Part III: Jesus was offensive in his teachings
If your message isn’t different than an atheist’s, it isn’t the Gospel
The first time I heard Matthew 25:31-46 I found it offensive. Jesus speaks of treating the hungry, the prisoner and the stranger as if they were literally Jesus himself. By calling them “brothers” it sounds like he means outcasts who are Christians. Regardless of what he means, we know from the rest of Scripture that Christians are mandated to help the poor whether they are believers or not.
These days, while I believe the Church still has a huge responsibility to teach this and similar passages, it is not offensive to my ears. It has been taught so often and so passionately in my circles, and my church is so intentional about it, that the zing of it is gone. And while I could always do more to practice this passage, it has been a source for several articles I’ve written for REO, which you can read here, here and here. (I add that because our culture is so honed in on this teaching, often wielding it imprudently as a political statement1 that its offense has been greatly diminished on a broad scale. Even nominal Christians who do nothing for the poor likely aren’t offended by the suggestion.)
Additionally, the idea of “helping the poor” is something atheists can agree within a vacuum. So there are many other passages Jesus taught that are far more inherently offensive. If we are to understand Jesus as offensive, I want to focus particularly on things that will offend all people to some extent.
Christians, Family and Hate
One of the most obvious to my mind is that Jesus taught that we are to “hate” our family if we are to follow him. Correctly, preachers and teachers for millennia have taught that Jesus did not mean this literally, as that would contradict a bevy of other Scriptures on loving your family. But what he did through the use of hyperbole is make it clear that if love your family more than you love him you are not his disciple. Is that offensive? It is to me, and essentially everyone in every culture of the world I would guess. In fact, I have a friend from China who left his family to come to the US to study to be a pastor and his family thinks he hates them because he chose Christ over them. That is how he filters this passage.
Another similar one is when Jesus taught to not invite your friends and family over to your house for dinner but to invite the poor, the lame, the crippled and the blind. This to me is offensive because it is on a different level than “help the poor”. It’s one thing to go serve at the Pacific Garden Mission occasionally on a Saturday. It’s another to have those who are shunned by society sit at your dinner table as equals. That passage is in our Bibles and it doesn’t seem to be confusing in its interpretation or application. Yet a tiny minority practice it regularly in the U.S. I would guess. Because it is utterly offensive.
Jesus Didn’t Always Aim for “Church Growth”
Perhaps the most obvious example in the Gospels of Jesus offending the masses is in John 6. After miraculously feeding the 5,000 Jesus later teaches them that they must believe him to be his disciple. They ask for a sign like the manna for their ancestors in Exodus. Jesus, as the master teacher, turns their words into a brilliant (if disturbing) illustration: to believe in him you must consider him the bread of life and in a figurative sense eat his flesh and drink his blood. The offense is not foundationally in the grotesque imagery, though it is that to any non-savage culture. It is offensive because as he did in Luke 14:25-35 above, he is demanding complete association with him to be his disciple.
And how do they respond? Most of this free lunch crowd confesses it is too hard a teaching and they walked out. I am not advocating modern churches practicing this often (nor am I saying not to), but what if we were willing to preach a Jesus or Jesus teaching so offensive, that the majority of our Sunday morning crowd decides they can’t accept it and do not come back? Even if we do not scare people off, at minimum people in the seats need to know that Jesus is offensive enough to accomplish that kind of mass rejection.
The point could be belabored because in nearly 100 chapters in our Gospels, Jesus offends people over and over and over by what he teaches: The rich young ruler walks away sad, unwilling to part with his wealth…the lawyer tries to justify himself and gets put to shame…Jesus claims Gentiles are important so a crowd prepares to stone him…Jesus fastens a whip out of cords and violently drives moneychanger out of the temple, rebuking them for making his house of prayer for all nations into a den of thieves…Jesus regularly preaches on Hell and final judgment for those who reject him…and on and on. Jesus was a compassionate man to those who were hurting and humble (and even then he wasn’t always, as we saw in the last article). But you cannot escape how often he caused people to feel anger, shame and conviction when he taught. It is no wonder that Peter and Paul both interpreted Isaiah to mean that Jesus was a rock of offense, causing people to stumble.
Offensive Can Be Good
One connotation issue in American English is that our word “good” seems often to be associated with things that are pleasant, nice or agreeable. These are not synonyms for good in a biblical sense. If I work too much and God needs to slow me down, he could cause me to become violently ill. And that would be good, even if not nice or pleasant. Similarly, in a few weeks my wife is going to give birth. My understanding is that event will be painful and undignified and the opposite of agreeable or delightful. But will it be good? According to many fathers I talk to, it will be the best.
That is how we need to process Jesus and his teachings. Offensive seems bad, and not good, if we have poor definitions. Jesus’ hard teachings are good as only God’s goodness can be. But they are not easy to accept. They will knock us to our knees, cause us to weep with conviction and make us feel deep shame if we let them. Jesus makes no sense to an unbroken, self-sufficient people. That is the heart of offense and that is what Jesus does.
May we stop trying to portray him otherwise.
- There is no question Christians should practice it but to what extent the government uses it as a policy guide it isn’t close to clear in my mind ↩