One of the things that has really struck me in these first few chapters of Mark’s Gospel is that Jesus really wasn’t a very nice guy. Compassionate? Yes. Kind? Most certainly. Just? Absolutely. But not nice.
We haven’t even gotten to the part of the story where Jesus really starts to tick people off, and already, in these first few chapters, we see that Jesus did not come to do nice things and make people like him.
In Mark 1:35-45, when Jesus encounters the man with leprosy, Mark tells us that Jesus was “moved with pity.” The Greek word translated as “pity” here is somewhat ambiguous and can also be translated as “indignation” or “anger.” Try that reading of the text: “A leper came to him. He knelt down and begged him, ‘If you want to, you can make me clean!’ And Jesus was deeply moved with anger. He reached out his hand and touched him, ‘I do want to: be clean!”
It changes the tone of the story, doesn’t it? If we go with this translation, what do we make of Jesus’ outrage? Is Jesus angry at the man because he is unclean? Is he angry that this leper has interrupted him and is demanding his valuable time? No, Jesus’ outrage is an expression of his deep compassion for this man and his fierce intolerance of injustice and evil in the world.
Or how about this story a couple chapters later, in Mark 3:1-6, the last of a heap of stories where Jesus is chided by the scribes because he keeps breaking Sabbath rules. It’s the story of a man who is suffering with a withered hand in the synagogue. The scribes and Pharisees are watching Jesus closely to see if he’ll break the rules again and heal this man on the Sabbath. Here’s how Mark tells it: “He [Jesus] was deeply upset at their hard-heartedness, and looked around the room angrily. Then he said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out—and his hand was restored” (italics mine).
These pictures of Jesus fly in the face of our beloved portraits of him as a congenial, calm and collected, really nice Messiah. Jesus gets mad. Really mad! As Megan preached in her sermon a couple weeks ago, Jesus doesn’t avoid controversy for the sake of politeness, he doesn’t withhold a difficult word or refrain from an action that he knows will upset others. Jesus is not a nice guy. After that scene in the synagogue with the healing of the man with the withered hand, Mark tells us “the Pharisees went out right away and began to plot with the Herodians against Jesus, trying to find a way to destroy him.” This is not the sort of thing you do to nice guys. Nice guys get pats on the back and nods of approval and have hundreds of Facebook friends. Nice guys don’t get crucified.
In making Jesus into a “nice guy,” I wonder if we’ve reduced discipleship to something as innocuous as just being nice people. But nice people don’t change the world. In her book Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church, Kendra Creasy Dean talks about “the triumph of the Cult of Niceness” and how studies show that most American teenagers “tend to view religion as a Very Nice Thing.” She goes on to explain: “[This means] that religion may be beneficial, even pleasant, but it does not ask much of them or even concern them greatly, as far as they can tell it wields very little influence in their lives” (p.33). Not only do American teenagers tend to view God as a friendly grandparent who just wants to affirm us all the time, but they see the point of religion as nothing more than helping us to be “nice” people. And where did they get this view of God and religion? From us adults.
The problem with this "Cult of Niceness," as Dean notes, is that nice is a “social lubricant,” a “cheap and versatile adjective” that “offers a nod without a commitment” (p.33). Nice doesn’t let you get mad. Nice doesn’t allow you to rightly be outraged in the face of suffering and injustice. Nice sends this message: “Avoid conflict at all cost. Don’t rock the boat. Do whatever it takes to get along and be liked, even if truth and justice get shoved aside.” Nice smothers the embers of the righteous anger of which St. Paul speaks and leaves behind cool ashes of indifference and apathy.
Eugene Peterson puts it this way: "It is in the things that we care about that we are capable of expressing anger. A parent sees a child dart out into a roadway and narrowly miss being hit by a car, and angrily yells at the child, at the driver--at both." This anger (not to be confused with rage) is evidence of concern: "Indifference would be somehow inhuman" (A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, p.127).
Untamed discipleship is not about being nice. It is about passionately following Jesus. It is about caring intensely about the things that God cares about. It is about submitting ourselves fully to the One who claims us as his own and sharing in his mission of justice and restoration. Let’s not confuse this with the ridiculous and shallow notion of just being nice. To take our call as disciples seriously means that we will not always be nice. Love of God and neighbor will compel us to say and do things that will not be very nice and probably get us in trouble. Rather than avoiding conflict, following Jesus will likely lead us right into the thick of conflict and controversy.
In other words, to follow Jesus will require us to take up the cross.
And the cross is not very nice.