I often quake when I hear couples say that they have never had a cross word with each other in all the years of marriage and wonder how can that be? Is that the norm or is some one being dishonest – not in saying they have never had a cross word but in allowing such a situation to continue? If two fully independent and actualized individuals live together, surely, at some point, there has to be a point of disagreement – and I would suggest more that one such point. If so and no disagreement ensues than someone is being dishonest – being nice – to avoid conflict – sacrificing themselves so that the status quo is maintained. Some one isn’t saying no, that’s not how I see it and I will disagree and seek resolution.
I have the same feelings when someone recommends a church because ‘everybody there is nice’; or when I see people avoiding putting the hard questions to others in their care because it wouldn’t be nice. Political correctness in all it forms is the gospel of niceness in extremis. Challenging and correcting people may require tact, but it can never be nice.
The Gospel of niceness has taken over in our world. We are often too nice to say no, to question others opinions, to critique others decisions or to point out the obvious. We let people get away with stuff that is blatantly incorrect or wrong headed, immoral or illegal, ill mannered or self-centered – we make excuses by being nice about it.
Christians are susceptible to this Gospel of Niceness. Why:
• Because of cultural pressure. “That’s not vey Christian”.
• Because of misinformation about what it means to be a Christian. “Christians must be nice”.
• Because of a misunderstanding of the concept of love. “Love is doing the nice thing”.
Matthew has Jesus challenges us directly and gives us permission to be honest, open and confronting – to not be nice but to love.
This is the gospel of love, not nice – a gospel that does not avoid the hard questions and is not afraid to confront others (and ourselves) with the reality of our actions, behaviors, thinking and relationships.
Right relationships are built on love not niceness.
• Its about honesty and openness – able to say I see it differently, I trust our relationship enough to be able to say so.
• It’s about challenge and change – change is the normal paradigm for life and challenge is the driver of change.
• Its about the common good, not the individuals lights – it is not about me!
Love is the centre of Jesus’ ethic:
He answered: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'”
Paul reminds us of the quality of that love:
1 Corinthians 13:
4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
8 Love never ends.
In our western interpretation we have taken the hard edge off these two counter-cultural statements – we use 1 Cor 13 at weddings without understanding the harshness of this passage. In the time and place where they were written they were counter-cultural – calling for an entirely different way of living – a challenging ethic for the individual and community. People were being called to live differently and they were to be challenged by others if their lives did not live up to the Christian ethic. They were called to live differently to those in the secular society in which they lived, not to be conformed to the world, as Paul says in Romans 12:2 but to be transformed by the renewing of the mind.
Love was the ethic and the measure by which this was to be evidenced and evoked in the lives of the community. It was not about being nice. Niceness allows evil to flourish, bad decisions to be made and genocide to occur. Nice people say nothing; evil people do what they like.
Matthew has Jesus set the boundaries for community and the requirement to admonish, restrict, set boundaries and consequences. This not only sensible to the right conduct of society but also important in parenting, education, mentoring and spiritual direction. Jesus reminds us that life is not a free for all – it is first and foremost about relationships and the common good. It is not about nicely ignoring those things people do or say which impinge on that.
Jesus knew that the nice people would get him and put him on the cross – that what he was saying was not nice – it would upset the ruling powers and authorities and at some point he would be crucified. He had seen the crosses on the roads into town with the bodies of those who opposed those in power as a child – he knew what would happen if he was not nice – sanitized – acceptable and appropriate.
He goes to the cross not because he was nice, but because he loved. Because he said what had to be said and called for people to be counter-cultural – to stand up and to say this is not right.
As we come to the Eucharist today, let us remember the challenge to love, to live in the spirit of love and realize that that will cause us to be crucified alongside Jesus. That’s ok, because as Jesus said to the robber on the cross next time, ‘This day you will be with me’. Amen