I made waves in a book group a few months ago when I said that the Gospel isn’t about being nice. Or kind. Or being “a good person.” Like Jesus says to the pious young man (who was doing all the right things to be “a good person”) you haven’t done everything. You still have stuff. You still aren’t following me.
I was trying to explain the problem with Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD). We were getting hung up on this opening point. That Jesus and the gospel isn’t only about being nice and kind.When I said Jesus wasn't about nice, I was not saying Jesus is therefore about being mean. Click To Tweet
What provoked the response, I believe, is our persistent issue with sight, forests, and trees. We struggle to adjust our binoculars. We look too close and miss the forest, but then we pan out and miss the trees, too.
When I said Jesus wasn’t about nice, I was not saying Jesus is therefore about being mean. I meant just that nice isn’t his bag. Love is his bag. Nice, not so much.
Nice is like a tree. Love is like the forest. And few forests are made up of a single tree. Not a single kind of tree. I mean one tree.
We skipped an important story in the lectionary.
Between the gospel text of the last two weeks, we skipped over a chapter’s worth of material, including a significant story about Jesus. Now, I know why we skip it. It’s a hard one. And it might lead us off the track if we aren’t paying attention.
But skipping it means we lose sight of an essential part about Jesus. He isn’t a good dinner guest. At least to the Pharisees.
This is the second time in Luke we get Jesus eating at the house of a Pharisee. The last time, he humiliated a puffed-up Pharisee who worries about what people think of him. And in the end, he’s brought lower than a prostitute.
This time, he chastises a Pharisee and a lawyer for calling him out. He didn’t wash his hands. No biggy, right? Except this goes against ritual purity laws. It is quite a disturbing moment if you ask me. He is a bad guest, rude to his hosts, and berates them for their authority. What are we supposed to do with this?
Or more specifically, don’t do anything to it. Don’t whitewash it. Don’t pretend that this means something it doesn’t. Don’t explain it away.
One of the oldest heresies, and one which is quite common today, is harmonizing. We often deal with conflicts by making them disappear or pretend they aren’t conflicts at all!
The heresy was about making one “true” gospel out of four different ones. It meant smoothing over rough spots, adding what wasn’t present in the text and choosing among conflicting stories. It was about changing the story to match our view and pretending we had the only gospel.
We see this when Mel Gibson makes a movie about the Passion and uses every detail from all four gospels, even when they conflict (and borrow heavily from a fifth mystic source). And we see it when we combine Matthew’s flight to Egypt and Luke’s shepherds for the annual Christmas pageant.
We also see it when we excuse bad behavior and call it love. Or we explain our own horrible actions as trying to redeem. When our cruelty is masquerading as love.
We rewrite Jesus to fit our worldview.We rewrite Jesus to fit our worldview. Click To Tweet
If we believe Jesus is always nice, we are bound to harmonize those places where he isn’t.
That’s why it is more honest to say Jesus isn’t nice.
Not always. Not to these Pharisees.
This isn’t the same thing as saying he’s a jerk. That’s to paint Jesus with a different wrong brush.
So why do I think this story is important?
Jesus deals directly with dishonest people. For him, it isn’t about nice or mean. It is about drawing attention to the hypocrisy of powerful people. The first thing he says to them, when they get all huffy about his dirty hands is
“Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness.”
He shifts their attention from the following of rules to the purpose of rules. They obsess about physical cleanliness (the tree) and miss the part about why purity laws exist in the first place (the forest)! It isn’t about being clean but about our relationship with GOD.
We don’t follow GOD’s laws because they are laws.
The Law doesn’t divide us into good and bad where good people follow laws and bad people break them.
We follow the law GOD has given us to please GOD. But GOD isn’t pleased with rule following in itself. There are plenty of horrible people following rules and plenty of saintly people breaking rules.
For Jesus, the point isn’t the rules. That’s exterior, window dressing. The point is the love and devotion and faith we show which comes from our hearts which matters.
So Jesus goes at them about their insides. But he doesn’t stop there:
You fools! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? So give for alms those things that are within; and see, everything will be clean for you. But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and herbs of all kinds, and neglect justice and the love of God; it is these you ought to have practiced, without neglecting the others.
Here he pushes harder. They try to punish Jesus for breaking the rules. But the rules they’re breaking are far more abhorrent to GOD. They’re literally hurting people.
A lawyer pipes up and says he feels insulted by Jesus. He should! Jesus is taking them to task!
This should disturb all who think Jesus should never be rude and never be tough on people. It should also disturb all who think Jesus loves the sinner, but hates the sin. Jesus isn’t pleasing any of us here.
Jesus takes to task the people who
- should know better
- make life harder for other people
- who miss the forest for the trees
- who obsess about rules
and makes the gospel far more complicated and simple than the Pharisees try to make it.
Jesus isn’t nice to these people. He isn’t nice to them because they have committed a particularly heinous crime: they have made themselves a stumbling block. And then they go about getting people to trip over them.
