Reading through Luke, I was struck by a dimension to Luke’s portrayal of Jesus I hadn’t noticed before. I also think, in these times where more people are able to have more platforms to speak their mind on issues, it’s an important dimension to take into account.
In Luke chapter 4, we see Jesus officially kick off his public ministry. He does this by standing up at his hometown synagogue, reading some verses from Isaiah and saying that these words are fulfilled in his arrival. He then adds commentary on this, highlighting how Israel has fallen out of God’s favor and so this fulfillment won’t come to them. This enrages the people and they try and kill him right there by throwing him off a cliff (yeah, it’s kind of funny). But he gets away.
Jesus offended these people deeply. He spoke what he believed to be true about God and the world, and they didn’t like it. And yet, people spoke offensive words in the ancient world all the time. There were many Messianic figures, and yet their words didn’t “stick” like Jesus’ did. His words ended up not simply gathering people that agreed with him, but actually changing minds, even while offending those that would be offended.
How did he do this? How can we do this with our own theological (or a-theological) beliefs? How should we wear our beliefs that might be very offensive to others?
Before Jesus’ official “coming out” for his public ministry, we know very little of him and how he lived life among others. But in all of these “pre-ministry” characterizations that Luke gives us, there is one theme that really seems to stick out:
The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him. (2:42)
And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor (2:53)
One of the only things we know about pre-public ministry Jesus is that he is liked by everyone. Even in his announcement of his public ministry, the verse right after Jesus reads those words from Isaiah, and before he offends them, makes a point to say this:
All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” (4:22)
And then he makes them want to kill him. Even to the very end, before his offensive belief–that he’s likely held for a long time–comes out, people associate him with gracious words and a well-liked personality.
The one other pre-adult ministry appearance we have is when 12-year old Jesus is left behind in the temple after a trip his parents take. They come back and find him. I don’t know why I never noticed this, but I always thought that this 12-year old Jesus was teaching the “educated” leaders in the temple. I don’t know where I got this idea. This is what the text says he was doing:
After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. (2:46-47)
Okay, how does Jesus wear his offensive thoughts? He spends over thirty years simply being well-liked, listening to others, asking them questions, and only showing his “understanding” when they ask him questions back. It’s only then, after having been established as someone they essentially like that he pulls out the offensive statements. In other words, they knew him as a million other things other than “offensive”, before he let them know what he really thought.
Personally, I have a diverse kaleidoscope of opinions on various theological issues that span the spectrum from incredibly fundamentalistic and conservative to shockingly liberal. Most all of those more “extreme” opinions have not found their way onto this blog. I have (hopefully, though imperfectly) tried to establish myself here as someone most anyone can feel comfortable around, no matter their opinion. It’s only after a long time that I sometimes offer people my “crazier” thoughts. If these people are surprised to hear my opinion, I consider that a good thing.
If you’re a theological conservative, you surely know (and probably take pride in) the fact that you hold beliefs that would offend many. If you’re a theological liberal (I hate these terms), it’s probably helpful to remind yourself that what you think is still very offensive to a huge swath of other Christians with whom you should still find more kinship than any of the others out there who might “accept” and “respect” you more. If you’re an Atheist, you surely know that your theological views are offensive to many people. I know that others respond to you unfairly and reactively without really listening or considering your words, but surely you can see how many Atheists don’t treat others as they’d like to be treated.
So, for all of us who surely have theologically offensive thoughts: How do you wear that? Are you well-liked by those you disagree with? Do they feel absolutely comfortable around you? Are your most offensive or shocking opinions some of the first things people learn about you?
Or do you take after Jesus, who lets time go by before offending? The Jesus who invites people in with warmth, winsomeness, and curiosity, and only after people are on the relational inside does he let them know what he really thinks?
A great test: look at your Facebook or Twitter feed. Look at the themes that run through what you post and say. If someone that you know disagrees with you took a look at their feed, would they “speak well of you and be amazed at the gracious words that came from your mouth”?
In conclusion, this approach is not all “touchy-feely” and “wimpy” as some might accuse. Still, believe offensive things! Still, talk about and defend them! Don’t waver in that!
But too often we use our more offensive thoughts and opinions as the litmus test to determine who we might let in. Why? Not simply because we like our opinions being reinforced, but because those people are less likely to leave us. Jesus was well-liked, and those people in his hometown still tried to kill him. Letting people in is dangerous and scary and takes incredible strength, security, and courage.
The knee-jerk “need” to wear your offensiveness on the outside and lead with that is more a sign of insecurity and emotional protectionism than any sort of “fidelity to truth”. It seeks affirmation from like-minded individuals and avoids the risk of human connection and grace.
(And yes, the Gospel sure is “offensive”, but it’s offensive in a way that’s inviting and meets people where they’re at. It’s focused on the truest essentials of the faith, not all of the other side issues, which is mainly what we’re talking about here.)
So can I encourage us all be a little more sensitive in our offensiveness? To be “well-liked” by all? To have gracious words come across our lips far more than complaint, reactivity, and offended-ness? To spend more time listening and asking questions before “soap-boxing” others to death?
Because in the end, perhaps it’s by holding our offensive cards closer to the chest that we actually do them the most honor and others the most good.
[image credit: Francisco DeGoya, “Fight with Cudgels”]