Who takes no offense
Updated: Dec 11, 2022
Last week I was at Trinity Episcopal Church and I preached a sermon about how deeply unpleasant John the Baptist seemed to be -- not just for being a bug-eater or an odd-clothes-wearer, but for the forthrightness with which he calls the otherwise respectable religious leaders and upper class, a "brood of vipers". If I told you to be baptized, and you came to be baptized, and I said "not good enough!" and told you that you are a tree that should be cut down, you might not like me either.
Well, cut to eight chapters later in the gospel of Matthew and John the Baptist is in prison for his habit of not being very nice to all the wrong people, including King Herod, and he's trying to figure out what is going on out there in the free world. He's doing this correspondence thing with his own disciples who find Jesus and ask him on John's behalf "Are you the guy that we've been preparing for?" and Jesus says "well, what do YOU think? Look who is healed, look who is raised from the dead, the poor have good news brought to them. Go and tell John what you see and let him figure for himself if I'm who he's been clearing a path for."
And then Jesus says this thing that is the same sticking point that stuck me in last week's Gospel reading, and in last week's sermon. Jesus then says "And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me." He turns back to the crowds and he goes on "What did you go out into the wilderness to see! A reed shaken by the wind? A man in soft robes! No, a prophet. And a prophet is what you got. An imprisonment is what the prophet got."
It is a challenge to us and to our faith and to our understanding of who God is to dwell in the truth that Jesus and John are,,, offensive. John offended the wrong people and got put in prison, Jesus offended the wrong people and got crucified. If the through line of the Gospel is Jesus's teaching a new societal ethic that prioritizes the most marginalized, then the undercurrent of the Gospel is a lot of people getting mad at him because of it. Jesus knows that what he's saying is good news to some, and a big, big threat to others. He knows that what he's saying will offend some and he knows that how he says it will offend the sensibilities of some, and he goes on ahead and says it anyways.
I feel like if this was the whole sermon, it would be enough: sometimes you will get offended by the Gospel and that is important information for you to have. Sometimes the Gospel will offend, and that is what we expected to happen, actually. But this cannot be the whole sermon because the idea of offendedness is so loaded these days, and we see it used relentlessly both as a shield and as a bludgeon, often not for the glory of God or for the care-taking of the vulnerable. The giving or taking of offense itself is not virtue or valor. It is just information. And for Jesus, it is important information about how his message is received and by whom.
See, what Jesus and John are doing is not just offending people for the sport of it, they are not rejoicing in the offense-taking that happens among the rich and powerful. Jesus literally says "blessed are those who take no offense at me." But what we see happen -- to John and to Jesus -- and what Jesus is acknowledging is that -offense- is one of the possible reactions to his preaching and teaching, -offense- is one possible reaction to the Word of God, and the prophets of God. It is likely the reaction that any one of us might have to some of what Jesus proposes in his ministry. I'll admit that a lot of what Jesus commands sounds great to me in theory, or it looks good on paper, or seems nice while it is safely tucked away in my imagination, but in reality-- I'm not sure that I am prepared for a lot of what the Gospel proposes, or what the Kingdom of God requires of me. I'm not sure that 'offense' is always the term I would use to describe my reactions to the Gospel, but if Jesus himself came here and started to push me on how much more I really ought to be doing, I'd bet some rougher emotion might start to crop up.
I say this because I think our emotions and our reactions sometimes play an outsized role as our Christian moral compass, and it can cause a stumbling block for our pursuit of the Gospel. Without wanting to sound too reductive, our Christian moral compass can sometimes go like this: if something makes me mad then it is bad and wrong, and if it makes me happy, it is true and good. Or if something makes me uncomfortable then it must be bad, or unsafe, or even unethical, and vice versa. And 95% of the time, it works so, so well, I would never want you to hear me say that you oughta just disregard your emotions in order to be a good Christian, I'm not saying that. But in those 5% of cases, sometimes, we get offended at something that is true and good, and sometimes we happily make peace with something that is bad and harmful.
The Gospels themselves actually give examples of those 5% of cases. What IF you got mad, because you were the vineyard worker who showed up at daybreak and you got paid the same as the one who showed up at the end of the day? What if you got mad, because you were the faithful religious who had kept yourself in line your whole life and you got told that you had an equal share of the kingdom as the sex worker!,,, as the tax collector!!! What if you were doing your best to follow Jesus and you finally met him and he said to you, actually, you're not doing the best you can, you also need to give away all your belongings, and what if you heard that and went away confused and sad and mad.
You see, I think that it is just so, so normal to hear the big and beautiful and scary and interrupting and divisive and world-shifting promises of God and to love them and agree with them right up until the point that they. In fact, it is so normal that it is probably how most priests feel, too. I think it is so, so normal to hear what Jesus preaches just past the point of comfortability, and to be at the very least suspicious or reluctant about what it being offered, and at most downright offended or even panic-stricken by the implications. You mean to tell me that I have to give away my hard earned money to people who don't work as hard as me? You mean to tell me that meek are going to inherit the earth, well why did I spend all this time getting strong! What do you mean we have to respect the dignity of every human being,, are we giving that away freely now? Why did I spend so much time then becoming respectable, why did I spend so much time and effort earning my deservedness, or my forgiveness, or my grace
What Jesus is saying here is that sometimes you guys (and that includes all of us, myself too) get offended at things that are good and that causes problems. It causes problems when offendedness is the chief way we discern right from wrong or when it stands between us and the Gospel. It would be so much easier if it was just, "offended means bad" and "not offended means good". Instead, unfortunately, Jesus' ministry is a big harrowing tale of him getting mad at people for being offended at things that are good and for not being offended by things that are bad.
I say all of this not to just muddy the waters but rather to name that the water is actually already muddy and that's normal. Figuring out the difference between the good things and the bad things, between the right things and the wrong things, between what to be offended by and what not to be offended by, is a life's work, and enough work to occupy an entire church and an entire religion. And the Gospel, I hope, rather than muddying the water further, can be a compass orienting us in the midst of the mud. And that compass points north towards that which cares for the vulnerable, that which cares for the sick and the poor, that which attends to the ignored, that which makes space and accommodation for those who might not be welcomed anywhere else.
St. George's, what did you come to church this morning to see? A reed shaken by the wind? These beautiful vestments? Fr. Will's bright and shining face? No, I don't think so. I know that I came to church today because we live in a dumpster fire of a world right now, and I need a vision of there being a different way, I need the promise of there being another way for us to live, and to be together. And if my own sensibilities are not enough to put together that vision, if that vision is on the other side of us still having some stuff to work out, well, then I think it still would be worth it.