Father Nicholas Lang
The Sixth Sunday After Pentecost
“And they took offense at him.”
In the movie Last Holiday, Queen Latifah plays the role of Georgia Byrd, a sales clerk at a New Orleans department store who allows no pleasure in life for herself. She cooks gourmet meals for her neighbor’s child but she eats Lean Cuisine; she likes a handsome male co-worker in silence. She has a decent savings portfolio, but hasn't ever left Louisiana. All that changes when, after she took a fall at the store, a company doctor reads an MRI report that erroneously discloses she has three weeks to live.
Wanting to make the most of that time, Georgia Byrd cashes in her IRA and bonds and heads to Europe's Grandhotel Pupp where she checks into the Presidential Suite, orders everything on the expensive menu, buys a new wardrobe, snowboards, spends days at the hotel spa, and comes to the attention of the hotel's powerful American guests: a Congressman, a Senator, a retail magnate, and his mistress. They are very curious about who this Georgia Byrd is and insist on satisfying their curiosity by intruding on her holiday and hoping she is somebody to know.
She has nothing to lose so, when they show their true colors, she tells them what she thinks, how shallow and dishonest and arrogant they are. She offends them all, albeit it an honest and straightforward manner and they take it, and not just with a grain of salt, because they assume she has power and money. In the end, they discover her real identity and all of them realize what a good person she is and how she has spoken truth about their character.
In Mark’s Gospel today, we have a slightly different scenario. Jesus has preached in his hometown and the congregation, all of whom know him as their hometown boy, reject him. We can imagine that they probably smiled and nudged each other in proud anticipation as he walked to the bema in the synagogue to begin speaking. Then he opened his mouth, and everything changed. Mark doesn’t tell us what he said, but it was a message powerful enough for them to be astounded and offended. Clearly that was the last invitation he would receive to be in that pulpit.
Those of us who say we want to follow Jesus have a real dilemma. First, we need to recognize that much of what Jesus taught offended the religious leaders and powerful people of his time, even those of his very own faith tradition. And, second, that he did not intend for his message to be stuck in a time warp in the first century. The Gospel is a living entity because Jesus is a living entity. The message he preached is also for us and for our time and culture.
The rub for us, then, is two-fold: there will be times when those called to preach about Gospel values will offend us because what they are saying is true and we know it; and, there will be times when, because of our baptismal covenant to persist in resisting evil, proclaim by word and example the Gospel, seek and serve Christ in all persons, strive for justice and peace, and respect the dignity of every human being, we will offend others just as Jesus did.
I am not suggesting that we be mean-spirited people with a fire and brimstone approach, castigating anyone we deem is not living up to their call to be faithful to the Gospel. God knows there are enough self-appointed judges of morality around. But there are times when, in love and with the hope of effecting change, we must confront forces that would oppress rather than liberate, and diminish rather than enlarge the lives of our sisters and brothers in God’s family.
The people whom Jesus offended most were religious people. The biggest lesson we can learn from this story is that the community of believers is really the toughest audience to whom Jesus has to preach—especially when what he has to say offends us. Too often people think they know what is right and what is wrong and do not want to be challenged about their perspective and position. And yet that is exactly what God is busy doing—shaking us up, getting our attention—because, if God does not do precisely that, we may remain stuck where we are without ever changing a thing about who we are or what we want to become.
Renowned preacher, Mother Barbara Brown Taylor says it this way: “God is not behind us, holding us back. God is ahead of us, calling us forward. God is all around us, speaking to us through the most unlikely people.”
Sometimes we need to risk offending. It may be the only chance God has to break into our world and make it right. Sometimes we need to be like Georgia Byrd, live as if we have nothing to lose, and tell the truth, what we know Jesus would say. That’s exactly what he did that morning back home in Nazareth. Sometimes we just can’t remain silent.
“And they took offense at him.”