The Meanness of the Cross

Every month, To Reconcile All Things will feature a post from a young adult in or near the Diocese of Des Moines breaking open the Scriptures.  Through these reflections on the Word of God, we hope you are able to grow not only in knowledge of the Bible, but in comfort with turning to it in prayer.

There are myriad ways to misunderstand Jesus, and chief among them in our time is thinking of Jesus as the ultimate nice guy.

There are several passages we might throw out to relieve folks of this error (speaking of throwing out: how about Jesus and the money changers in the Temple as an easy example?), which provokes a rather eye-catching question: is Jesus mean?  Was the King of King and Lord of Lords a big meanie when He walked the earth?  The more important question, though, may be this: are we in fact called by Him to be “nice”?  Is the path of Christian discipleship paved with “niceness”, or does Jesus have something else in mind for us?

Is Jesus mean?

To begin with, we need to clarify what we really mean here (forgive the pun).  Only a small amount of research would disabuse us of any notion that the Gospels contain a command to be nice.  In fact, the word “nice” simply isn’t in the NAB New Testament.  St. Paul in his letters does not say love is nice, but rather that it is “gentle and kind”.  Kindness is defined as:

“one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit; the quality of understanding sympathy and concern for those in trouble or need.  It is shown in affability of speech, generosity of conduct, and forgiveness of injuries sustained”

Editor’s note: the link for kindness’ definition directs to the right site, but not to the particular definition–click “K” then search “kindness” in the dropdown box for the definition”

However, being mean is not the opposite of being kind: cruelty is.  So cruelty will be the opposite of kindness: a person lacking all sympathy and concern for the troubled and the needy, bereft of affability, generosity, or forgiveness will be rightly labelled “cruel”.  

Therefore, we ask the question in a revised manner: is Jesus cruel?  The Scriptures firmly attest that He is not.  Even if Jesus is deemed “mean” by our silly modern standards, that’s a long way from being “cruel”.  And while Christ’s words may at times seem harsh and mean to us, they are not in any way “lacking all sympathy and concern for the troubled and needy”.

But people do not confuse niceness for “kindness” alone. Another confusion rests in the belief that “being nice” is the same as “being polite.”  After all, do we not often call someone “mean” when they are rude? 

A look at the history of these words shows why they overlap in our minds.  The origin of mean in English is fairly standard: it comes as a character description of vulgar, base, or low people.  It migrates from the idea of a thing which is ‘coarse,’ like coarse clothing material, and by analogy is then applied to people.  This becomes apparent when listening to older bluegrass and country music (something very familiar if you happened to grow up around old timers in the South).  “Meanness” shows forth in behaviors that sound unfamiliar to our contemporary ears, and is often dramatically understated: songs about hatred and murder often describe those actions as “meanness,” highlighting the idea that such deplorable violence comes from a coarseness in one’s heart.  There is often also a hint of another old word usage: rugged, something that has been made hard through difficulty, and bears the marks of such experience.  One look, and a mean thing shows its lack of refinement and cleanliness, but its experience as well.  

The word nice on the other hand is incredibly varied, starting off in Old French as a word for “stupid”.  Nice and stupid being equated may at first seem an odd connection, but remember from above the connection between “mean” and “rugged from experience”–it isn’t a stretch for “nice” therefore to imply the “stupidity” of being green and inexperienced. 

Eventually “nice” became the antithesis of mean by a similar analogical process we saw “mean” go through: there is mean fabric or food, and there is nice fabric or food; there are low and coarse things, and high and smooth things.  There is more than a hint of class distinction and even elitism in the term. Therefore, we may want to call someone who is rude “mean”, and someone who is polite “nice”.  

Is Jesus rude?

