A well-known children’s prayer has these lines:

Gentle Jesus, meek and mild,

Look upon a little child,

Pity my simplicity,

Suffer me to come to thee.

The nineteenth-century English poet Algernon Swinburne once described Jesus as a “pale Galilean.” This conception of Jesus as a mild-mannered, inoffensive man has undoubtedly molded the popular image of him. But is the Jesus of the New Testament, and particularly of the Four Gospels, really “gentle, meek, and mild”? On any impartial reading of the evidence, the answer must be “yes and no, but mainly no.”

The gospel records make it clear that there was in Jesus a deep vein of gentleness and compassion, of sensitivity to human need and sympathy for human suffering. For example, in Luke 19:1–10 it is recorded that Jesus met the publican Zacchaeus and, recognizing his loneliness and alienation, invited himself to dinner at Zacchaeus’s home; through befriending this man, Jesus saved his soul and made a new person of him. In Matthew 26:7–13 we read the well-known incident of the woman who poured her precious box of alabaster ointment over Jesus as he sat at the table. When his disciples called the action wasteful, Jesus at once defended the woman, saying that she had done well and that her self-sacrificing devotion would be spoken of throughout the whole world.

Perhaps the most striking illustration of Jesus’ gentleness and sensitivity is found in the story of the woman taken in adultery, as recorded in John 8:1–11. Under Jewish law three offenses were punishable by death: murder, idolatry and adultery. This adulteress had been caught in the act, and her accusers brought her to Jesus, reminding him that death by stoning was the prescribed penalty. Then they asked him what he thought should ...

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