Some time ago I read the synoptic Gospels with a group of literature students, only a few of whom professed to be "reasonably familiar" with the material in those books. We made our way through the Nativity stories, the Sermon on the Mount, the miracles, and the teachings. We struggled through some of Jesus' "hard sayings" and disconcerting acts, such as withering the fig tree and casting demons into swine. ("They were innocent swine!" someone protested. "They belonged to some innocent pig farmer!") I was glad for the chance to retrieve some of the shock value of stories so often flattened in an effort to make them palatable.
As the unit on the Gospels drew to a close, I asked the professing Christians, "How has this reading of these accounts of Jesus' life and ministry changed your understanding of him?" A hand went up in the back row. "I don't know exactly how to put this," the young woman mused, "but this isn't the Jesus I grew up with. He doesn't seem very ... nice." She was thinking, no doubt, about the embarrassments of the pigs and the fig tree, or perhaps his "Who is my mother?" or his calling Peter Satan. Careful explanations notwithstanding, what remained troubling to her was Jesus' rudeness.
I thought a minute. Which is to say, I prayed for an appropriate response to what I believe was innocent, if amusing, distress. "Nice," I told her, "is not the point." Nice isn't the same as holy. "God is love" doesn't mean "God is nice." Sometimes God isn't nice at all—not by our standards.
Indeed, as Christians we might strive less for niceness and more for loving rightly. One of my husband's finer moments in parenting came one day when, after he had uttered an unwelcome word of correction to a disgruntled child, he leaned ...