Saturday, July 2, 2016

Jesus Asks: Does this offend you?

This is the 23rd post in my series "Asking Myself," in which I weekly ponder one question posed in Teresa Blythe's rich book, 50 Ways to Pray. This week, I diverge slightly in that I'm choosing a question Jesus asked that is not in Blythe's list, though I'm still following the spirit of the exercise as I ponder the question. You can find the start of the series here and last week's post here. The first nine posts focused on theological musings, while posts 10 to the present prayerfully consider the specific questions Jesus posed in the New Testament.

Q: Does this offend you? (John 6:61)

Jesus asks his disciples this question after they complain that talk of eating his flesh and drinking his blood are, to put it nicely, difficult to understand.

Does that offend you? How would I answer the question? In short, yes. Things Jesus says often offend me. Perhaps I'm not truly offended by the ideas in John 6, since my church upbringing has normalized the idea that we should joyfully "Taste and see that the Lord is Good!" We used the words "partake" of Jesus as our "divine portion." He's the "Bread of Life," the "true wine." He is satisfying and sweet. Wholesome and fortifying. All of these rewordings make poetic the very gruesome task of eating someone's flesh and drinking their blood. 

But I'm offended by what seems an intentional test or trap. Jesus knew his disciples were mostly unlearned. They weren't schooled to make big metaphoric leaps of logic. (And, let's face it, even the learned Nicodemus couldn't stomach the idea of being born again.) So eating flesh and drinking blood would be quite shocking. It would cause even the most ardent disciple to pause and say, "Come again?"

It bothers me that Jesus seems to use this language almost precisely because it has shock value, because the seeming vulgarity will catch people off guard. 

So I wonder, is Jesus really asking, "Does it offend you that I can be so crass, so unconventional, and shocking? Do you think it offensive that I am not predictable and tame and man-pleasing? Does it offend you that you encounter entirely unheard of ideas when you're under my teaching? Does it bother you that I defy defining? That I don't fit the mold of your day's notions of a good Messiah?"

I'd like to think that's what Jesus is asking. 

Because the idea of eating someone and drinking their bodily fluids is not only gross in any age, but probably particularly offensive because it sounded like other religious practices of the day. I speak having absolutely no background in pagan or other religions, but I imagine there to be some cults in which ritualistic cannibalism might have made the idea revolting to the Jews for religious and spiritual reasons as well. 

Was Jesus echoing some distant permutation of truth in gentile religions of the time? Regardless, weren't his disciples right to hit the pause button and ask Jesus what he meant? 

Or is He really just trying to cause paradigm shifts through shocking language? Certainly, it was a metaphor that would not only reappear in scripture, but eventually become one of the iconic symbols of the Christian faith.

But, getting beyond this particular incident-- this question beckoned me because in it I heard Jesus ask me, "Do I offend you?"

And I had to answer again, that sometimes, Yes. Jesus, You do. Sometimes Your words and actions are troubling to me.

We Christians like to think the Son of Man is The Ideal Man.  And for women, I would go so far to say that our vision might be elevated to the Ideal Other Half. Like, Jesus is supposed to be all the things we'd ever want in a husband, (minus any sexual connotations). Or, for us marrieds, we imagine that Jesus is all that our husbands turned out not to be. Or, for us mothers, Jesus might even be the Ideal Son. 

Of course, we make Jesus after our own ideal image —you know, the one that doesn't really exist and certainly isn't modeled after us. But we have it all figured out anyway: The Perfect Human. He's kind, humble, gentle, loving, humorous, patient, smart, strong, good. He knows all the answers, has total control of his emotions, brings out the very best in whomever he meets. He makes everything plain as day and let's us know all the important things. 

And, there are moments in scripture and in life when He IS all these things. And other times when it seems He's not. Soemtimes, despite my best intentions and most wishful thinking, I can't help but hear a red letter Jesus who's sinless but a teeny tiny bit offensive. He's a little bit off from my vision of Perfect Perfect One. 

Or maybe a lot off. 

All you good Christians out there are probably thinking, WHAT, Emily, could possibly be wrong with our Savior? How dare the lump question the Potter? 

You are totally right. But you see, I can't help but explore. I can't help but question. This is because I trust that when I dig a little, even in the uncomfortable spaces of my theology, I'm going to come out alright in the end. I'm going to find Jesus as lovable as ever. 

So, let's dig in!  One example of "Offensive Jesus" that comes to mind is the story of his second public miracle. Not long after turning water into wine at Cana, (which happens to be quite the "Awww, Mom, Really?" moment for all us mamas who want our kids to be just like Jesus), Jesus is approached by an official.