So we ask our first question in a new way: is Jesus rude?  This seems even more strange! But where do standards like “rude” and “polite” come from?  If you look at most cultures, the idea of “politeness” or “manners” is to demonstrate a certain relationship among people that shows their basic dignity as a human, and the particular dignity of their social positions.  One society may have men defer to women, demand taking hats off in front of dignitaries, or compel kissing the back of the hand of a priest, but whatever the action may be, the concept undergirding them all rests on recognizing the dignity of others.

Jesus in this consideration is not rude at all, even if He seems to violate certain social norms.  He, in a real way, demonstrates the “rudeness” of these norms: such as the inclination to stone a woman caught in adultery without punishing her partner in crime in any way.  If there is anything Our Lord is willing to lay down His life for, it is the dignity and goodness of the human person.

So Jesus may be mean, but He is not cruel (lacking sympathy for the vulnerable).  He may be mean, but He is not rude (disregarding the dignity of the other).  There is a point and purpose to why He speaks the way He does.  And it is high time we turn to one of His “mean sayings” to see if everything we have thought through bears out this point.

The Meanest Thing Jesus Said

There are several candidates for “meanest thing Jesus said.”  The Pharisees and Sadducees both come under fire from Jesus multiple times, and his invective is accompanied by many pointed words. However, I think the candidate for “meanest” statement by Our Lord is when He admits that He speaks in order not to be understood!

And when He was alone, those present along with the Twelve questioned Him about the parables. He answered them, “The mystery of the kingdom of God has been granted to you. But to those outside everything comes in parables, so that:

‘they may look and see but not perceive,

and hear and listen but not understand,

in order that they may not be converted and be forgiven.”

Mark 4:10-12

Yikes!  Does it not seem cruel to speak in a way so people would not understand, especially if their very conversion and forgiveness depends on it?  Does it not at least seem rude–indeed anti-compassionate–to speak so obscurely?

Many commentators are quick to try and get Jesus off the hook.  He is quoting Isaiah 6, after all, which states a prophecy regarding the Hebrew people, that when their Messiah comes He would speak to a home crowd that would not listen.  Really, these commentators would say, Jesus is just confiding this fact of prophetic fulfillment to His disciples, and the message is more for their benefit than an admission of rhetorical obscurantism.

This all sounds well and good, except for a few glaring points.  For instance, what occasions this “rude” talk?  The reality that the disciples are confused by the parables and are the ones asking the questions!  In fact, in verse 13 Jesus is dismayed that they do not understand the very parables that are said for their sake: “Jesus said to them, ‘Do you not understand this parable? Then how will you understand any of the parables?'”  If the disciples are confused by these sayings, who won’t be confused by them?

At the risk of piling on, the disciples aren’t even all that sure who Jesus is.  Further along at the end of Mark 4, Jesus calms the angry sea, a powerful declaration of His Messianic mission if there ever was one.  And what do the disciples say?

A violent squall came up and waves were breaking over the boat, so that it was already filling up. Jesus was in the stern, asleep on a cushion. They woke Him and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He woke up, rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Quiet! Be still!” The wind ceased and there was great calm. Then He asked them, “Why are you terrified? Do you not yet have faith?” They were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this whom even wind and sea obey?”

Mark 4:37-41, emphasis mine

That’s right, they don’t even know who this man they call master is!  And certainly if the disciples must admit in exasperation that they are unsure who Jesus is, perhaps we must come to terms with how often we find ourselves in the camp of those who do not know what the parables mean.

But does this answer our question?  Why does Jesus speak obscurely to us—yes, even we who want to follow Him?  Why does He not simply tell us the answers?

The Meanness of the Cross

The truth is that you can be told the answers without ever imbibing them, consuming them, making them a part of your life.  Let’s face it: unless you wrestle with something, it is hard to make it a habit, a part of who you are.  The Gospel is an easy yoke, it’s true, but it is still a yoke.  If we do not have to work at something, we will not learn it–we will probably not even try.

And as it turns out, learning consists of a certain kind of turning, an exertion of energy toward the light of the good.  In the Christian world, we know this concept as repenting, or in the biblical Greek metanoia, which is nothing less than a turning to God.

