Offended by Jesus

“[Jesus] came to his hometown and began teaching them in their synagogue, so that they were astonished, and said, ‘Where did this man get this wisdom and these miraculous powers? Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary, and his brothers, James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And his sisters, are they not all with us? Where then did this man get all these things?’ And they took offense at him […] And [Jesus] did not do many miracles there because of their unbelief.”Matthew 13:54-58

C.S. Lewis popularized the argument that Jesus of Nazareth was either a liar, a lunatic, or Lord. Though this trilemma has some logical flaws, I think the underlying point holds true: there’s no room for neutrality when it comes to Jesus. One must either passionately believe and follow him as Lord, or reject him completely as a dishonest and delusional madman. One cannot simply view him as a mere Jewish teacher from Galilee.

The question of Jesus’ identity is the question his neighbors faced in Matthew 13. They were skeptical of his claims of deity–his authority to forgive sins, his claims of eternal existence, his relation to God the Father.

And because they knew Jesus was born of a lower-class family from Nazareth (a.k.a. Podunk town), it seemed very unlikely that he was their God.

But they were not just skeptical of Jesus. They were offended by him.

How could such a common man be so wise?

How could a simple carpenter’s son have such miraculous powers?

How could such a lowly man claim to be God?

So even though they had witnessed Jesus’ works and wise teachings, they rejected him.

Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard also recognized the inherent offense of Christianity: “[H]ere is the possibility of offense […] will you be offended or will you believe. If you will believe, then you push through the possibility of offense and accept Christianity on any terms.”

Living in the wake of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, Kierkegaard reminded his reason-oriented contemporaries that the Christian is called to believe the unreasonable: that a finite human being, existing in time and space, is simultaneously the infinite God, existing outside of time and space. Thus, Kierkegaard called Jesus of Nazareth the God-man, the ultimate paradox, the absurd.

Like the rationalists of Kierkegaard’s modern world centuries later, the people of Jesus’ hometown couldn’t push through the offense. Jesus was a violation to their reason, a logical impossibility.

Jesus’ reaction to his offended neighbors is surprising: “He did not do many miracles there because of their unbelief.” Notice the cause-and-effect pattern here. Because of their unbelief, Jesus didn’t do many miracles.

You’d think their unbelief would’ve motivated him to perform more miracles, to seize the perfect chance to really prove his identity. You’d expect him to convince the cynic by showing off his powers.

But he didn’t.

He wanted them to believe, first.

Reading Matthew 13, I wonder if Jesus works the same way today. Does he work in our lives so we’ll believe and follow him? So our intellectual expectations are satisfied? To appease our rational impulses? Does he prove his power so that we’ll have more faith?

Or does Jesus work in our lives because we already believe? Because we’ve already passed through the possibility of offense and have come to truly trust that he can and will work in us, through us, for us?

I find myself more like the people of Jesus’ hometown. I’m often offended by him, by what he demands, by his affront to my finite human reason and expectations.

He doesn’t fit in the box I try to put him in.

So I wait for more miracles and signs before I’ll believe him. Before I’ll really trust him with my whole life.

But Jesus wants my belief, first. He wants me to take the intellectual risks and trust that he can work miracles, that he can provide for, heal, and transform me.

Perhaps Jesus doesn’t work miracles because I don’t believe he can.

Is he silent because he’s not speaking? Or because I’m not willing to listen?

Lord, help my unbelief.

When Work Gets Weird: Or, Is Groveling A Christian Virtue?

For the first time, I am experiencing what most of you have experienced before: a vengeful boss, bizarre job expectations, and the oppressive feeling of powerlessness.

Currently, I teach at a private school in South Korea, where the system is infamous for its flaws. Still, my situation is probably well-known to most people back home in the West.

Aside from the stressful environment and sense of paranoia at work, my work struggle strikes me right where it hurts the most: my pride. No employer has ever called me a bad worker before, and I have felt wounded, as if my skills were betrayed and unappreciated. Still, in the midst of all this frustration, I’ve had amazing coworkers to share their own horror stories (hidden nanny cams, thieving bosses), and offer me seasoned, measured advice.

So, at the end of the day, I can feel two things: one, a huge sense of relief as I check off my calendar of rapidly shrinking time left in Korea (twenty or so days), and two, the personal satisfaction of knowing that I can exchange simple, unmediated pain for a transformative suffering. Every day is another struggle to forgive, and another blow to my pride, and that’s a good thing. To loosely paraphrase C. S. Lewis, the layers of happy childhood, amiable personality, and good digestion are being stripped away, revealing the bones of the matter: Capital-F Forgiveness is . . . not easy.

As a person prone to mysticism, I’ve found this education interesting despite its practicality. As an ode to this comforting practicality, I’ve made a list called “Reasons I Should Be A Tiny Bit Grateful For My Horrible Bosses.” Some points are counsel shared by friends, others are my own; knowing that I’ve been forced to ferret out wisdom and advice is, in its own way, a reason for paradoxical joy.

Reasons I Should Be A Tiny Bit Grateful For My Horrible Bosses

  1. I am not as forgiving as I thought I was. Good to know, because now I have the opportunity to really “seize the day,” and forgive some unlikeable people who will probably live their entire lives thinking I am in the wrong . . . and I have to, without resentment, accept that they will never understand.
  2. I can be gracious without groveling. Groveling is still self-serving because it’s about trying to relieve myself of pain. Right now, trying to smile in the hallway is good enough, even when they don’t smile back.
  3. I am not powerless. To quote a friend, I have the power to be a bigger person, and even beyond that, I have God’s power of peace, love, and a sound mind. As of a few days ago, I’ve stopped having nightmares, and while work can still be tense and miserable, I’m trying to remember–stamp-on-my-heart-Awana-style-remember–that no one can can tear power from God, the ultimate director of my life.
  4. In this situation, where I’ve become a school scapegoat for every minor infraction against a cloud of unwritten rules, my fellow teachers (who are also my dear friends) could have distanced themselves to salvage peace of mind and reputation. But they didn’t. When I go home in 24 days, I’m carrying more than an unfortunate end to my year of work; I’m going home with friendships that have already been tempered and strengthened by fire.

But, more than anything, and more than ever, in the tension of every day, Praise Him. So blessings to whoever forces me to remember.