Woe to you lawyers! For you have taken away the key of knowledge; you did not enter yourselves, and you hindered those who were entering.
Nice isn’t the point. Love is.
Rules aren’t the problem. Hindering the faith is.
Jesus takes the Pharisees and their associates, the lawyers, to task in this passage for their abuse. But it isn’t because they’re bad people or because Jesus is a jerk. It’s because they’re doing wrong. They’re wounding the faith of good people. They’re being stumbling blocks to the little ones.
This draws out the protective, rebuking Jesus.
This is the side of Jesus many fire-spitting Christians love. The protective, loving Jesus now looks like a badass. This Jesus doesn’t take any guff. He wants the real truth.
Time to weaponize Jesus.
Some like to throw this Jesus at members of the faith who have a broad view of love or support the LGBTQ community.
This vision of Jesus excuses a self-certain and righteous defense of the faith. Not trotted out on behalf of the victims of injustice or neglect or the ones abused by an unjust system. Not to deal with the injustices Jesus or the multitude of prophets before him named. But to argue that our support of the disenfranchised is not support at all. But hatred.
That our expressions of love are really hate. That our hope for their welfare is destructive. That we are leading good people to their destruction.
To make love into hate, many twist and turn the rebuke of the Pharisees to defend their own unjust actions. They force him through a fun house mirror, where love becomes hate and their own venomous hate, spat vindictively, somehow becomes the warm caress of love and support. Like the batterer loves his victim.
These attacks hinder the faithful, the weak, the unloved and forgotten, the poor, the widowed, the ones cast out. These hinder the children of GOD who seek to know GOD. It isn’t love. It’s a millstone around the neck and a toss in the sea. “For love.”
Don’t harmonize this gospel. Don’t change what it says. It needs to be tough.
Jesus isn’t nice to these people because they are being cruel.
The trouble with these moments is we want to listen to Jesus. We want to follow him where he goes, so we read it as if Jesus is writing a new rule for us.
This isn’t a new rule.
Jesus isn’t being spiteful because one was spiteful with him. He condemns cruelty directly and honestly. He isn’t cruel or rude or menacing or manipulative in return. But names their cruelty. And many of us would struggle to see the truth when Jesus turns a true mirror toward us.
We don’t weaponize Jesus and we don’t make this into a how-to manual for judging our neighbors.
Jesus is confronting the religious authority from below for their transgressions.
He isn’t showing us what to do to our neighbors.
Jesus shows us how to respond to systemic injustice.Jesus is showing us how to respond to systemic injustice. Click To Tweet
Richard Rohr argues in his book on the Enneagram
[Two types] have a special importance for us because their root sins were not recognized in Western Christianity as such: fear…and deceit… So long as these two sins remain unrecognized they are the source of great danger for our society.
Rohr argues that we struggle to even recognize fear and deceit as sin. Even though Jesus speaks at great length about fear and assuaging fear. And pushes on the Pharisees and the elites for their dishonest treatment of the weak.
And even though we know they are wrong, we struggle to call them sin. We struggle to think of them as problems.
We easily excuse our little white lies and we frighten our neighbors into voting.
But that’s OK, we think. This is important.
As long as we are deceitful (even with ourselves) about Jesus and fear one another, we miss the crux of Jesus’s response.
We can find this in his response to the lawyer:
“Woe also to you lawyers! For you load people with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not lift a finger to ease them. Woe to you! For you build the tombs of the prophets whom your ancestors killed.”
Jesus names the sin the elites ignore. He condemns their treatment of the weak and how they hinder the multitudes.
Indeed, when we ignore deceit and succumb to fear, we miss Jesus’s message. It is we who become the Pharisee and the lawyer, condemned for our hindrance.
And how do we respond? Perhaps like the Pharisees did to Jesus’s prophecy:
When he went outside, the scribes and the Pharisees began to be very hostile towards him and to cross-examine him about many things, lying in wait for him, to catch him in something he might say.
Then what does Jesus do? He tells his followers not to be taken in by their deceit, but face their fear. Not fear of losing standing in the world, as many Christians do today. But facing the fear of abuse, of hatred, of literal death.
They will be victims of abuse because that is the way of Rome, and in their complicit place, the Jewish elites. The disciples will suffer.
Causing suffering isn’t the way of GOD. Confronting abuse is. GOD is about liberation.
Jesus isn’t talking about nice.
He’s talking about new life. He’s talking about liberation. He’s talking about love.
Not deceptions. Not abuse we call love, or imprisonment in conversion therapy. Or anger masquerading as truth.
That kind of love isn’t nice. And it isn’t being a jerk. And it isn’t dishonest or fearful or nasty.
Actual honesty. Actual bravery. Actual love.
Jesus calls us to love like we know love. Love as freeing. As giving and receiving in mutual relationship. As the ground of our being.
For Jesus, it isn’t about nice. It’s about recognizing love takes two. And sometimes we have to remind each other of that.