I plead ignorance on this one.
But the situation still brings up legitimate questions of communication, cultural norms, and offense as a preaching technique that Jesus seemed to use, but maybe we shouldn’t …
OK; here’s the situation. I’m preaching on Luke 14, the Parable of the Banquet where the rich guests who were invited (and RSVP’d, by the way) all give the lamest of excuses for not showing up after the caterers have already put the food on the serving table.
As a lead in to the sermon, I am reading the Gospel Lesson, Luke 14:1-24. Now, friends, 24 verses is a lot of reading to do straight up from the pulpit, so fearing an onset of sudden narcolepsy, I chose to present the lesson as much as read it. Those verses include several different conversations and interactions and at least two different parables, so using the space of the sanctuary seemed like a good way of breaking up the reading and making it more understandable for the hearers.
And that was the goal, making it more understandable for the hearers. So I played the opening scene with the man with dropsy to one side of the congregation. The table with the Pharisees I imagined on the other side. The conversation with the host of the banquet was demonstrably an aside. A teacher of the law piped up from back at the table, and Jesus answers with a parable. So far, so good…
Here’s where I ran in to trouble.
I wanted the hearers to get a handle on just how offensive the guests were when they reneged on their RSVP. I mean, “I just bought a field and now I have to go see it???!!!” How lame can you get? I have to go watch the paint dry, I have to go trim my nose hairs, I have to go feed my fish, Mr. President, so I can’t make it to the ballroom for the dinner now that the food is being served!
It’s not only rude, it is a conscious rejection of the relationship and equal social status implied by accepting the invitation in the first place. These guys aren’t just too busy, they are intentionally trying to ostracize the host!
So I wanted to get some sense of that across to the congregation as I read the Gospel Lesson. So after each, “Please excuse me,” I added a hand gesture.
Mind you, it was not the first hand gesture I thought of in this context. Nor was it the second, I might add. Overall, I thought my filter was working quite well.
So I was mildly surprised when my own Mother graciously asked me afterward, “Justin, what does sticking your thumb on your nose and wiggling your fingers mean to you?!”
I told her I thought it was roughly equivalent to sticking both thumbs on your temples and waving moose antlers at someone, kind of like saying Na-na Na-na Boo-boo, or sticking out your tongue. That’s when dear old Mom dropped this one on me: “I always thought it meant, Kiss my a**.”
Now, to her credit, my Dad thought the same thing. I did a non-scientific poll over the next couple of days, and it came back about 50/50: half the people thought the gesture meant a more general disrespect for authority, the other half thought it was a specific invitation for lips to meet glutes.
In my own defense, I’ve done as much Google searching as I can stand on the subject, and I cannot find the more narrow meaning listed, though “thumbing your nose” does have some interesting variations and etymology.
But it doesn’t really matter if I can find it in a dictionary; meaning is in the eye of the interpreter. Some of the people in a worship service at my church are sure they saw their pastor use a hand gesture that meant something specific and vulgar while reading the Gospel lesson!
So the real question is, is it ever OK to give offense as a communication device?
Is it ever OK to give offense as a communication device?
When I considered presenting the Gospel lesson in a somewhat dramatic format, I risked offending some people. I know our crowd, and that was not a concern for me.
When I chose even a mildly disrespectful hand gesture to accent the meaning of the text, I risked offending some people. In this case, the risk seemed small to me and defensible based on what I wanted to do in the sermon.
Had I thought my people would think the gesture was more vulgar and rude than I intended, I would have chosen differently.
Because giving that kind of offense in this context would have gotten in the way of hearing the message.
At least I think it would have. But the people hearing Jesus speak would have certainly been offended–if not scandalized!–by some of what He said and how he said it. There are times Jesus seems to go out if His way to say something offensive or shocking to wake people up, or tear down their defenses. In those cases, Jesus met hardness of heart and closed ears with a kind of holy offense designed to unclog the hearts and minds of His hearers.
Is it ever OK to do that today? Would you intentionally give offense from the pulpit to make a point?
For me, the preaching ministry of the Church hinges on mutual love between the one preaching and those seeking to hear Jesus in the sermon.
Loving your hearers means not giving unnecessary offense, not putting any stumbling block in front of those who need to hear a Word from the Lord.
Loving your preacher, on the other hand, means listening for Jesus not only because of, but sometimes in spite of, what’s coming out of the preacher’s mouth; putting the best construction on everything; being slow to take offense and quick to understand the best possible intention.
Having a relationship of trust, love, and respect between hearers and speakers in the preaching ministry of your congregation means the preacher will be willing to take risks and the hearers will be willing to overlook failure. Love covers over a multitude of homiletical sins.
Preaching the Word on a Sunday morning is a joint effort of the hearers and the speaker, and Jesus’ Spirit is active in and through both. I don’t think intentional offense fits in that model, though risking offense in order to present God’s Word it almost necessary.
So if you are a member of my family of faith and I offended you with my delivery of the Gospel lesson, I trust you have already given me the benefit of the doubt and forgiven me for whatever offense I gave.
And if you thought the reading of the Gospel lesson was awesome and helped you understand the text better, great! That’s what I intended.
And if you weren’t offended this time around, give it time; I am willing to take risks in the pulpit because I trust your sanctified ears and hearts. Which means I will also occasionally make the wrong decision, or cross the wrong line, or simply mess up.
Please love me and forgive me and know that my heart and soul go into helping you know and follow Jesus, and I could never get in the pulpit in the first place if we didn’t already have that in common.
And if you missed it, you can see the Gospel lesson, and the sermon, below. Just listen with baptized ears…
Oops, indeed! However, in our circles (Karl’s and mine) we had never heard that interpretation. Your presentation brought deeper insight to the reading for us. But – lesson learned….from Mom!
I remember this sermon. A couple of days after the sermon I was in your office for a meeting and you asked me what I thought the gesture meant. I agreed with your take on the meaning and always wondered what it was that caused you to ask me that question. Now I know!