The Rev. Dr. Fred G. Garry
“No Offence Taken”
Scripture Reference: Matthew 11: 1-6
Now when Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and proclaim his message in their cities. When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
People cheer me when I jog past them. I have heard, “you keep going man!” and “keep it up!” Some have shouted, “you’re going to make it.” I have asked around and it appears that others who jog are not offered such encouragement.
I know part of it is my obvious lack of physical preparation, readiness; I don’t exude fitness. My appearance could easily be an example of lethargy. The Buddha statue I relate to is the smiling, fat one, not the lotus postured, skinny contemplative Buddha.
My guess though is that it has something to do with speed. Just the other day one of the crossing guards shouted at me, “enjoy your walk.” This might have been a bit of Jersey attitude but during the winter one of the crossing guards encouraged me to be careful on my walk. So the words of warning and encouragement are most likely a recognition that someone going this slow needs all the help they can get.
Last year in Jerusalem I found the true testament. We were in West Jerusalem on the sabbath staying in a lovely hotel. After the day of touring, I put on my jogging pants and shoes and headed out for a run through the Old City. As I ran down the busy streets, I spied the Hasidic, the ultra-orthodox, sitting together drinking tea, talking and resting as it was the sabbath. Again and again, I saw one of the Hasidic spin as I approached and raise a hand.
I quickly remembered, you’re not supposed to run on the sabbath, this breaks the laws of rest. Then something strange happened. I could see them start to raise their hand and begin to shout, but then they stopped. You could see confusion on their faces, a kind of internal debate rising to the surface, “is he really running; he is not really moving fast enough for running. Meh, let that one be.”
My suspicions were clarified later that night. I asked Justin, and Charlie Day, and Gary Ostermueller, all of whom had gone jogging as well, “did any one yell at you as you were jogging?” Each one, said, “oh man, people were shouting the whole time.” That was a bit of confirmation: I am running really slow if the Hasidic give me a pass for it takes a lot for them to give you a pass on the sabbath.
There is a wide spectrum in Judaism today from the ultra-progressive to the ultra-orthodox; there is a common thread, though, binding them together: the law. And, even more specifically, how they honor or follow the law. At last count, the Hebrew Bible had roughly 900 laws to follow. Some are arcane, some are timeless. Not eating eagles seems a bit odd, but don’t lie still seems to be a pressing need.
In the time of Jesus, one of the key aspects of Judaism was the idea of the perfect sabbath. If every Jewish male in good standing could keep the sabbath perfectly, then the Messiah would come, the kingdom of God would reign. This is one of the reasons why the Pharisees were always after Jesus: he seemed to be flaunting the sabbath laws or codes. We can think of the Pharisees as a bit uptight, but they were holding out for a great hope: heaven on earth.
What we don’t often remember is that John the Baptist made the most conservative Rabbi, the most observant Pharisee, the most devout of the Sadducees, he made them all look like they were wildly loose, slackers. John the Baptist called the Pharisees vipers and warned them the “ax was at the root.” We don’t often remember this about John the Baptist because we interpret him mainly through Christian art.
In Christian art, John the Baptist is depicted as he is in this statute on the cover of your bulletin. He has a raised hand and his index finger is pointing toward Jesus. The Reformed theologian Karl Barth said of this finger, “all of Christian theology is contained in it.” The finger is a testimony: behold the lamb of God; I must decrease, and he must increase.” Which is true and nice, except it has nothing to do with how the gospel writers develop the relationship with Jesus and John the Baptist.
In a nutshell, after the baptism, things got bumpy.
After the baptism of Jesus where the dove descended and the sky opened, after this, Jesus started hanging out with prostitutes; he allowed a tax collector to become a trusted disciple; he was known as a glutton and dined with the Pharisees. He was breaking the sabbath codes that John didn’t believe were strict enough.
When I see the images of John the Baptist with his finger pointing to Jesus suggesting: behold the lamb of God, when I see this, I think of my jog through Jerusalem with the Hasidic raising a finger about to shout and then going, “Meh.” When John was awaiting execution in prison, he didn’t send his disciples to say, “those who are about to die salute you.” He sent his disciples to ask, “am I really dying for you?” Instead of a finger outstretched to say, “this is the one,” it was closer to arms raised in frustration, saying, “really? Prostitutes? Tax collectors? Pharisees? Centurions? And the worst, gentiles! Gentiles even? Really?
