When I was working on my Ph.D. in Edinburgh, Scotland, I would often take breaks from my writing and roam Auld Reekie, as Edinburgh is affectionately known. One of my favorite places of respite from the grind of writing a dissertation was the National Gallery. There I could view in peace the creative works from the great artists of history.
It was there that I discovered one of my favorite paintings; one which I had only known from books. That painting is El Greco’s Savior of the World.
For me El Greco’s painting captures the essence of Jesus. Although El Greco painted a Jesus who looks more like one of El Greco’s contemporary Europeans than a Jew living in first century Palestine, once you get past this historical flaw, you begin to appreciate what the artist has done. As I would sit there viewing this work, the face of the subject always drew me to himself. El Greco’s Jesus is inviting, compassionate, and loving.
Yet, as I would sit for periods of time staring into the warm and compassionate face of the painted Savior, I would begin to see something else. Those same inviting and loving eyes became piercing and condemning. That once warm face now became offensive to me as if he was looking deep into my soul and witnessing the worst of human sin.
In Mark 6, Jesus, Nazareth’s own hometown boy, returns home to preach to those who knew him as a child. You can imagine the anticipation they felt for what he might say as he preached his first sermon in his home synagogue. Yet, although Mark does not tell us the words that Jesus spoke, he does tell us that those who heard him “took offense at him” (Mark 6:3). Taken literally, they were scandalized by what he said. Why?
Perhaps they assumed that their hometown boy would make them proud by affirming their righteousness, their place as God’s elect people, and their pious religious observances. Perhaps they assumed that Jesus would side with them against their enemies, preach stirring sermons convicting others of their sins and pointing to his own people as examples of what it means to live holy lives. Whatever Jesus said in the synagogue on that day convinced the Nazarenes that the returning hometown boy was not the Jesus they wanted. Instead he was the Jesus they got; and they were offended.
We can look at this story and point our pious fingers at these people and others who reject Jesus, shaming them for not embracing the person and words of Jesus. But are we not just looking into the mirror at our own faces? Was not their problem with Jesus the same as our problem with Jesus? We embrace the Jesus we want, but we quickly reject the Jesus we get; the real Jesus who offends us.
The Jesus we want is our friend. He is our ally in the face of our enemies. This Jesus is always on our side, answering our prayers and blessing us. This Jesus tells us what we want to hear, makes us comfortable, and looks pleasingly at our self-righteousness.
The Jesus we want is created in our own minds and answers to our demands. He permits us to wage unjust violence against our enemies in the name of national security. He allows us to hoard money and possessions in the name of financial security. He consents to our prejudices against people of other races, genders, religions and sexual orientations in the name of cultural security. Yes, this is the Jesus we prefer. He is the Jesus we can accept and worship.
But this is not the real Jesus. The real Jesus is the one who calls us to turn the other cheek, to love our enemies, to sell all we have and give to the poor, and to take up the cross and follow him. This is the Jesus who calls us to reach out to others and cross the boundaries of race, religion, culture, and gender. This is the Jesus that dined with tax collectors, beggars, diseased, and various persons of questionable social standing. This is the Jesus who compels us to repent of our insular lives and to commit ourselves to work for justice, peace, and hope in our world.
This is the Jesus who calls us to rethink our theological assertions and to open ourselves to being moved by his Spirit. And this is the Jesus, who being so offensive and so scandalous to his contemporaries, that he was crucified on the most offensive and scandalous instruments of Roman power-the cross. Yes, this is the offensive Jesus, but he is the real Jesus, the biblical Jesus, and the eternal Jesus.
As we move closer to Holy Week during this Season of Lent, may we repent from our sin of creating a false Jesus and may we turn to stare into the face of the real Jesus who both comforts and offends.
Drew Smith, an ordained Baptist minister, is director of international programs at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Ark. He blogs at Wilderness Preacher.
Assistant Director of the Honors College at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Arkansas.