There are a lot of things Jesus said we’d like to forget. This week’s reading from Matthew is one of them.
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one's foes will be members of one's own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” (Mt. 10:34-39)
It doesn’t exactly fit the Sunday school picture of Jesus I have hanging on the wall of my mind. It is not exactly the “family values” Jesus we hear so much about sometimes. In fact, sometimes it’s just hard to escape the conclusion that Jesus was just not all that nice a person, and we’re not even going to mention that incident with the moneychangers in the Temple. Or at least that’s what my mother would have said about someone she caught saying what Jesus had to say. And she would have forbidden me from having anything to do with him. After all, “Play nice,” was more than a suggestion.
What I wonder, though, is if being “nice” isn’t at least a lot of the time inconsistent with getting something done.
I’m struck by the people I think of as great leaders. They seem to place a low priority on being thought of as nice and a much higher priority on getting something done. Winston Churchill is an example. He was notoriously not nice. He did get something done, though, like saving Britain from the Nazis in World War II. My greatest hero, Abraham Lincoln, although he has the reputation of a good sense of humor, certainly didn’t think being nice was a value in prosecuting the Civil War with relentless vigor (and, believe me, in the part of the country I’m from, his reputation has nothing to do with being nice). That was true even when the South was trying to make a deal and surrender, and Lincoln was roundly criticized for what some saw as unnecessarily extending the suffering on both sides. John Adams—nobody liked him except Abigail. Grant, Sherman, Patton, MacArthur. Not nice at all. They all got something important done, though.
No one ever said Ezekiel was nice, nor Jeremiah. But they made God’s voice heard. Martin Luther was never accused of niceness. He led a Reformation. Nice is an idea that has never entered into anyone’s mind at the mention of Savonarola, but win or lose, he was a powerful voice of reform. Malcom X—not so nice, but injustice trembled before him.
Now, I don’t think I’m in danger of seeing any of these men as Jesus, mind you. All I’m wondering is if they might have something in common with him that we don’t like to look at so much. What I’m wondering if we prefer the meek and mild Jesus to the effective Jesus to make our own failures virtuous. And I’m wondering what would happen to our impact on the world in Jesus name if we gave up the idol of niceness as he did.