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When Jesus Isn’t Nice

February 4, 2021 • Life for Leaders

Scripture – Luke 9:59-62 (NRSV)

To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

Focus

Sometimes Jesus isn’t nice. This can be upsetting to us even if we realize that “niceness” was not the point of Jesus’s mission. Still, we can wonder why Jesus seems to be unkind. The fact is that he is rather like a doctor who tells a patient the truth even when that truth is hard to hear. Jesus doesn’t want superficial niceness. He wants a truthful relationship with us. He wants us to follow him fully and freely.

Today’s devotion is part of the series Following Jesus Today.

Devotion

As a boy growing up in Sunday School, I quickly learned that it wasn’t okay to be unhappy with anything Jesus did or said. He was, after all, my personal Savior. He was also God in human flesh. If Jesus said or did something, it had to be good. Once in a while we could say “I don’t understand that,” but never “I don’t like that.”

In graduate school I was a teaching fellow for a course called “Jesus and the Moral Life.” I found myself talking about the Gospels with people who had not grown up in Sunday School and were not trying to follow Jesus. If we had discussed Luke 9:59-62 in our discussion section – which we very well might have done – some of my students would say things like, “I think Jesus was being unreasonable here,” or “I don’t like what Jesus said. It seems insensitive, even mean.” At first was distressed by what I was hearing from my students. But, in time, I learned to appreciate their candor. They could be honest about Jesus in a way I struggled to be. In this way, they actually helped me confront the real Jesus in a new way. They encouraged me to be honest about my real responses to Jesus as I was in the process of getting to know him more truly and deeply.

Let me confess to you, therefore, that my first reaction to today’s passage is not positive. I can say without remorse that I’m perplexed by what Jesus says in this portion of Luke. And, if I’m really honest, I would admit that I don’t really like it. Jesus called a man to follow him but the man wanted to bury his dead father first. Jesus’s response, “Let the dead bury their own dead” seems unnecessarily unkind. Then, when another man offered to follow Jesus but wanted to say goodbye to his family, Jesus pretty much told him that he was not fit for the kingdom of God. What? Followers of Jesus can’t bury their dead parents or even say goodbye to their families? What’s up with this? Jesus is certainly not being very nice here.

I’ve been a Christian long enough to know that Jesus didn’t come to be nice. But I do know that Jesus was supremely loving and good. What he said to his potential disciples in Luke 9:59-62 at first glance doesn’t seem to be either of these. This suggests that I am missing something in my interpretation.

What am I missing? For one thing, I am missing much of the context for Jesus’s sayings. I don’t know anything about the man who wanted to bury his father, besides his sense of responsibility for his family, something valued deeply in his culture. Given Jesus’s response, I wonder if he knew there was more going on with this man then simply a reasonable need for burial. Perhaps Jesus saw deeper resistance in the man’s soul and was bringing it to the surface out of concern for his well-being. Similarly, Jesus might have known that the one who wanted to say farewell to his family had many other issues that would hinder his discipleship. The problem is that we don’t know and really can’t know what was going on beneath the surface here. But it wouldn’t surprise me if Jesus was using his words as a scalpel to remove deeper tumors than what we can see on the surface. Jesus often did that sort of thing, after all.

What I am also missing is something that challenges me in my own discipleship. Jesus quite clearly put allegiance to the kingdom of God above allegiance to family. This was even more shocking in his own day than it is in ours. Yet, as one raised to value family above just about everything else in life, I can miss Jesus’s priority of the kingdom not because I don’t recognize it, but because I don’t like it. Now, there is surely much in Scripture to underscore the importance of family. Don’t get me wrong. But some of us stretch the goodness of family love to such an extent that it can get in the way of our discipleship.

The fact is that Jesus isn’t necessarily “nice” in his dealings with us. He calls us to hard things and says hard things to us. In this way he reminds me of my doctor, who is deeply committed to my health. Sometimes this commitment has led him to say things to me that have been hard to hear, things related to ways I am not taking good care of myself. In those moments, my doctor isn’t being nice. But he is doing what is best for me even though it’s hard for me to receive it. Jesus can be rather like this, don’t you think?

Reflect

How do you respond to the two scenes in Luke 9:59-62? What do you think? What do you feel?

Have you ever experienced Jesus as saying hard things to you or asking you to do something hard? What was this like? What happened?

As you think about your discipleship today, are there things that are holding you back from following Jesus fully and freely? What are those things? What might you do about them?

Act

With your small group or a wise friend, talk about Luke 9:59-62 and your reactions to this passage. See if you can discern with greater clarity what Jesus is saying to you through this text.

Pray

Lord Jesus, sometimes when I read the Gospels I find myself quite unsettled by things you did and said. I wonder, for example, why you responded to those two potential disciples in a way that can feel unkind. Lord, I believe you always do the loving thing. But sometimes, as in this case, it’s hard for me to see it.

Lord, I do want to follow you more fully and freely. I’m sure there are things in my life that are holding me back. Help me, I pray, to see those things so that I might deal with them. Help me to trust you so fully that I am not afraid to let go of whatever is holding me back from deeper discipleship. May your kingdom take first place in my life. To you be all the glory. Amen.


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Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the unique website of our partners, the High Calling archive, hosted by the Theology of Work Project. Reflection on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: Come and Die!


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2 thoughts on “When Jesus Isn’t Nice

  1. Jonathan Russell says:

    Mark, thanks for the breaking the daily bread. Not sure whether it is an accurate interpretation or not, but someone who either wrote or read the big fat books they teach from in graduate schools once told me that these excuses were idioms in Jesus’ times. The first man’s father likely wasn’t even dead, and he was simply saying that he needed to stay at home until his father died– which could be years. The other’s excuse was equivalent to wanting his neighborhood to throw him a week to month long farewell party, as he headed off to join Jesus’ band. If this is a true interpretation, then Jesus’ responses seem appropriate. But maybe this is just our way of fitting Jesus into the image we want him to be. Not sure. Thoughts?

    • Mark Roberts says:

      Hello, Jonathan. Those things may be true, but the text really doesn’t give us that information. I do think there is more going on here than we realize, but we’re really just guessing. What we do know is that Jesus would not be sinfully unkind, and that he would know what’s going on in the hearts of people, and that whatever he did would be both wise and loving. Blessings to you. – Mark

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