Jesus is a gentleman. A parishioner said this to me once, during a visit. He had every reason to think or wish otherwise—he’d just been diagnosed with a chronic, debilitating illness—he could have been angry, and wanted to see his image reflected in an angry God. But he took comfort in seeing Jesus as a gentle man, and it struck me as a description that you don’t usually hear. It’s much more popular to talk about Jesus as a radical: another free-wheeling prophet like his cousin, John, who hates convention, who couldn’t possibly be bothered with anything fussy or stuffy like being polite, or prudent. Our Jesus isn’t mature, he’s youthful, passionate, fiery; he exposes hypocrites, drives the money-changers out of the Temple, sits with outcasts. He sticks it to the Man. That is a very loveable and inspiring image of Jesus, for many of us. But this morning the Bible reminds us that it’s a little one-sided. There’s more to Jesus than that. Come and see.
In Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, we read “Let your gentleness be known to everyone.” Here the way of Christis not a loud powerful rant, but a quiet invitation, an appeal, made in love. Christ says please. That is the way we find God approaching us, in Christ, not with anger and punishment, but with kindness, with sensitivity to our abilities and our disabilities, speaking our language, taking our form, our life, sharing our experience. Christ did not force anyone into belief, but offered Himself to us, through teaching, through friendship, through self-sacrifice. The Good News of the Gospels could be summed up by saying that God chooses to be gentle with us, even though there is every reason not to be.
The old-fashioned, quiet virtues of gentleness and modesty have gotten a bad reputation, in these latter days. Gentleness is not how you get ahead, it doesn’t protect and promote our personal or national interests. It’s not for winners. And gentleness’s tender cousin, courtesy, is seen as old-fashioned and out-moded, it’s about a complicated code of behaviour that no one can remember; it’s oppressive and makes people anxious. People gave up on being ladies and gentlemen a long time ago, it seems. At least, almost all of the drivers on Route 93 did. But, at its heart, being courteous is really just about considering other people’s needs before your own. And that is only another way of stating the Golden Rule: treat other people the way you would like to be treated, even if you’re not being treated that way. Let people make mistakes, without condemning them for it. Give them the benefit of the doubt, assume there may be an excuse when they do something wrong, and ask if you can help. Listen to people’s stories, and respond with love. Let someone else go first, or sit at the place of honor, or have the limelight, get the credit. Who does that sound like? Who does all of those things, for us? Jesus, the gentleman.
In today’s Gospel, it doesn’t sound at first like the coming Messiah is going to be kind and gentle, when we hear about how the winnowing fork is in his hand, and the ax is at the root of the tree, but actually there is surprising twist to this Gospel message, for the instructions that John gives to the people are about being generous, honest, and fair, in whatever walk of life you find yourselves. The people gathered outside Jerusalem, may have been eager for a frisson of dangerous rabble rousing, or incitement to paroxysms of self-loathing, but what they are actually told is to be gentle with others, to conduct yourself decently and honourably, whatever your circumstances may be. The preparation for the coming of the Saviour is not what they were expecting: it’s not an intensified piety, frantically offering sacrifices and prayers to propitiate God’s wrath before He arrives in person. And it’s not the early stages of a political revolution, forming a militia to overthrow Roman rule. It’s just the simplest, scariest thing, a transformation in the orientation of our lives, from self to other.
This preaching, of gentle courtesy, is in fact the most radical image of Jesus we find, the most unlike us, it is the vision of God’s peace, which surpasses all understanding. Most of us can find the fiery prophet within ourselves, on some issue; we can feel righteous indignation, we can protest all the evil in our world, but how many of us really could let another person, any person, not just those dear to you, take our own place of importance in that world, truly and completely? Would I surrender my reputation, my standing, my comfort, my life, for someone who had done me wrong?
Even when we manage to be generous, let’s admit that we make our careful calculations around the margins of ultimate care, ultimate commitment to the whole welfare of humanity. Every good that I do is a limited good. How could it be otherwise? I could give 100% of my income away, and not even touch the world’s need. As my driver’s license says, even the parts of my body could be helping someone else—they could all be distributed now and not change the transplant waiting list statistics by one decimal place, there is that much suffering. We all know the need, the suffering. Yet who among us would make those kinds of complete self-sacrifices? We don’t. We can’t. We’re human. We are not being asked to save the world, not even by a wild-eyed, desert prophet. We’re being asked just to do the limited good, that we can, because we could help someone. God saves the world. God speaks us into new life. The words God wants to hear from us are just please, and thank you—in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. Please, and thank you.
We live in a sordid time. We struggle amid dangers and insults, the thousand frustrations and injustices that wear us away. So much that we have is taken from us, by our own fault, or by time and mortality. But in this rough, cruel world we are, all of us, offered this one bit of dignity: we are appealed to in love, in an act of perfect gentleness, by the only one who knows what it all really means. We’re shuffling along, somewhere near the middle of a long line—it’s so crowded, we can’t see what ahead, everybody’s shoving and angling to get farther ahead, but Somebody’s waiting patiently, holding the door for us, and it turns out that it’s the King, because the rules of that country are so far different from the ones we’ve built up here, we can hardly understand that the greatest glory is to serve the least among us