You’ve probably seen this T-shirt floating around social media:
Let me be absolutely clear that, without further context, I agree with it. When it’s time to shovel my neighbors’ snow, I should not for one second allow their religions or sexuality determine whether I serve them. Or when I’m at Aldi and the person behind me has two things to buy while I have a cartful, these things don’t matter for me to allow them to go ahead of me.
But if you dive deeper behind much of American culture, even in the Christian subculture, my fear is that we limit what “love your neighbor” is to things that are as above, completely non-offensive and by most measures the opposite of offensive in that they are welcoming.
Further, the life and work of Jesus Christ is at the core of this thought. Because, after all, Jesus was a “friend of sinners,” right? Well, the truth isn’t nearly that simple. It typically is not.
Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses. (Proverbs 27:6)
To be completely straightforward, my aim in this series of essays is not to blaze a new trail on the topic. Encouragingly, I have heard sermons and read internet articles that try to push back against the Inoffensive Jesus. My goal here to help with that. Based on the temperature of American Christianity, we are not going to lack for correction on this topic. We are a nation that thrives on offense being the worst thing in the world. Think just for a second about terms that have been added to our vernacular that seemingly crept in overnight but now are everywhere (especially social media): triggered, safe space, snowflake.
I’m guessing that some people associate those terms with political views. That is not my desire here. My point is simply that the culture at large has begun to qualify with its vocabulary how much we loathe being offended. This is prevalent in the church also, where people seem content with coming just to big gatherings on Sunday and never getting deeper into the community (as is modeled for us in Acts 2), all for fear of being known and judged.
Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, “Does this offend you? (John 6:61)
I acknowledge that much offense, like racism, is terrible and in that sense needs to be battled. But in Christianity, offense is at the heart of our message. That cannot be changed. When people say Jesus was a friend of sinners I do not think they always represent that correctly.
There is work behind interpreting and applying the Bible and my efforts in understanding the passages that use that phrase do not leave me with a sense of “Jesus went out and showed great compassion to the disenfranchised tax collectors, refused to judge them and just loved on them.” No, I do not get that impression at all, even though that is often how I feel people want it to be applied.
Instead, in Matthew 9 we find Jesus calling Matthew to come follow him. We know when Jesus called people, he was as offensive as could be. He told them to forsake their families and to die to themselves. And just a few chapters prior Jesus demanded repentance from those who wanted to follow him. When people accused Jesus of hanging with the bad crowd, Jesus replied that he came to call those who were humble enough to need a doctor. How absurd would it be to imagine a doctor with a cure for a major disease partying with his patients and never telling them what is wrong with them or how to fix it? (I also hasten to add that I have at times heard people claim Jesus was only offensive to “religious” people, but that is nowhere close to the truth and I will deal with that myth in later essays.)
Jesus wasn’t Matthew’s drinking buddy. Nor was he merely “hanging out” with his friends and loving them in innocuous ways. I have zero doubt Jesus spent time with these people to preach to them. Since the core of the Christian life is a relationship (as seen by the Trinity), he didn’t just preach. He communed with them. How many of them were saved? I do not know. But I have no doubt Jesus didn’t commune with sinners without offending them.
And blessed is he who does not take offense at Me. (Matthew 11:6)
Jesus is far less offensive to the humble than to the proud. And the issue with the T-shirt above could be that I know that many of those neighbors that I am supposed to love by shoveling snow see zero need of Jesus in their life. At some point, they need to be offended by the truth of Jesus Christ. Isn’t this the most loving thing to do?
Jesus is the greatest proof that loving and offending can overlap. If my child needs a shot from the doctor, is it loving to prevent it because it hurts? If the building I’m in is on fire and there is only one door to escape from certain death, is it offensive to try to tell people other ways out are wrong? That’s a little simplistic but the point is true in Christianity, which claims quite offensively to be the only way to salvation.
So buckle up, REO readers. This year for Christmas we want to encourage you to block out all of the cultural noise and false “no offense” prophets and see Jesus for who he truly is. Because the truth is that he can be terrifying at times, and difficult to accept. Since he is by nature God, even clothed in humanity, we should expect him to be.
Part 2 coming next week.