The fact that I did not grow up in England means that I miss bits of cultural background information that natives receive with their mother’s milk. Examples of such gaps in my knowledge are Shakespeare and Doctor Who. Another example is the phrase in the title of this article. Over time I did pick up the phrase ‘Gentle Jesus, mild and meek’ but I only recently discovered that two of the adjectives in the phrase had been swapped by my source. It is definitely ‘meek and mild’, it is actually a line from a real song and it rhymes on ‘child’: ‘Look upon a little child’. The Internet now tells me that the first verse of the song was often used as an evening prayer for children.
What I had noticed was that the phrase is often used with much disdain, so I was surprised to see that the song from which it comes was written by none less than Charles Wesley! And it is number 739 in the Baptist Hymn Book. (I should have said ‘it was’ because hymn books and hymns have largely gone out of fashion. I came across it because my church largely consists of people older than me, who still like to sing hymns – as well as more modern songs.)¹ The hymn contains a few more phrases that are similar to the one I am talking about, such as ‘Thou art pitiful and kind’ and ‘Loving Jesus, gentle Lamb’. Taken individually the words are not unbiblical but the whole paints a rather one-sided portrait of our Lord and Saviour. It is this portrait I will look at here.
In discussions about Christian ethics and particularly about sexual ethics, you often hear the thought that we should look to Jesus for guidance first and foremost. Creating a contrast with the legalistic Old Testament, Jesus is described by many as forgiving and tolerant. Contrasting him with the Jews of his time (in ways that are in danger of becoming antisemitic) and over against the Church, Jesus is styled as the leader who accepts everybody regardless of their past and present lifestyle. Jesus is even favourably compared and contrasted to Paul, Peter and the other authors of New Testament Letters as the one who is most friendly to sinners and tolerant of sins. So, despite the ridicule to which the phrase ‘Gentle Jesus, meek and mild’ is subjected, it is actually a reasonably accurate description of a popular view of Jesus.
I think that this portrait of Jesus is dangerously one-sided and I will try to correct it here. I will show that Jesus is at least as radical in his judgements and his ethical demands as any other person in the Bible, that he speaks about hell and punishment frequently and that he is intolerant of sin. The small pocket book The Hard Sayings of Jesus by F.F. Bruce (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1983, reprint 1998) is one of my guides here. What strikes me when I look at its contents pages is that most of the sayings Bruce discusses are not hard in the sense of difficult to understand, but in the sense of offensive and disconcerting. In his Introduction Bruce confirms this:
The better we understand them [= the sayings of Jesus], the harder they are to take.
… If the following pages explain the hard sayings of Jesus in such a way as to make them more acceptable, less challenging, then the probability is that the explanation is wrong.
In what follows I will limit myself to the Gospel according to Luke; I chose this Gospel because here Jesus shows most respect for women and children, so that it is often seen as the Gospel that puts most emphasis on Jesus’ ‘humanism’.² I will work through the text in order.
- After what Luke styles as Jesus’ presentation of his manifesto in Nazareth, Jesus immediately offends his audience by stating that he has not come to please or favour them in Nazareth, but that his mission includes even foreigners (4:24-27). The people of Nazareth apparently expected to benefit from the ministry of ‘their’ prophet, but Jesus rudely rejects the suggestion and the result is that the people are furious (4:28).
- Jesus’ words in 5:31-32 point in the same direction: he has not come for the benefit of the healthy and the righteous, but for the sick and the sinners. Although this saying speaks of great love and grace in what it affirms, it is harsh and offensive in what it denies. The self-righteous are told in straight terms that they have no place in the Kingdom.
- It is Luke who has not only preserved some beatitudes, but also some corresponding words of woe:
… woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort. Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets. (6:24-26)
The rich, the well-fed, the laughing and the popular people are condemned. It is a good exercise to try to imagine what these words meant in Israel at that time and what they would mean if we were to repeat them in our own context today. Jesus manages to step on many toes unceremoniously.
- In 11:42-54 woes are pronounced against the Pharisees in particular: on the outside they appear to be very religious people, but in actual fact their inside is far less glorious: they ‘neglect the justice and the love of God’ (42). Uniquely, Luke quotes an ‘expert in the law’ who counters Jesus by saying that he feels insulted by these words (45), but Jesus does not cave in. His response is to criticise the experts in the law as well. Similarly, 20:47 states that proud teachers of the law ‘will be punished most severely’.
