Being Nice

May 2, 2021

Series: May 2021

Category: So-called Christian Values

Speaker: Rob McClellan

Today's Scripture: Matthew 23:1-33

Today's Sermon


"Being Nice"


Matthew 23:1-33

          23Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; 3therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practise what they teach. 4They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. 5They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. 6They love to have the place of honour at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, 7and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have people call them rabbi. 8But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. 9And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. 10Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. 11The greatest among you will be your servant. 12All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.

          13 ‘But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them. 15Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.

          16 ‘Woe to you, blind guides, who say, “Whoever swears by the sanctuary is bound by nothing, but whoever swears by the gold of the sanctuary is bound by the oath.” 17You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the sanctuary that has made the gold sacred? 18And you say, “Whoever swears by the altar is bound by nothing, but whoever swears by the gift that is on the altar is bound by the oath.” 19How blind you are! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred? 20So whoever swears by the altar, swears by it and by everything on it; 21and whoever swears by the sanctuary, swears by it and by the one who dwells in it; 22and whoever swears by heaven, swears by the throne of God and by the one who is seated upon it.

          23 ‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practised without neglecting the others. 24You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!

          25 ‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may become clean.

          27 ‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. 28So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.

          29 ‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous, 30and you say, “If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.” 31Thus you testify against yourselves that you are descendants of those who murdered the prophets. 32Fill up, then, the measure of your ancestors. 33You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to hell?  THIS IS HOLY WISDOM, HOLY WORD.  THANKS BE TO GOD. 

“Being Nice:  So-called Christian Values 3”

            We continue our series on so-called Christian values, in which we question if the values we most attribute to Christianity are truly as we understand them to be.  To that end, I begin by asking what I believe is a provocative question, even an upsetting one.  Was Jesus nice?  If that sounds a silly question, it’s probably because many of us have been brought up to believe that first and foremost Jesus was nice.  He welcomed the children, promised rest to the weary, healed the afflicted.  Yes, but was he nice, or always nice?  It’s easy to get defensive around this question, or dismissive of it, but I encourage you instead to be curious about it.  With what else might have Jesus been concerned?

            When Jesus talks about his own ministry, he draws upon the prophetic tradition, quoting Isaiah:

          ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
            because he has anointed me
              to bring good news to the poor.
          He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
            and recovery of sight to the blind,
              to let the oppressed go free (Luke 4:18)

          Good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed.  That’s his purpose in his own words; that’s the heart of the gospel.  While to be sure we see Jesus offering words and actions of incredible niceness, lauding meekness, befriending the outcast, being a good shepherd, there are also scenes that stand in stark relief.  Look at the reading from today.  One of the things that troubles Jesus the most is hypocrisy, hypocrisy by those in charge, and here he sets his sights on the religious establishment.  He compares it to a polished exterior of a cup, but the inside is rotten and full of corruption.  He takes it further saying these hypocrites are like whitewashed tombs, beautiful on the outside, totally dead on the inside.  “Woe” to them is his refrain.  He calls them a bunch of snakes, fools, and wonders how they’ll escape hell.  Elsewhere, Jesus hammers the rich, elsewhere those who do not care for the poor, similar sharp language, similar promise of judgment brought on by their own actions.   

        Was Jesus nice?  Look for yourself.  Here’s a worthwhile exercise flip through Matthew, Mark, or Luke and hand copy every word Jesus says.  By the end, you’ll have a fuller picture of Jesus in his own words, and you might be surprised what you find. 

          An instructive distinction to make is to notice when Jesus seems nice, tender, merciful, and when he is sharper, even harsh.  It has everything to do with to whom or about whom he is speaking.  Is the person or people powerful or vulnerable?  Do they have resources?  Are the interested in living a better life, rich or poor?  Jesus does lift up the downtrodden, but he also doesn’t hesitate to bring down the haughty, and if you’re one who has it tough in the world, this is better than being nice. 

          Austin Channing Brown, whose book I’m Still Here:  Black Dignity in a World Made for Whitenesshas rightfully received a lot of attention this year, points out the limitations of making niceness the ultimate standard.  You might say it is like spending all the time polishing the outside the cup, with no attention given to what may be rotten inside.  She helps us recognize that racism, for example, isn’t just about using the n-word or dawning a white hood; racism can happen in a perfectly “nice” environment.  In fact our allegiance to being nice might actually perpetuate our problems.  She says, “The problem with this framework—besides being a gross misunderstanding of how racism operates in systems and structures enabled by nice people—is that it obligates me to be nice in return,rather than truthful.I am expected to come closer to the racists. Be nicer to them. Coddle them.”[1]
When being nice, when having the right tone trumps telling the truth, we have lost our way.  Remember, in quoting Isaiah, Jesus places himself firmly within the tradition of prophets.  What do prophets do?  Prophets interfere.  That’s how Abraham Joshua Heschel describes it.[2]  They’re not here to be nice.  They’re not here to be mean either.  They’re simply here to tell the truth. 

          Likewise, I’m not telling you to be mean.  I’m not giving you license to be hurtful or violent.  I’m not even telling you not to be nice.  I’m simply telling you that there is a greater standard than niceness—faithfulness.  You might even call it love, because one of the ways you love someone or a community or a country is to hold them or it accountable.  These are the standards we need to employ to make the world nicer for everyone.

          If you asked me if Jesus nice?  I would say that Jesus was better than nice. 



[1]Austin Channing Brown, I’m Still Here:  Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness Audiobook.

[2]Matthew Fox, Rupert Sheldrake The Physics of Angels:  Exploring the Realm Where Science and Spirit Meet.