I confess to never having thought about the question until a friend raised it in an email recently.

Was Jesus mean? The answer, obviously, is no. I think the question is meant to highlight a deeper issue. Why are some of the followers of Jesus so mean if he wasn't? I don't know that I can adequately answer that question without going back to the question of Jesus himself.

Jesus was not mean, but he could be very, very tough. He sometimes used very strong language when speaking to people he regarded as hypocrites. In a withering excoriation of religious hypocrisy in Matthew 23, he compared the scribes and Pharisees to whitewashed tombs, which is a worse insult than it sounds because the religious leaders prided themselves on their outward righteousness. He could be tough on his own followers also. In Mark 8:14-21 he tells his disciples that they are spiritual blind and have hard hearts. When he appeared to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, he calls them "foolish ones" and "slow of heart to believe" (Luke 24:25). He told certain Jewish leaders in John 8:44, "You are of your father the devil." The notion that our Lord was always "gentle Jesus, meek and mild," as if he spent his days saying nice things to make people feel better is only possible if you never read the gospels.

He was gentle and meek and mild and kind. But that's not the whole story.

He also demanded that his followers commit themselves to him wholeheartedly.

He had no patience for hypocrites who took advantage of others while ignoring their own sin.

Say what you want about Jesus, but don't forget that he took a whip and overturned the tables of the moneychangers, driving them out of temple precincts because they had made a house of prayer into a den of robbers.

Jesus could be very, very tough.

But was he mean? The answer may rest in the eye of the beholder. Perhaps some of the Pharisees and those moneychangers whose tables he overturned thought he was mean. After all, it was precisely because of his righteousness that they plotted to put him to death. His zeal for God aroused envy that turned to murderous hatred.

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But was he mean? A quick check of the dictionary gives us these definitions and synonyms:

offensive . . . selfish . . . nasty . . . malicious . . . small-minded . . . contemptible . . . petty . . . cruel . . . vindictive.

None of those words applies to Jesus. Isaiah 42 speaks of God’s servant who will come to establish justice in the land. It is a prophecy of the coming of Christ to the earth. The prophet says of the Servant of the Lord that "He will not shout or raise his voice in public"(v. 2 NLT). That seems like a good standard for evaluating our actions. Mean people use threats to get their way. They shout because they are angry and fearful of losing control. They raise their voice when they would be better served by remaining calm. Mean people use ridicule and biting sarcasm to put others down. They are contentious and unkind and they mistreat others and don’t think anyone of it.

Was Jesus mean? No, but he could be very, very tough. I admit there is a fine line here, but I also say that Jesus never came close to crossing that line. He was tough when he needed to be tough and tender when he needed to be tender. He knew how to treat each person exactly as they deserved to be treated. That includes blind beggars, sincere questioners, little children and proud Pharisees. Everyone got what they needed from Jesus. Some of them, like the rich young ruler, went away sorrowful, others marveled, the common people loved him, and many of the rulers hated him for his honesty.

So why are some of Jesus' followers so mean? I can't answer that question, but I know I need to look into the mirror and think about my own life. A mean Christian is not just a contradiction in terms; it is a terrible slander on our Lord. When Christians are mean, when we raise our voices in anger, when we use cruel words to hurt and not to heal, we give outsiders yet one more reason to disregard what we believe.