Before we dig into the teaching of Jesus, “Blessed is the one who is not offended in me” before we get there, we need to be mindful of where our images of Jesus and John the Baptist come from. In Christian art, John the Baptist is often seen pointing to the cross, as if he is saying, “look to the Messiah, the Christ, the atoning sacrifice.” This is the scene of the Ghent altar piece and many others like it. John is there to say, Jesus is the Son of God, the crucified sacrifice. But that is not what the gospels record.
What we have in Christian art is the Jesus of the Apostle Paul not the gospel writers. The Jesus of Paul, which we find in Christian art, is a perfect Jesus, a sinless Jesus, a cosmic Jesus transcending all our brokenness. In Matthew we have a very different image. Jesus is all too human, and all too disappointing. You don’t send your disciples to ask, “are you the messiah” as a sign of support. And Jesus doesn’t encourage someone to resist the temptation of offence who is happy. John the Baptist is pointing a finger in Matthew, but it is not a matter of adoration and glory.
We need to be clear about this because the teaching about offence doesn’t make any sense if Jesus is perfect and John is on his side; the question about looking for another doesn’t make any sense if John the Baptist is his great witness and prophet and Jesus is the One. This is a moment where John is not just doubting about whether Jesus is the Messiah, he is wondering if he is a good man. In this moment John is so offended he has lost faith in him.
Soren Kierkegaard wrote a book about this verse, “Blessed is the one who is not offended in me.” His most important piece of wisdom is this, we need to remember: the opposite of faith is not doubt; the opposite of faith is offence. The key to this is root of the Greek word. In Greek, to be offended is “skandalon” where we get the word scandal.
When there is a scandal, when we are scandalized, we no longer trust the offender. This disgrace, the undoing of grace, is the loss of accommodation and compassion. We turn away; we say things like, you are not welcome here anymore. Being offended is not a matter of being bothered or upset; it is being shocked, confronted with the truth of something we could not see. For those who cause a scandal we no longer want to trust them.
In the early ‘90s Kathy would drive me to the seminary campus in our small Ford Escort with the children in tow. She was dropping me off at class. As we drove in the mornings Howard Stern was the program that played. At some point in his program, he would say something so offensive we would need to turn the radio off. Not good to expose children to vulgarity or tawdriness so early in the morning.
There was no morning where Howard Stern did not say something offensive. That was his stock and trade as a shock jock. But I was never offended. I didn’t agree with what he said or how he said it and I was more than convinced that what he said was offensive. That he was scandalous, was irritating, was true. But what he said did not offend me because I never believed in him. He was not someone in whom I put my hope and trust and faith.
Jesus doesn’t say you won’t be offended or encounter offensive things or even need to enjoy what is scandalous. He says, blessed is the one who is not offended in me. Tell John not to be offended. John needed to hear this because he believed Jesus was the Messiah, he put his trust in him and he was losing faith. When you are offended you lose faith.
For good, or mostly for ill, people put their trust in the church, in the institution, in the rituals. Every teaching of Jesus begs us not to do this. Put your faith in humility; trust meekness; double your bet, double down on grace and mercy and forgiveness: trust these. In the organization and tradition? No.
The church is the place where we gather, where we join our voices and pray. When the church becomes something more, something that should be a certain way at a certain time with certain words, then we bid Jesus farewell. At the heart of John’s offence, I believe, was a sincere hope that Jesus was the one to make Israel, Jerusalem, Judaism, the law, the synagogue, the sabbath what they were supposed to be. He was there to make the institution right. But this is not where we find the good.
For good, or mostly for ill, people put their trust in nations and governments and leaders. In a land born of a desire to shed the yoke of tyranny I am ever amazed that we seek to bear it once again. We replace kings with parties and the divine right with a religious right and we forsake a precarious hope of freedom. Today we live in a minefield of persistent offence because we are shocked to find that people to do not share our ideals, our definitions, our trust. People are offended, falling to offence, again and again. We are losing faith in each other.
There is only one way out of the trap, the temptation of offence, and it is this: look to where the good is happening. The hungry are fed, the blind see, the lame walk, the poor hear the good news. Look to these and these alone. Not because I said so but because this is what Jesus told John the Baptist. When you are losing faith, you can find it in finding the lost, welcoming the outcast, healing the broken.
Jesus didn’t tell John the Baptist what to believe or how to look at the world and history and politics and tradition. He didn’t argue with John the Baptist; he just said, look to what is good and right and beautiful. Always let them guide you. Blessed is the one who is not offended in me. Amen.