Isn’t it an interesting set of questions asked by the people of Jesus’ hometown:
Where did this man get this wisdom and these deeds of power? Is this not the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all this? And they took offence at him. (Matt. 13:54-57)
I read a brief discussion this week on the ‘offence’ of the suffering Messiah which explores the idea of how we respond to Jesus when he doesn’t appear as we want, or his message makes us uncomfortable, or we categorically disagree with him, and we take ‘offence’ at his words and way of living, because it’s easier to do this than to think through why.
‘Taking offence’ is an interesting idea. It opens up the idea about the choices we make, to take or not to take, offence. And when I sat and thought about it, I realised Jesus was offensive to all sorts of people.
He was offensive to the religious temple leaders and local synagogue authorities because he didn’t worship and speak of God the way they thought he should. He offended the Roman military authorities who didn’t like his challenge to their power and his questioning of oppression and control; he offended Judas Iscariot who thought him idealistic and a fool. He was offensive to the scribes and pharisees whom he called hypocrites and whited sepulchres; and what about those followers who didn’t like his discussion on ‘eating and drinking Jesus’ body and blood’ as the way to eternal life (Jn 6:53-56, 66). He offended wealthy leaders, establishment figures whom he embarrassed when he turned up for dinner and commented on their hospitality, showing up their behaviour as superficial, privileged, entitled and selfish. He offended those whose rules he broke; he offended people who had something to lose if his way was followed. He offended those who wanted him to use power and might to rule in the world.
When I think about Jesus like this, I’m surprised his message has lasted 2,000 years, because if we look around today, the same offence is being taken those who oppose Jesus and his message of comprehensive inclusion, justice, active peace and love, and the willingness to give everything to God.
God’s abundant, generous love for all people makes us ask ourselves serious questions about who we choose stand for, and against and why. Jesus holds up a mirror to our prejudices and biases, over issues of race, gender, sexuality and poverty and our abuse of control, power and privilege. Our questions about why should vulnerable peoples should be treated differently, invite us to take offence and stand against them, rather than standing for Jesus.
Jesus came back to his home town, to Nazareth and was roundly rejected, not because of what he spoke about which astounded them both with his wisdom and deeds of power; but because of who he was. Jesus was known, he wasn’t special, and he shouldn’t presume to know God and offer a message when he was an ordinary man, the carpenter’s son, Mary’s boy, and his brothers and sisters are neighbours.
Importantly they also rejected Jesus because of their unbelief, rejecting revelation on behalf of religion. Theirs was not genuine questioning, seeking an answer with appreciative enquiry, but questioning where the answer was already known, and with offence already taken! They had decided against Jesus. Their questions turned into a mocking of their neighbour, who had dared to challenge and disturb their image and expectations of a God-sent prophet. By not staying within the pre-set, agreed image of a prophet, Jesus threw them into a crisis about their beliefs and culture and they took offence at his challenge and answer.
Christians throughout the last 2,000 years have faced the same opportunities, asked the same questions; and we can either ask more questions to grow our faith, or close down the ideas and stay stuck where we are in our own world.
The unbelief shown in Matthew prompts us to consider our own preferred presuppositions, categories and images about God and Jesus. Are we so wedded to our capacity and choice to take offence that we neglect to see how limiting this is to our minds and souls, closing ourselves to God’s revelations in this time and place. Do we seriously believe Jesus would be content to stay in our categories?
In our varying interpretations, Jesus may be the pacifist, the moral teacher, the feminist, the personal saviour, the liberator, prophet, judge, brother, companion, Lord, social justice activist, friend of the deserving poor, even ‘blesser’ of my wealth and merit. I could find a hundred titles for him. However, all these names risk becoming simply our imagined, worldly titles fit only for social media tweets, if they are not continually and critically scrutinised and only if you and I are prepared to change our position and see other people differently as we learn, adjust, develop, grow our faith and trust in God.
Such appreciative questioning shows a willingness to be open to seeing and understanding Jesus Christ differently, to be challenged on our use of language about him, on our images, our Scriptural witness and on the theology and ideology we each carry around, shaped by our childhoods, life experience and our friendships, culture, society and politics.
Unless we are open to questioning these through the life and ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus, and remain open to the faith and life of those around us, especially those on the margins of the social, political and religious contexts in which we live, we will end up like Jesus’ Nazarene neighbours, choosing to take offence and going no further in faith.
The temptation is of course, to stick to religion, so my neighbour in the pew doesn’t take offence when the conversation in the morning tea after the service turns to discussing the latest outrage, and we comfortably share offence on who does she or he think they are to say such things in God’s name, in our Church. It’s a lot easier isn’t it, to restrict our ideas to what we all share, and let the hard stuff go, not be challenged or challenge others, because after all we know what God thinks because we’ve told God often enough, and God is with us. Enough said. Except it isn’t. This isn’t the message we are being given, and love, hope, courage, justice and peace are what we have to grapple with, think about, practice and live. We need to choose differently, put the offence to one side and pay attention to Jesus our neighbour, because we need to get used to this. The Lord be with you.
Jarvis, C.E., Johnson, E.E. [Gen. Eds]. 2013. Feasting on the Gospels Matthew, Vol. 1 Chapters 1-13. Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky, USA.