- Note that in 7:36-50 Jesus does forgive the woman who anoints him, who was known for her sinful life (vs. 37), but not without confirming that she had indeed sinned (vs. 48). Yes, there is forgiveness for her, but she will have to reform her life in order to be Jesus’s disciple. A similar message comes from 9:23-24 and 9:57-60: discipleship is open to all but it is also demanding and costly. It involves surrender of all you are and all you have to Jesus; no doubt such surrender includes any addictions, bad habits and other sinful behaviour. The grace of the gospel is no cheap grace.
- I detect a similar theme in 11:24-26: it is not enough that someone is liberated from ‘an impure spirit’ (think: sinful habit, addiction, inherited weakness). Such liberation in itself means that the house is emptied – but it has to be filled with good things, with the Holy Spirit. If not, ‘the final condition of that person is worse than the first’. Complete dedication to Jesus and filling with the Spirit are no optional extras. We know that and have no trouble accepting it, but Jesus’ imagery is harsh and blunt.
- In 11:29-32 Jesus pronounces a tough judgement on his own generation because of their unbelief. He boldly claims that he is the greatest, greater indeed than Solomon and Jonah – a claim that does not give much evidence of ‘mild gentleness’! Failure to believe in him is therefore a capital mistake that will not be covered with love.
- Seemingly unprovoked, in 10:13-15 Jesus speaks in a hostile tone about cities which fail to accept him and his seventy-two representatives. There will be condemnation for them, see also 11:32. The fact that miracles had happened in these cities gave them great responsibility.
- Publicly disowning Jesus is not something he will take lightly (12:9). A meek and mild Jesus might have said ‘never mind’, but the Jesus of Luke is not so forgiving towards renegades.
- Jesus’ saying that he has ‘come to bring fire on the earth’ (12:49) points to the fact that he will bring judgement over the earth. In the words of Jesus, fire is always a metaphor for the judgement of God or of the Son of Man.³ Thus in this saying Jesus again shows that he is serious about getting rid of sin and that he is unwilling to turn a blind eye. This harshness is in line with what we see a couple of verses earlier: the master of an unfaithful servant ‘will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the unbelievers’ (12:46). We could discuss what exactly Jesus means here and whether we can identify him with the violent master, but his words show a zero-tolerance policy towards serious sin.
- Luke 13:22-30 tells us that not everyone will be saved. Although Jesus foresees that many non-Jews will join the people of God, anyone who doesn’t enter through the narrow door will be left outside. Indeed, the ‘owner of the house’ will not open the door to them but chase them away as evildoers. Again, Jesus does not approach those who fail to side with him with much kindness! Luke 14:24 suggests the same in terms of missing the banquet; in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (16:19-31) the former ends up in Hades without a chance of escape; and Jesus says that his return on ‘the day of the Son of Man’ will bring an absolute divorce (17:30-37).
- Jesus’ saying against divorce appears in 16:18 without the context in which Mark and Matthew put it, but it is radical enough: Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery. Jesus’ norms regarding marriage are stricter than anything we find in the Old Testament and his tone in this teaching is not very pastoral.
- The beginning of Luke 17 reads: Jesus said to his disciples: ‘Things that cause people to stumble are bound to come, but woe to anyone through whom they come. It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied round their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble. So watch yourselves. If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. No meek and mild approach here. Anyone who causes a little one to stumble deserves drowning by being thrown into the water with a millstone around their neck.
- The ‘parable of the ten minas’ (19:11-27) is a complicated story in more than one way, but the conclusion is inescapable that those who do not side with the king will suffer a gruesome fate. Likewise, in the parable of the tenants, the revolting tenants will be killed (20:9-19, esp. 16). These two parables are in fact so violent that Luke (or Luke’s Jesus) has been accused of antisemitism – quite the opposite of the softly-softly of a mild and meek Lord.
- Lastly, the cleansing of the temple was not an act accompanied by many words and in John’s version of the story Jesus’ anger is more openly expressed. Yet even in Luke 19:45-46 it is evident that Jesus is angry at the ‘robbers’ who prevent his Father’s house from being a proper place of prayer. The Greek word ekballō (throw out) makes clear that the businessmen did not leave the premises voluntarily!
