An Inconvenient Truth
In the gospel stories we heard over the course of the last weeks, Jesus more often than not challenges and even upsets those around him. A Greek word that is used repeatedly in those stories is ‘skandalon’, from which our word ‘scandalous’ derives. Jesus causes quite a few ‘skandalons’, quite a few scandals: He leaves his life as a carpenter and head of the family in Nazareth behind and starts teaching, healing and performing other miracles, and in the process, he estranges his mother, his siblings, his hometown, and agitates the religious elite. He takes his disciples out of their comfort zone, to strange territories, through internal turmoil, storms and waves. He touches the untouchables, putting mercy over laws and conventions.
But Jesus doesn’t scandalize those he encounters for the sake of upsetting them; Jesus challenges the status quo, the state of the world, to give a vision of God’s kingdom: a kingdom where peace and justice kiss each other (as we heard so beautifully in today’s psalm), a kingdom where all are reconciled to God and each other, a kingdom in which love prevails – and not just some idealized idea of love, but a love that is actively seeking to connect, embrace, heal and forgive. It’s tough love, if you will.
Jesus is causing quite a few scandals by telling people the truth; that they, that we, often are lost in our ways. That they, that we often stubbornly hang on to things or ideas or ways of life, although they lead to destruction. That they, that we don’t love enough, don’t forgive enough. That they, that we need a turnaround, that we need to repent in order to walk the ways of life to the fullest. And Jesus is telling people the amazing truth that God, despite everything, has not given up on them – that God has not given up on us. That God is willing to connect with us, embrace us, heal us and forgive us.
We see all of that personified in Jesus. ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life,’ he says about himself in the gospel according to John. And: you know the truth, and the truth will set you free.
But of course the truth is not always easy to accept. Case in point: the rejection of Jesus of which I talked earlier. And I just found this brilliant little quote coming out of a treatment program for alcoholics: ‘The truth will set you free – but first, it will make you miserable.’ Another variant of this quote is (and please excuse my French): ‘The truth will set you free – but first it will piss you off.’
I had a parish teaching student at my former congregation who was a recovering addict. This person shared openly with the congregation about their experiences; and how addicts often don’t want to see the truth, which is, that they are addicts and on a destructive downslope. That’s why addicts like to surround themselves with people who share a similar ‘truth’, a similar look at life – like other addicts and beyond that enablers and people who belittle the issue. ‘Yes men’ and ‘yes women’, who don’t challenge the destructive status quo. Because the truth is hard to take and pisses you off.
It’s an example how truth can become very inconvenient, if it doesn’t fit our current needs or wants. And I think human beings in general, and not only addicts, tend to choose denial over facing some difficult and inconvenient truths. From climate change and the dire state of the world God so lovingly created to the downsides of capitalism and the inhumane treatment of people in this country and on this planet– there are many things we’d rather be in denial about than tackle them and work for a change for the better.
And it probably doesn’t come as a surprise that, as stories throughout the entire Bible demonstrate, truth, the divine truth, is often an inconvenient truth.
The prophet Amos could tell us a story or two about that. We heard a little bit about his story today in the lesson from the Old Testament, and we get the idea that Amos’ message, which actually is God’s message, is very inconvenient to the ruling class of the ancient kingdom of Israel. In today’s lesson, we hear how Amos is strongly encouraged to go back where he came from and prophesy there, rather than question the status quo. Amos, you better prophesy somewhere else, or else!
And what is God’s message? The destruction of the kingdom of Israel. Now if that isn’t inconvenient and uncomfortable, I don’t know what is. And why does God want to destroy Israel? According to the book of Amos, it’s crystal clear: it’s about justice, or the lack thereof.
Amos goes on and on about the unequal distribution of wealth, and how the rich take advantage of the poor. Amos points out that the ancient Mosaic laws have quite clear divine stipulations how any person, again, any person living in the covenant of God as a member of the people of Israel should be taken care of. Those ancient laws even prescribed a regular redistribution of possessions, especially the possession of land, in order to prevent rampant inequality. Can you imagine what would happen if Amos were to prophecy the Word of the Lord today, in Washington D.C. or on Wall Street?
