Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Offensive Preaching?

I spend much time reading about the kingdom of God, not just for my research but for regular preaching in my εκκλεσια. I've been thinking about preaching and the kingdom of God and this quote struck me. Long ago Ben Meyer wrote:

It is hardly possible to exaggerate the explosive power which this combination of 'gratuity' and 'present realization' gave to Jesus' proclamation. The power is attested by the diversity and vehemence of the responses it evoked. [Meyer, The Aims of Jesus, pg. 131]

So here's the issue: how many sermons have you heard on the Kingdom of God [empire of YHWH], or even Jesus that have caused an explosive or vehement response? My guess is probably in the region of zero, or one if you're incredibly lucky [and your response was more likely due to the way someone used the text (eisegesis), instead of the content that they brought.]
And yet this is what Jesus probably did on a regular basis [Matt 11:2-6 // Lk 7.18-23 "Blessed is anyone who doesn't take offence at me"]. This macarism or blessing is unusual because Jesus must have felt the need to pronounce this blessing as part of his mission and message to encourage those who were taking him at his word and trusting him to be an authentic prophet of YHWH.
I often quote Meier's fantastic passage where he writes:

The historical Jesus did threaten, disturb, and infuriate people- from interpreters of the Law through the Jerusalem priestly aristocracy to the Roman prefect who finally tried and crucified him. This emphasis on Jesus' violent end is not simply a focus imposed on the date by Christian theology. To outsiders like Josephus, Tacitus and Lucian of Samosata, one of the most striking things about Jesus was his crucifixion or execution by Rome. A Jesus whose words and deeds would not alienate people, especially powerful people, is not the historical Jesus. [Meier, A Marginal Jew, pg. I, 177]

And yet does our proclamation reflect this Jesus? Or have we embraced a liberal Jesus that is just concerned about arbitrary ethics and treating people nicely? I wonder about these things. Obviously this leads us into huge hermeneutical questions of how to translate this message from an ancient Jewish Apocalyptic context into our various cultural/philosophical/religious situations. But I wonder if this ever even crosses our thoughts - proclaiming a Jesus who offends [not just for the sake of it] but because one has understood and is faithful to that message Jesus announced. As Alexander notes:

Christians spend a lot of their time and energy explaining why Jesus couldn't possibly have meant what he said. This is understandable: Jesus is an extremist and we are all moderates. What is worse, he was an extremist in his whole life not just some narrowly spiritual areas...but in everything. So we have to find ways to dilute his teaching. [J. Alexander, "Why We Must Ignore Jesus", The Other Side (October, 1977), 8].

Isn't our Jesus too nice and cute, instead of dangerous and revolutionary as he was in the gospels?


eddie said...

hmmm... I think that to the extent that Jesus was offensive, dangerous, and revolutionary, he was so within his original context. That is, his message and following posed serious threat to the Jewish and Roman institutions of his day.

Now this may simply be because he was misunderstood as a would-be king in violent terms. But regardless, his community formation, his ethic, posed problems for many of his contemporaries because it rocked the way things were. And things were the way they were because they worked (for those to whom he was seen as dangerous) and were grounded in theology.

But we should not take the mistaken train of thought that sees Jesus offensiveness and then presumes that he should be offensive all the time to people in every context. It does make us question whether we have 'toned him down' so to speak. But the content of the sermon on the mount (if thats what you mean by "arbitrary ethics") is an significant part of his ministry, and his welcoming and fellowship with sinners (if thats what you mean by "treating people nicely") was also.

Yes, I think we as preachers hesitate to challenge people, and as evangelists too. And you are right, "But I wonder if this ever even crosses our thoughts - proclaiming a Jesus who offends [not just for the sake of it] but because one has understood and is faithful to that message Jesus announced."

Sean du Toit said...

I don't think it matters too much what context you place Jesus in, he would still offend many people - as Meier says expecially powerful people. He would challenge the various gods of this world, Sex, Money & Power or as Wright would say: Marx, Freud & Nietzche. Jesus subverted anyone with an agenda that contravined his own. He had too, who else has all power and authority and who else is the world's true Lord?