In sum, Luke presents Jesus as a person who does not mince his words. He condemns bad behaviour and bad attitudes in strong words, words which can still hurt today. He in no way glosses over the differences between what he approves of and what he hates. Does Jesus therefore show a lack of love?
Part of our problem in this respect is that we tend to operate with a weak definition of love. Contrary to popular opinion, true love does not imply the absence of moral clarity and rules. Absence of rules is called chaos. Love does not tolerate evil. Simply tolerating evil is called indifference or apathy. Because I love my country, I want its affluent citizens to pay taxes so that society can run. Because I love my children, I teach them rules such as coming home on time and healthy eating. Because I love my wife, I would be unhappy if she strikes up a relationship with someone else. Because I love my employer, he deserves it that my colleagues and I turn up at the start of the working day and stay in the office till the agreed end time.
Does Luke’s Gospel give us the right to judge the behaviour and norms of other followers of Jesus? Did he not also say, according to Luke,
Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven (6:37)?
Yes, he said this.⁴ Yet from the preceding discussion it is obvious that these words cannot be understood to mean that there is no distinction between good and evil, or that we as his followers should ignore this distinction. We saw this for example in 17:3, already quoted above, ‘If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them.’
Luke 6:37 does make it clear to us that the final judgement over others is Jesus’, not ours. It doesn’t mean that we cannot show discernment or that all deeds are equally good. The truth is not relative. Jesus must mean that our judgement should not be based on appearance – should not be unfair, hypocritical, unforgiving or self-righteous. Passages like Matthew 18:15-17, John 7:24, Galatians 6:1, Colossians 1:9 and 1 Thessalonians 5:21 help us further to understand this word of Jesus.
What do we conclude from the above? It does, of course, not show us all the specifics of what Jesus approved of and what he disapproved of. It does in no way contain exact answers to the ethical questions of British Christians in the twenty-first century. (Maybe the one thing we can say is that rich and self-righteous people are criticised and threatened, so that inhabitants of the Rich West can know that they are under special scrutiny.) What the above does show is that Jesus was no softy, that he was not tolerant of culpable weaknesses and sins. His standards were at least as high as those of the Old Testament and the New Testament letters. This means that we can no longer use arguments like, ‘Oh, Jesus simply accepted people as they were.’ Jesus’ standards were high, his condemnation was strong; he called former sinners to change their way of life, and as followers of him we are supposed to meet these high standards.
- At https://renovare.org/articles/gentle-jesus-meek-and-mild we find the following comments of G.K. Chesteron on the phrase: ‘We have all heard people say a hundred times over, for they seem never to tire of saying it, that the Jesus of the New Testament is indeed a most merciful and humane lover of humanity, but that the Church has hidden this human character in repellent dogmas and stiffened it with ecclesiastical terrors till it has taken on an inhuman character. This is, I venture to repeat, very nearly the reverse of the truth. The truth is that it is the image of Christ in the churches that is almost entirely mild and merciful. It is the image of Christ in the Gospels that is a good many other things as well. The figure in the Gospels does indeed utter in words of almost heart-breaking beauty his pity for our broken hearts. But they are very far from being the only sort of words that he utters. Nevertheless they are almost the only kind of words that the Church in its popular imagery ever represents him as uttering.’
- Matthew uses the word ‘hell’ more often than the other evangelists.
- Jonas Weller, „Feuer auf die Erde“: Eine motivkritische, auslegungsgeschichtliche und bibeltheologische Studie zu Lk 12,49–53 (Freiburg, Basel, Wien: Herder, 2023), as reviewed in European Journal of Theology 32.2 (2023) 338-340.
- For more on what follows, see https://www.gotquestions.org/do-not-judge.html.
Revd Dr Pieter J. Lalleman has been the minister of a church in Surrey since February 2021.
Previously he was a tutor at Spurgeon’s College in London for over twenty years, teaching
biblical studies. He was Academic Dean of the College 2002-2015. Pieter [pronounced
Peter] has been an ordained Baptist minister since 1993. His hobbies are teaching, classical
music, modern public transport, history and Sudoku.
His popular books include:
- The Lion and the Lamb. Studies on the Book of Revelation
- Enduring Treasure. The Lasting Value of the Old Testament for Christians
- In the Power of the Resurrection. Studies on the Book of Acts
- The Hidden Unity of the Bible. The Use of the Old Testament in the New