We see Jesus trying to shoo away this poor man, beside himself with sorrow and urgency for his dying boy. First, let me frame how I see this man. He might be agitated and obnoxious, but he also exhibits a good measure of faith in Jesus. Afterall, we've only seen Jesus turn water into wine (in front of extremely drunken and judgement impaired witnesses) and speak a word of wisdom to the woman at the well with too many men. Perhaps news of these feats made their way through the gossip vine. But only having this knowledge, the official thought Jesus might be his best bet to save his son. So instead of staying lovingly at his boy's death bed, he takes the risk to journey and find Jesus.

But when he does and makes his urgent request, Jesus' response certainly seems discouraging, if not totally off-key:
"Will you never believe in me unless you see miraculous signs and wonders?" (John 4:49)
Like, what? Jesus! Is that really what the poor man is after? 

If it were me, if one of my precious boys was dying and Jesus questioned my motivation behind asking for his healing... I don't know if my faith would withstand the offense. (I hope it would, of course!) The official pleads once more,
"Lord, please come now before my little boy dies."
Jesus replies that the official should go back home, for his son will live. The man spins back toward home and his child, to the happy discovery that the boy made it through the crisis point at exactly the hour Jesus uttered the words. He and his entire household then believe in Jesus.

There's a happy ending. But, I, the distant reader, can't help but ponder Jesus' initial reaction to the man. Might it be that coming off his Cana fame as the magical sommelier he was hounded by people expecting more slights of hand? Maybe drunkards followed him around asking for free drinks? Little old ladies dragging their cisterns, hoping to fill up for their daughter's upcoming weddings? I don't really know, and the text doesn't say, but perhaps a string of annoying requests had predisposed Jesus to assume everyone now wanted to see a cool miracle. 

But even with this possibility and with Jesus' fully humaness, I'd like to think that he would be present enough to know this man cared little for any miracle in and of itself. He cared only that his son live.

I think I have to rule out the idea that Jesus was misinterpreting the man's request. But my second option still doesn't let Jesus off the hook.

Perhaps Jesus' response to the man asking him to "Come quickly" was that he shouldn't have to come to perform the miracle. Maybe he was looking for stop-you-in-your-tracks Centurion-type faith-- the type of leader who thinks strategically, and knows the sheer power of a command if not the sheer force of the Word Become Flesh. Just say the word, and the boy will be heeled. 

To this I say, well, that shining example of faith comes later. And Jesus seems not to have expected it when it came. Can you really hold the poor papa to such a standard? 

So I'm at a dead-end again. 

And yet, Jesus does heal the boy. And the healing causes the official and all his household to believe. And the official doesn't seem the least bit offended at Jesus' question. So, does it really matter if the conversation got off to a rough start? Should an initial impression really prejudice me against Jesus?  Of course not. I can easily let go of my offense. 

But why was I offended in the first place? Is this a matter of seeing through a glass darkly? Is this a "Who can know the mind of the Lord?" moment? 

And I also wonder, is it OK to be offended? Is it sinful to sense offense rising up? Surely, to nurse an offense and allow it to fester, to allow its thorny arms to create a wall of separation between me and another WOULD be sin or at very least a bondage from the enemy. But maybe we feel what we feel because we're humans made that way by God.

Going back to the original story, and the original question, it seems that Jesus might have intentionally been trying to thin out his crowd ... maybe he was intentionally shining light on the offenses people felt. They were looking for miracles-- they said as much. They wanted him to perform a miracle like Moses and the manna from heaven. 
"Show us a miraculous sign if you want us to believe in you. What can you do?" (John 6:30)
These were not the kind of people Jesus really wanted in his entourage. So he decided to use their Bread from Heaven example and show them what they were really wanting, who they were missing. Those who saw it, even if through a mirror dimly, were able to hang with him. But many more stopped following Jesus that day. 

As he saw the crowds of shallow seekers peel off from the Twelve, Jesus addressed his remaining disciples:
 "Are you also going to leave?" (John 6:66)
They might have had some misgivings, some questions, some hints of offense. They might have occasionally had to squelch the rogue thought that maybe John the Baptist wasn't so strange after all. But really, these disciples who'd been living alongside Jesus were not going to leave him over some puzzling speech. In fact, Peter says, 
Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words that give eternal life. We believe and we know you are the Holy One of God. (vv 66-67)
And in the end, my response is the same. To this little offense and many others, I can only echo Peter's words. 

Next week: Have you believed because you have seen me? (John 20:29)

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