In the New Testament we see many pictures of Jesus. We see him as the Good Shepherd, the bread from heaven, the Word, and the vine. We learn about him in parables, and we puzzle over what those parables might mean. And, we’re in good company with our questions and wonderings. Even the disciples – Jesus’ closest followers – had questions, too. After Jesus told them the parable of the sower, Mark 4 tells us that the disciples asked Jesus about his parables. They were confusing, hard to understand, and highlighted the profound disconnect between the ways of God and the ways of people.
In Mark 4, after telling the parable of the sower to the crowd beside the sea, the twelve disciples began to ask Jesus about the parables. His response was a strange one:
He said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those on the outside, everything comes in parables; in order that ‘they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand; so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.'” (Mark 4:11-12, referencing Isaiah 6:9-10)
Jesus spoke profound truth through parables, and those who listened to him did not understand his teachings. I always found that strange. Why would Jesus teach in a way that most could not understand? Why didn’t he put it out there plainly so that everyone could see who he was? Why did Jesus come in mystery and as a servant, rather than in clarity and majesty?
Jesus tells the parable of the sower in the three Synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke – but the parable is absent from John, which isn’t surprising since the Gospel of John contains no narrative parables. Instead, John is filled with Jesus’ direct teaching and allegory. Jesus calls himself the bread coming down from heaven, the Good Shepherd, the light of the world, and the vine. In John, we get a startlingly clear look at who Jesus is, which is one reason why John is my favorite Gospel to read. But, for all its beauty and imagery, John 6 is also one of the most disturbing passages in the Bible. So disturbing, in fact, that it causes many of Jesus’ disciples – though not the twelve – to turn back from following him.
The parable of the sower may not be in the Gospel of John, but we get to see the parable in action. In the parable of the sower, Jesus talks about the seed (or the Word) being scattered everywhere, and about the variety of ways the seeds respond based on the type of soil they were planted in. Some receive the Word with joy, but fall away when trouble comes. Others are lured away by things of the world. Others grow and bear fruit, and the harvest is great. Here in John 6, as Jesus tells a larger group of disciples that they need to feast on his flesh and blood, we see many turn back and fall away. Like the seeds that first came up, but left when difficulties arose, many in this wider group of disciples simply couldn’t deal with Jesus’ teaching. It was hard. It was disturbing. And, it sounded a lot like blasphemy.
If you remember anything about the sacrificial system in the Old Testament, you will remember that a lot was said about blood. Leviticus 17 goes into great detail about consuming blood when it says:
If anyone of the house of Israel or of the aliens who reside among them eats any blood, I will set my face against that person who eats blood, and will cut that person off from the people. For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you for making atonement for your lives on the altar; for, as life, it is the blood that makes atonement. (Leviticus 17:10-11)
God is the Creator of all life, and the life was seen as being in the blood. To consume anything with blood in it was to disregard the God who created that life. It was taking into the body something that was never intended to be there in the first place.
The prohibition against consuming anything with blood in it was taken so seriously by the early church, that even when the apostles decided at the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 not to require Gentile converts to Christianity to keep the whole law, they still added in the prohibition of eating anything with the blood still in it. But Jesus speaks to the crowd and tells them that those who eat his flesh and drink his blood will have eternal life. They will be raised on the last day. Jesus not only grosses them out with talk of consuming flesh and blood, he connects himself to Leviticus 17 and the blood that saves. Jesus tells the disciples that he is the sacrifice that leads to life.
John tells us in verse 61 that the disciples complained about Jesus’ teaching. Like the Israelites in the wilderness, they complained and grumbled. Jesus knows they are finding this teaching to be especially difficult, and he calls them out. He asks them the question, “Does this offend you?” I like the way the Greek says this. The word “offend” is the Greek word σκανδαλίζει, which is where we get our word “scandalize.” The NRSV translates this word here as “offend,” which is a decent translation. The disciples are offended by Jesus’ teaching. They are scandalized by it. How often, if we’re honest, does the hard truth Jesus speaks scandalize and offend us?
Interestingly enough, Jesus uses a very similar word in the parable of the sower to describe the seeds that first sprang up and received the word with joy, but fell away when trouble came. In the NRSV, it says, “when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away.” (Mark 4:17b) The part translated “fall away” is actually the Greek word σκανδαλίζονται. Strangely enough, I like the way the King James translates this verse. It says, “afterward, when affliction or persecution ariseth for the words’ sake, immediately they are offended.”
Jesus teaches the difficult truth that we must rely on him for our life, and about our need to feast on who he is in order to live. The disciples were offended. John tells us in verse 66, “Because of this, many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.” The truth he spoke was offensive. It was scandalous. And they simply couldn’t accept it. Jesus then asks the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?”
How might we have answered that question? Karoline Lewis, Preaching professor at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, reflected on Jesus’ question with these pointed words: “And when Jesus asks, ‘Do you wish to go away?’ don’t you secretly wish you could say, ‘Yes. Yes, Jesus, in fact I do, if I am totally honest.'”
Soren Kierkegaard spent considerable time thinking about the scandal and offensiveness of the love of God. He thought that if we truly understood that we did not deserve God’s love, we would be offended by the amount of love God lavished upon us. Perhaps the scandal of God’s love for us is why Jesus said in Matthew 11, “And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
Kierkegaard contends that there comes a point in our lives where we have to make a choice: to believe or be offended. But, before the choice can be made, there is tension. We are confronted by God with the scandal of God’s amazing and self-giving love, and we face a profound tension that will lead either to offense or belief. It is this tension that holds within it the beautiful possibility of faith.
C.S. Lewis once wrote, “The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men, and his compulsion is our liberation.” And this is true. But even though God’s hardness is still kinder than any kindness we can offer, we can’t get past the fact that it is hard. Even though God promises liberation and freedom, we can’t get past the fact that we are compelled into that freedom.
All of the disciples – the wider group following Jesus and the twelve – face the difficult teaching of Jesus. They also face the choice of offense or belief, and we watch many of Jesus’ followers turn back and walk away. Jesus asks the twelve if they want to leave also. In the midst of the tension, Jesus sits with them and allows them to take it all in. Simon Peter answered, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:68-69)
For Peter, profound tension was the beginning point of deep faith. Faced with the scandal of reliance on the very body and blood of Jesus, Peter found himself abiding in Christ. John 6 makes it clear that the Gospel is hard. It’s offensive. The love of Christ is far more than we could ever believe or imagine. And confronted with that reality, we are shaken to the core. But Jesus not only speaks out and challenges us in the tension, he allows us to sit with it, too.
Are we offended? Are we scandalized?
In this day and age, we are no strangers to scandal. We hear, nearly daily, about the fall of celebrities. We read about people who have climbed to the top, only to have their deepest, darkest secrets exposed as they fall from lofty heights. Scandal after scandal is featured on magazine covers. Oh, for the day when we are scandalized by the Gospel rather than by our own disgraceful actions!
Brothers and sisters, the good news of Jesus Christ is that the scandal of our sin is no match for the scandal of God’s self-giving love. The most amazing news of all is that the Word was made flesh and dwelled among us. The good news of the Gospel is that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus – nothing.
Will we be offended, or will we believe?