I was sick in bed for almost two weeks with a weird infection, which gave me lots of time to binge watch, binge read and binge sleep. A nameless someone in the parish got Stuart and I hooked on the Masterpiece Theater production of Poldark and we went through three seasons in a flash. I was on heavy antibiotics and pain killers that may color my take on the show, so buyer beware. Drugs can do that. If you haven’t seen it, the much hyped fourth season starts tonight at 9pm. There are two things that struck me about what I have watched so far—1. The show is about a British Army Captain who returns defeated from the war with America. I guess I had never really thought about what the British felt like after the Revolutionary War. It’s interesting to see a different perspective. 2. The good people of Cornwall have a pretty dim view of Christianity in general, and priests in particular. I am always excited to see a priest come on the scene, only to learn that he is a disgusting letch or in the pocket of the local big shot. The main characters talk about Christianity as a real killjoy, all judgment and hellfire, not relevant to their lives on this earth. In fact, during one of the shows, while I was either eating ice cream or simultaneously watching YouTube videos, I believe Demelza, the main female character who goes from scullery maid to lady of the manor, tells her brothers Sam and Drake that they would do better to trust Capt. Poldark than God, because Capt. Poldark gets things done. As the audience, however, we watch Ross Poldark ‘get things done’ that later have to be undone or redone, because he is impulsive and led by his appetites.
There is also a lot of ‘offense taking’ in this British drama. Arrogant conflicts, sarcastic comments, class distinctions, ageism, marital discord, lots of gossip and innuendo leading to offense at every turn. You almost need a chart to keep track of who has offended whom and why. The longest standing offense started in elementary school but is playing out between two grown men who have the money and power to exact revenge. Luckily, we are never like that. We are mature people who never remember slights, always take the proverbial high road, and give the benefit of the doubt.
When was the last time you were offended? I might guess that it was in the not too distant past—maybe even on the way to church. We say over 16,000 words on an average day, so that gives us plenty of opportunity to give and take offense. I had a friend who said I had ‘long toes’—meaning that I felt people were always stepping on my toes and offending me. The term ‘taking offense’ means that we feel someone has broken a law or rule that seems significant enough to offend us. It also means that we have to ‘take’ offense—meaning we have to pick up the offense. If you don’t pick up the offense, then it just lies there, untaken. We ‘take offense’ by picking up the offending comment or action and making something out of it in our verdict of punishable beliefs or actions. It’s like picking up the end of a tug of war rope.
In our political climate, that could mean believing your co-worker is on the wrong side of the political aisle or your mother is watching the ‘wrong’ news programming. Maybe a friend posts a very strong opinion on their FB feed or gossips about another friend that you like. Perhaps a loved one has not been thoughtful of you, forgotten to take out the trash or call this week. Or not gotten up when the baby cried or left the dishes in the sink. Or a roommate didn’t pay their fair share of something or played their bad music when you were trying to sleep.
It’s easy to see when someone offends us, but what about when we are the unintentional offender? The things done and undone. We are sarcastic or disrespectful. “The lawn isn’t going to mow itself!” “When are you going to get a real job?” We are defensive or justify our own behavior. “I was only trying to help you.” Or “At least I don’t …”– fill in the blank to this one which gives us the moral edge by comparison. There is no end to the ways we can take offense or give offense, by holding onto our hurts, resentments, opinions, attitudes, judgments and viewpoints and not considering the other perspective.
The text today from the gospel of Mark would be in the Top Ten Things We Wish Jesus Had Not Said. It uses the word stumble but translates to offends. “If your eye offends, pluck it out. If your hand offends, cut it off. If your foot offends, cut it off.” Christians fortunately do not take this command literally. According to historian Garrett Derrett, the forfeiture of a hand, foot or eye was commonly used as a punishment in the time of Jesus for adultery, stealing, forgery or sedition, in lieu of the death penalty. The alternative to this was to be hung and thrown into Gehenna, which was not hell but a smoldering garbage heap in a ravine near Jerusalem, the most unclean place known to them.
When I explored the verb used in the gospel for offend, it meant “to cause one to judge unfavorably or unjustly of another, to cause one displeasure in a thing.” In other words, our eyes, hands and feet cause us to judge people unfavorably and unjustly. You may, however, be thinking, “Well, if I don’t tell them, who will! They’re wrong and need to know it!” It is called self-righteousness and it was what Jesus rebuked most in the priests especially. We have become people who cannot listen to others who disagree with us without taking offense or closing our minds.
Jesus is cajoling us to understand that our appetite for taking offense and judging others is not life giving, but relational death. Are we narrowing our lives to just a few acceptable points of view and relevant experiences? This came up in our Race and Grace class this week when one participant said something to effect that when we stop judging others, we have to then deal with our own discomfort. How do we deal with the discomfort of opening up to other points of view? What would it be like to lean into discomfort instead of away from it? If life is found in relationships, are we wasting our lives when we only listen to those who agree with us? This is our place of Gehenna—a place of death, not life. St. Mark is reminding us that life is found in God’s law. Jesus is pointing us back to the law as God’s gift to us for the deepest and most satisfying life.
What is the Law of God? Is it, like the Poldarks think, the killjoy of life? Just rules to make our lives rigid and shameful? Tim Keller says, “Here we see that the law of God is a gift of grace that is the foundation of human flourishing. It is not ‘busywork’ assigned just to please the arbitrary whims of a capricious deity. The law of God simply shows us what human beings were built to do—to worship God alone, to love their neighbors as themselves, to tell the truth, keep their promises, forgive everything, act with justice. When we move against these laws we move against our own natures and happiness. Disobedience to God sets up strains in the fabric of reality that can only lead to break down.”
The ‘break down’ is exactly what God knows is coming for each of us. The strains of reality and our actions lead us to the place of death—where there is no movement, no new ideas or love flowing into us, or through us to others. Into this break down, God sent Jesus Christ to address the breakdown in us, resurrecting life from death. William Barclay tells us of this passage, “Jesus is saying that it is only the life that is cleansed of self and filled with Christ which can live in real fellowship with others.” We are humbled to see that our judgment of others is really a deep dissatisfaction with ourselves, an attempt to purify ourselves of offense and yet it does the opposite, projects our self-hate onto others. Jesus takes all our offense against ourselves and others into himself to relieve our suffering.
As humans we create Gehenna in our lives, smoldering heaps of past regrets and current judgments that keep us stuck in self seeking and the bondage of self. We become sick and tired of being sick and tired, sick of irritation, moodiness, selfishness, self-seeking, bitterness, anger, grudge bearing—in other words, our judgments of others that offend us, and ourselves. We don’t know how to judge because we are not God. When that reality breaks into our lives, we realize that our judgments are the death knoll of seeing it our way and the opening to the life that Christ came to give us. The law gives us the diagnosis of our spiritual illness of self and Christ is the cure that gives us eyes to see and ears to hear. Christ came to absorb offense.
Better to trust God than Capt. Poldark! Maybe Ross and Demelza Poldark, and even their nemesis George Warleggan, are heading toward the breakdown and we’ll get to see it tonight. Their constant taking offense will shift to prayers for grace and humility, but then I guess that would make it a very short 4th season. We, however, can experience the relief of our bondage to offense through the grace that is ours always through the promises of Jesus Christ as expressed in our Collect, “Grant us the fullness of our grace, that we, running to obtain your promises, may become partakers in your heavenly treasure, through Jesus Christ our Lord.” The heavenly treasure of living in the freedom of grace and leaving the judgment to Jesus.