven, and Jesus took this heavy question seriously. The rich man thought he could win some brownie points by saying, “good teacher”, but Jesus shuts down his approach.
He basically says, “Flattery won’t work here, keeping the commandments is what’s important to God.” The rich man says, “I’ve kept all the commandments since I was a kid,” and then Jesus gets to the heart of the problem. He tells the rich man that he lacks one thing: giving up the thing he treasures most in his life (his riches), and following him. The rich man left the conversation sorrowful.
In both instances Jesus wasn’t being a jerk, he’s being a shepherd who cares for his people’s well being. He’s getting past all the flattery and drawing people’s attention to the most important things in life: loving God by hearing his Word, living it out, and being a follower of Christ.
There are dozens of more instances where Jesus responds to people “unkindly” by most people’s standards. We have to look at these instances soberly and ask, “Why did Jesus say that?”
In these uncomfortable instances, you will always find that Jesus valued truth, love, goodness, God the Father and his will, and the spiritual well being of people above anything else.
When he rebukes people, he doesn’t do it because he enjoys hurting people, he does it to expose their selfishness, pride, arrogance, false humility, evil deeds, etc., so that they can grow and draw close to the light.
Role Modeling Jesus
It’s important to note that we aren’t God. Because we don’t know everything about a person we don’t have the right to make these sudden judgments about people like Jesus did. Even so, there are a couple things we can model after him.
For one, giving a tough word was not Jesus’s default response. He often reserved rebuking someone for when it was the only way he could help them. This is reason he was consistently critical of the religious leaders, because exposing their pride was the only way to help them see the error of their way.
Secondly, we can only give people a tough word with loving purposes in mind. In John 4, Jesus says the Father is seeking worshippers who worship in spirit and in truth. Thats our goal. It’s not to ridicule and criticize; the goal is to enable people to better love God more.
Rebuking someone puts them in a position where they feel shame for some wrong. Feeling ashamed for wrongdoing enables the heart to see the need for God’s intervening grace, which in turn leads to love and adoration for who God is and relieves the shame because of Christ.
Having Christ’s Courage
Our culture doesn’t encourage this type of behavior. Dare I say, some of our churches would call Jesus’s behavior “un-Christlike.”
Calling people out, saying someone is wrong, giving a tough word when it’s appropriate is many times seen as hateful and unloving. But, in reality, it takes a great deal of courage and love to speak up and challenge someone.
You have to really want what’s best for someone to say something like, “You’ve got to give up materialism if you want to walk with God” or “Thanks for the compliment, but focus on hearing God’s word and living it out.”
Paul Coughlin, author of No More Christian Nice Guy: When Being Nice—Instead of Good—Hurts Men, Women, and Children, said in an interview about his book:
There is a much tougher love in the Bible then we emphasize. We don’t say it doesn’t exist, we just don’t make that part of our three-part sermons in church, and as a result our faith grows very, very weak. We’re also not redemptive sources for good like the way we’re supposed to be. We need that toughness in the Bible, and Jesus’s toughness in our lives, not only to bolster our own faith but to truly love other people and love God. Courage is the virtue that underpins all other virtues. Unfortunately, today in church, we’re told to leave our courage at the cross.
I’ve had moments where I’ve mimicked both the woman and the rich man and was called out for it.
In preparing for a gospel presentation as a young believer, my pastor exposed how my “spiritual insights” were actually unbiblical.
Another time, I expressed extreme zeal and enthusiasm for God with my pastor. In wisdom and love, my pastor questioned my motives and we found my zeal had more to do with the runner’s high I just got off of than a love for God.
These conversations were uncomfortable and I was left with some initial bitterness, but in the long run I’m grateful my pastor didn’t affirm my thoughts. I’m thankful for the godly teachers who responded to me like this growing up.
As followers of Christ, we need to look at how Jesus interacted with people as a role model in dealing with these situations. Being nice isn’t always the best response even if it will always be the more welcomed response.
Being quiet in the face of conflict, injustice, and evil doesn’t speak much of our tolerance, it speaks much of our cowardice and apathy. Jesus stood up and confronted these issues head on with courage, truth, and love.