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August 26, 2012 | 8:00 a.m.

When God Offends Us

John H. Boyle
Parish Associate, Fourth Presbyterian Church

Psalm 34:1–10
John 6:35, 51–65

If we would only speak the truth to one another, we would no longer have to act out our deepest feelings in symbols that none of us understand. In our sickness, stubbornness, pride, we starve ourselves for what we hunger for above all else. “Speaking the truth in love” . . . is the only cure for the anorexia that afflicts us all.

Frederick Buechner

As with books, so with movies, I find myself returning to certain ones to reread, rewatch, and remember, even though I know the plot and the ending like the back of my hand. One such film is the iconic Casablanca, set in World War II during the Nazi occupation of French North Africa. One memorable scene is set in Rick’s Café, during which a singing duel occurs between German soldiers singing a rousing rendition of a spirited war song and the patriotic French patrons of the café singing with great ardor and passion the stirring French national anthem, “La Marseillaise.” The patriots outdo the soldiers, whose commandant proceeds to inform the prefect of police who is present that there is gambling going on in Rick’s café. Whereupon the prefect, who is on the take and whose loyalty resides with whomever seems to have the upper hand at the moment, pretends to be “Shocked, shocked, shocked!”

We may fake being offended when it seems to be to our advantage. Or we may use our being offended by one thing to cover up or possibly avoid having to deal with something else that offends us, especially when it threatens our beliefs, way of living, or some stereotype we hold dear.

With all this in mind, I can’t help wondering what prompted Jesus to ask the question of his disciples, “Are you offended?” Part of me has difficulty believing he did that. If he had been just an ordinary person, I might conclude that he just didn’t get it. But he was Jesus, for crying out loud. He should have known better. Of course they were offended. Why wouldn’t they be? After all, he had just said that the only way they could be intimately related to him and he to them was to engage in a vile, disgusting, grisly, stomach-churning, and obscene act of cannibalism. His invitation to intimacy required that they eat his flesh and drink his blood. And he’s asking if they were offended? Was he kidding? Did he not get it? Or was there something else going on there?

For example, earlier when Jesus said that he was the bread of life that had come down from heaven and that the will of God was that all who believed in him would have eternal life and that he would raise them up on the last day, some who heard him say these things began to complain and question his claim. We know this guy, they said, because we know his parents, and they are just ordinary folk. So how can he say of himself that he has come down from heaven?

The assumption behind such a conclusion is that of a stereotypic kind of thinking that reduces one’s knowledge of another person to that person being nothing more than a chip off the old block, claiming an omniscience based upon admittedly important but nevertheless limited data. I submit that this kind of stereotyping by which people are molded to conform to some standardized image based upon partial and sometimes false information, and thereby reduced to nothing but this, that, or the other, characterizes a good deal of the thinking and the rhetoric that is being noised abroad in the world and heard throughout our nation today. The inevitable result is divisiveness, confusion, and conflict in which people get hurt real bad, basic human needs go unmet, the social fabric is shredded, and the will of God is mocked. Makes me wonder what the real offense was that Jesus had in mind when he asked, “Are you offended?”

There is no such thing as “getting to know you, getting to know all about you,” or about oneself for that matter. How arrogant to think otherwise. The same goes for our relationship to God. For anyone to claim that they know all about God, or to act and talk as though they do is to claim for oneself an omniscience reserved only for God and God alone. If I have to know all about someone, God included, before I can trust them with my life and well-being, then this is not to trust at all, for trust is something one does in the absence of full knowledge and full disclosure on the part of the one to be trusted. Trust gets challenged and tested and intimacy takes on new meaning when they call on us to do something that makes us uncomfortable at best or repulsed at worst—like giving up something we don’t want to give up, doing something that gets our hands dirty, literally or figuratively, or both. Or like eating flesh and drinking blood.

What is more offensive—that I be told to eat flesh and drink blood, or that I should sell all my possessions and give the money to the poor? I’d rather hold my nose and do the former than end up sick to my stomach from doing the latter. God offends me when God upends my values and challenges my priorities by telling me not to push my way to the head of the line but to go to the end of it and take my turn like everyone else, by requiring that I quit seeking to hold sway over others and to serve them instead, by insisting that I replace the idols of greed and getting, of power and prestige around which I organize my life, with generosity and giving, with humility and sacrifice for the sake of those who have little or no power or prestige and who are living on the ragged edge of nothing.

When God offends us, we are likely to lose our spiritual appetite because there are some things we cannot or will not stomach. What we should be offended by, however, is not that Jesus used some inelegant, over-the-top language that challenges our aesthetic sensibilities in which to couch his invitation to intimacy. What we should be offended by is the arrogance of those who assume that by knowing a person’s lineage one necessarily knows that person. What we should be offended by is the huge disparity that separates the wealthy from the impoverished in our society. What we should be offended by is the discrimination and inequity that lead to inadequate schooling, housing, and health care for hundreds of people on the low end of society’s totem pole. What we should be offended by is how often liberty and justice are not for all but primarily for those who can afford and pay for them in one way or another. What we should be offended by is that big shots in the financial, corporate, political, and, God help us, ecclesiastical venues of society are often given a pass and not held accountable for their decisions to cut a deal that benefitted them but destroyed others. What we should be offended by is the huge amount of money that goes to feed the monster of military might while the mouths of hungry children the world over go unfed. What we should be offended by is the degree to which all of us and any one of us, by indifference or intention, are complicit in any or all of the above.

But after all is said and done and I am through with all this biblical squinting and scrutinizing and theological ranting about how God offends us, I realize that what troubles me most and in my more mature moments causes me anguish and pain is not how God offends me, but how often I have offended and do offend God, how I offend the one who was most offended by being hung on a cross to show God’s love and to save God’s world. It’s not about being guilt-ridden, but it is about being honest with myself about myself, lest I allow my complaining about God to cloud my awareness of who I am and who I am not.

Once there, however, I do take refuge in the good news of God’s grace, so tellingly expressed in a prayer of Søren Kierkegaard that for me sums up the message of the gospel:

Father in heaven! Hold not our sins up against us but hold us up against our sins, so that the thought of thee when it wakens in our soul, and each time it wakens, should not remind us of what we have committed, but of what thou didst forgive, not of how we went astray but of how thou didst save us! Amen.