This turning by its nature is difficult, and it must go over difficult terrain in order to have any sort of traction in our lives.  A path with no friction lacks the traction to walk over, and is like a sheet of ice.  As winter teaches us each year, getting to where we are going on slick ice is nearly impossible.  Seen in this light, it makes sense that some of Jesus’s teachings will appear ‘mean,’ because we must go over the rough ground if we are going to learn, if we are going to turn toward the truth and have any traction to journey toward it.

We must learn, grow, and have discipline to become disciples, and all these things involve pain.  Putting on the mind of Christ, the raising up in the Christian life, you see it is not all on Christ, because if He was so “nice” as to remove this walking, if He did the walking for you, your soul would atrophy, and it would never be a living, intertwined aspect of your very being.  In His great kindness, He has made this path difficult for you.

This is seen even in the very way He characterizes what a disciple must do: “take up your Cross and follow me”.  To be drawn to Christ in faith is all the supernatural work of Christ, a miracle akin to putting sight in blind eyes; but to be sanctified, to “die to sin and rise again in Christ”, we must walk the way of the Cross with Him. And the way of the Cross is as rugged, as coarse, as mean, as the Cross itself.  Remember, the Cross was not an ornament, but a Roman execution device.  The wood of the Cross would not have been sanded or polished, but rather was whatever ugly stout tree they could find to hold the weight of a dying man.  And as far as executions go, nothing could compare in sheer meanness to crucifixion.  And yet this the Son of God chose for Himself and His disciples.

To see Jesus as the “ultimate nice guy” obscures this, and serves as a stumbling block in our discipleship.  We preach Christ crucified: bloodied, beaten, coarse, and raw, rudely thrown up on the mean and cruel execution device of the Roman Legions.  We must learn to be like Christ through His Cross and our crosses as well.


So why is Jesus mean?  Because He is kind and He respects our human dignity.  We are not robots programmed to have faith, we must live it, we must learn it, we must suffer through it, in order for it to be ours and for us to belong to Christ.  Only Christ crucified can make us truly His disciples.  To leave us with any lesser path to walk would be cruel of the God who became man to save us.

The Old Rugged Cross, traditional American hymn by George Bennard
On a hill far away, stood an old rugged Cross
The emblem of suff’ring and shame
And I love that old Cross where the dearest and best
For a world of lost sinners was slain
So I’ll cherish the old rugged Cross
Till my trophies at last I lay down
I will cling to the old rugged Cross
And exchange it some day for a crown
Oh, that old rugged Cross so despised by the world
Has a wondrous attraction for me
For the dear Lamb of God, left His Glory above
To bear it to dark Calvary
So I’ll cherish the old rugged Cross
Till my trophies at last I lay down
I will cling to the old rugged Cross
And exchange it some day for a crown
In the old rugged Cross, stain’d with blood so divine
A wondrous beauty I see
For the dear Lamb of God, left His Glory above
To pardon and sanctify me
So I’ll cherish the old rugged Cross
Till my trophies at last I lay down
I will cling to the old rugged Cross
And exchange it some day for a crown
To the old rugged Cross, I will ever be true
Its shame and reproach gladly bear
Then He’ll call me some day to my home far away
Where His glory forever I’ll share
So I’ll cherish the old rugged Cross
Till my trophies at last I lay down
I will cling to the old rugged Cross
And exchange it some day for a crown

Untitled design (30)

Bo Bonner is the Director of The Zita Institute for Foundations and Ethics in Leadership and The Director of Mission and Ministry at Mercy College of Health Sciences in Des Moines, IA.  He co-hosts the Iowa Catholic Radio show “The UnCommon Good,” and his writing can be found at Church Life Journal.  He is a Benedictine Oblate at Our Lady of Clear Creek Monastery in Oklahoma, a husband to Robyn for well over a decade, and a father to their four children.


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