Sunday, February 25, 2007

Can you be too polite?

Some time ago I observed someone who was visibly upset as he angrily confronted what he saw as sinful behavior.

It was a very uncomfortable moment. I suspect that some or most who were present felt that the angry words were inappropriate.

I was reminded of the incident this week as I studied for my sermon -- #6 in the series on “Stories Jesus Told.” In Luke 14, Jesus confronted the hypocrisy of His fellow guests at a Pharisee’s banquet as well as the host himself (see Luke 14:7-14 or check out the sermon at

I suspect that when Jesus finished these very pointed admonitions, it must’ve gotten really quiet and uncomfortable in the room.

Frankly, had we been there, we might have been tempted pull Jesus aside and say, “Jesus, that wasn’t very polite. You’re really being insensitive to these peoples’ feelings. You’re embarrassing them in front of others. You shouldn’t offend people like that! You need to be more tactful.”

I wonder if the disciples were a little shocked by Jesus’ apparent lack of sensitivity to the feelings of the people at the banquet and the host. After all, His words put the actions of those in the room in a very bad light.

In our American Christian culture it seems that we have exalted politeness, tactfulness, and non-offensiveness to a virtue status that trumps speaking the truth and exposing error and hypocrisy. We want to be “nice” so people will think well of us so we are afraid to raise our voice or to speak the truth when it is uncomfortable lest we offend. We've lost the ability to be outraged!

We don’t want to make people feel badly so we just say nice little polite things instead of speaking truthfully and passionately about what is right and wrong.

Far more often than I would like to remember, my sinful motivations have caused me to be “nice” when I probably should have been passionately angry and purposefully confrontational. When I "wimp out" it nearly always comes back to bite me...hard!

The Old Testament prophets didn’t seem to worry much about offending people when their message cut like a laser as they exposed sin and called for repentance. Was it Amos who called the women of Israel, "fat cows"? Ouch! Not too polite.

Jesus didn’t seem to worry much about offending people with the truth, and there were a number of times when His anger was obvious as He confronted people with their sin. There were times He called people hypocrites and snakes. When His anger drove people out of the temple and sent them diving for cover to escape the sting of His whip, He didn’t seem to worry about being polite and tactful. John tells us (2:17) that the incident reminded them of a word from the Psalms, "Zeal for your house will consume me."

In another situation, shocked by the way Jesus’ spoke to and about the hypocritical religious leaders, the disciples came to him and asked, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?” Rather than backing down, apologizing, or attempting to smooth things over, He replied, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots. 14 Leave them; they are blind guides. If a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit” (Matthew 15:12-14). That was not very concilliatory.

This is no justification for being out-of-control or nasty or unkind. Anger held too long (Ephesians 4:26) or used inappropriately (James 1:19, 20) is wrong. But, I must remember that sometimes I sin if I am not outraged. Politeness is sin if it hides the truth.

God’s wrath is a frequent and frightening topic in Holy Scripture. It is and ought to be frightening, yet it is as much an expression of God’s perfection as is His love.

The surgeon’s scalpel isn’t polite or tactful, but if you have cancer, you’ve got to be willing to cut in order to heal.

Back to my opening scene – because my perspective is sometimes skewed by my brokenness and biases I’m not confident I can properly judge what happened. Further, we, unlike Jesus, can be mixed in our motives and methods—partly good and partly not so good or even bad. However, I have to admit that it is possible that the one whose anger made us uncomfortable, may have been acting like Jesus. Jesus had a way of making people uncomfortable so they would make positive changes.

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