For the upper class in Israel, including the king’s court, this was quite an inconvenient truth. God’s truth and judgment collided with a pick and choose kind of spirituality, where certain laws would be followed – and it seems the upper class in the north was following ritual and worship laws quite meticulously – but in the course of it, the true worship of God became shallow. Worshiping God means also to honor and care for those who are children of God. Despite Amos’ warning, the upper class didn’t heed God’s word, everything stayed the same, and the kingdom of Israel was sacked by the Assyrians in the year 722 BCE. An inconvenient truth? Indeed. But its denial did not make it go away.
In today’s gospel, we hear how King Herod is immensely inconvenienced, not only by John the Baptist and his message, but consequently by Jesus as well – Jesus continues to scandalize.
Now if you read the text carefully, you will find that Herod apparently has nothing against John the Baptist initially. Despite John’s ranting and raving out in the wilderness about repentance and a turnaround of God’s people in preparation for God’s kingdom, Herod seems to think, alright, sounds fair. We even read that Herod thinks that John is a righteous and holy man.
But John gets just a little bit too personal, criticizing Herod for marrying his brother’s wife, and that’s where the message gets really inconvenient. Instead of sticking to his beliefs, Herod folds under the pressure of said wife, Herodias, and in the end even orders the execution of John. Herod picks and chooses the path of least resistance, he picks and chooses the admiration of a holy man, John, but does away with the message and the messenger when things become too uncomfortable for him. One could say Herod has a chance to listen to the deeper message of John, and to respond appropriately. But, alas, the admiration remains on the surface, but doesn’t change his heart and his life.
Herod thinks Jesus is John the Baptist reborn, a reincarnation. Herod is haunted by the ghost of John, if you will, and consequently regards Jesus as an inconvenient intrusion in his life as well.
But, as I said erlier, it is not only Herod who experiences Jesus’ ministry and message as an inconvenience – Jesus turns religious life of his day upside down, often echoing what the prophet Amos prophesied roughly 750 years before him – that all of God’s children ought to be honored and loved and tended to, and that everything needs to be shared with the ones in need – and that a worship of God, which ignores the fellow human being, is empty.
Jesus wasn’t only rejected; his scandalous words and deeds attracted many – mainly those who were sick, poor, lost, and marginalized.
And it shouldn’t surprise us that the first ones to follow Jesus and become his disciples were those on the edge of society, the forgotten, the disenfranchised. Although even those had to deal with inconvenient truths along the way, like the suffering and death of Jesus on the cross.
God’s word, God’s message is not meant to reinforce our point of view and to enable us in our errant ways. God’s word, in all its comfort, also challenges us to truly listen, and to make it a way of living. All of it. Not just the parts that are convenient for us. God’s word is not a smorgasboard to pick and choose from. Jesus’ message is not a philosophy we could accept intellectually without having it transform our lives.
Part of being a disciple, a follower, of Christ, is to listen to and to embrace the truth, God’s truth, as much as we can, even and especially when it becomes inconvenient.
On the flipside, being a disciple means to speak the truth, as we understand it. To speak up for and act on behalf of those children of God who are at a disadvantage and who seek justice. To be inconvenient if necessary, for the sake of Christ, for the sake of our brothers and sisters, for the sake of God’s creation. To be scandalous, if necessary.
God’s death on the cross for the sake of all creation was as scandalous as could be, turning human understanding of power upside down. We see the inconvenient truth about ourselves on the cross. But the cross also reveals a deeper and more amazing truth: that God so loved the world that he gave his son. That God wants to reconcile with us and with all of humanity. That love and grace are at the heart of the truth God shows us. What a wonderful scandalous thing that is!
Picture by Joao Tzanno on unslplash.com