Part II: Jesus was offensive in his language
I am thankful that some modern Christian leaders wisely advocate for graceful speech to others on social media (and off social media for that matter) when we disagree. Especially about politics. I myself have done so for REO, even linking an article by Tim Keller that helps deal with polemics in a mature and nuanced way.
So I want to be clear that, generally speaking, I think name-calling and demeaning language are not things Christians should practice. Quite often I would say they are sin since we are mandated by God to speak gracefully and to consider others more important than ourselves.
Sticks and Stones
Yet, when we read the Gospels, we discover that Jesus had zero issue calling people insulting names and being harsh in his speech in general. This, as much as anything, is proof that the real Jesus—and not the Politically Correct, Flannelgraph, Buddy-of-Sinners American Jesus—can be quite offensive to our ears and sensibilities.
One of the most obvious examples is how he referred to the hypocritical Pharisees as “whitewashed tombs” and children of Satan. That is pretty debasing language. But I’d like to spend more time in this article on other examples of this type of behavior from Jesus because one thing even the “Just Love Don’t Judge” crowd has no trouble recognizing is that Jesus was harsh to the Pharisees. The high and mighty religious crowd is the obvious exception. Often the Inoffensive Jesus advocates see the modern parallel for the Pharisees as Christians who preach even the judgmental portions of the Bible.
This is erroneous thinking. And even if it weren’t, Jesus’ scathing words to the Pharisees don’t begin to cover it when it comes to ways Jesus talked to people that can shock modern ears. A few others that are significant to me:
“At that time some Pharisees said to him, ‘Herod Antipas wants to kill you!’ Jesus replied, ‘Go tell that fox that I will keep on casting out demons and healing people today and tomorrow…'”
‘Jesus turned around and looked at his disciples, then reprimanded Peter. ‘Get away from me, Satan!‘ he said.”
“Then Jesus said to the [Gentile] woman, ‘I was sent only to help God’s lost sheep—the people of Israel…It isn’t right to take food from the children and throw it to the dogs.’”
“You unbelieving and perverse generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy here to me.”
“Then Jesus replied, ‘Have I not chosen you, the Twelve? Yet one of you is a devil!‘ (He meant Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, who, though one of the Twelve, was later to betray him.)”
None of the people on the receiving end of these insults could be described as the “religious crowd,” at least not in the typical New Testament Pharisaical sense. You have a follower who abandoned Christ and (I believe) ended up in Hell, a follower who remained faithful to death, a woman who was a complete stranger and foreigner and just needed help, a general crowd of people including his apostles, and a Gentile ruler. In each case, Jesus is not graceful with his speech, but downright rude at best and vicious at worst. If Jesus is our example, this really turns the “Love Thy Neighbor No Exceptions” T-shirt on its head.
Trying to Rationalize It
Now I know in the case of the Syrophoenician woman, that a rejoinder is that Jesus did end up helping her and perhaps came across as curt and even racist to make a point to her to be persistent. Yet can you imagine, in that case, or any of the above, a modern comparison? Christians calling our governmental leaders and former leaders names is extremely common on social media. But if I seriously called one of my church staff “Satan” in one of our meetings, I would be confronted for being a jerk. Even worse (and this is incomprehensible), if a woman of another ethnicity came to my church and asked for help and I used a slur about her people as I at first refused to help, I’d get fired. Even if I did help her eventually.
Let me again be clear that I do not think people reacting by confronting or firing me in those cases would be wrong. This is really what I’m getting at: Jesus was, and is, offensive in ways that we should not be. At least not normally. And while we do not always mimic him, we do accurately portray him. And that is what I fear that American Christianity fails to do quite often. When we make Jesus the nonjudgmental guy who only showed compassion, we misrepresent him. And that is a frightening thing to do.
As far as it depends on you
If you read Paul, he can seem to contradict himself at times. As in Galatians 1 when he said, “Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ.” Contrast that with 1 Corinthians 9 when he says, “Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible.” How is this reconciled?
Well, I think in large part the two passages are explaining two things. In one Paul is talking about preaching the Gospel. In the latter. he is talking about how he lives before lost people. That is a huge difference and it can be applied in 2018 this way: People absolutely should be offended by my Christianity. But they should be offended by Jesus, NOT by my behavior, attitude and even the way I talk1. I aim to remove every obstacle to the Gospel I can (especially cultural ones) but I cannot remove Jesus. And as Jesus himself noted over and over and over, HE is the offense. That is why people will hate us.
Now, Paul did refer to false teachers as “dogs” so I cannot say for sure that insulting language is always wrong2. But I can say for sure that generally speaking, people should not be offended by me. And equally as important–they should be offended by Jesus. It is the height of lamentable irony that we want to make Jesus inoffensive when he himself assured us that he is the worst offense there is. The kind that produces hate. I absolutely love my neighbor as myself, per Jesus’s command. But if I expect that to mean I will get along in perfect harmony with lost people, then I do not understand Jesus at all. He said himself that he came to bring a sword and divide people. It’s his name, his message, that people hate.
So do I speak the way Jesus spoke? Not necessarily. But do I preach him and his words—pure, unedited and without shame? Absolutely. It doesn’t make a nice T-shirt. Because you can’t be offensive and nice at the same time.
- Both Peter and Paul advocated being respectful and gentle when sharing our hope or correcting opponents and Paul instructed to live as peace with others as far as “it depends on you”. ↩
- False teachers, in my opinion, are a special case of people who merit far less compassion and patience, biblically speaking, than other lost people but that is an essay for another day. ↩