Misreading Jesus

It was a regular Sunday morning. Several parishioners and I were enjoying a lighthearted conversation prior to our morning service. We all were smiling and laughing with the gentle kibbitzing that goes along with deep fellowship.

Elise, one of the matriarchs of the church, was taking part in this conversation. At one point, she commented with a politically charged quip. It was not off-color, rude, or derogatory; it fit the situation. It was also consistent with the dry wit Elise was known for. Everyone laughed. I responded to her comment with, “Oh Elise, behave.” A smile was on my face, and I winked as I spoke these words. We then began the service.

I was not aware that anything was wrong until Elise came to me afterwards. She was no longer smiling and laughing, instead she wore a frown, and her eyes appeared heavy and sad. “Never before have I been so humiliated at church” she said. She then explained how my comment had deeply hurt her. I admit, it took me a few minutes to figure out what she was referring to.

To Elise’s ears, the call to “behave” was a statement of correction from her religious superior. Although my words were meant to be humorous, Elise’s heard an authoritative rebuke. The fact that these words were spoken while I stood clad in my robes at the back of the sanctuary only heightened her sense of humiliation. Elise read into my words a negativity that was never there. Instead of humor she heard judgement. My smile was seen as a frown, and my wink was twisted into a glare.

I write this not to disparage Elise in anyway. Such misunderstandings can happen in any relationship. Despite our best efforts, there are times where we talk past each other, where we miss the subtle nuances of deeper meaning. We all read into situations from time to time.

Does this ever happen in our relationship with God? Do we ever infer a reality about our life with God beyond what God presents to us? Do we ever mistake the cry of our own doubts, fears, or shames to be the authoritative voice of the Almighty? Do we ever substitute God’s loving gaze for a stern look of reprimand and rebuke? It’s easy to do.

There is a scene in Luke’s gospel where Peter denies Jesus three times. Immediately following his denials, Peter sees Jesus turn and “looked straight at him” (Luke 22:61). I have often seen this scene through the lens of rebuke. I have pictured Jesus giving Peter a stare of disappointment. Perhaps the faint whisper of “Oh Behave!” can be heard coming from Christ’s lips. When we view Jesus’ gaze this way, it becomes easy to assume that this is how Jesus looks at us.

But what if Jesus’ look wasn’t one of rebuke? What if Jesus turns to Peter with the eye of love?  The word translated as “looked straight at” means to discern clearly, to peer deeply. Jesus knows Peter is both scared and heartbroken; Jesus knows that Peter will respond to this scene with weeping. And so, Jesus looks towards his friend, one who feels condemned by his own actions, and expresses deep compassion and understanding.

Could this be how Jesus looks toward us, even when we are at our worst? What if all the rebuke and condemnation that we carry in our lives are merely projections of our own fears? What if we read into our life with God a divine anger that simply isn’t there?

If, like me, you tend to read rebuke or negativity into your life with God, then take a moment to allow the words of scripture to wash over you. Hear this encouragement from the prophet Zephaniah as an example: “The Lord your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves. He will take great delight in you; in his love he will no longer rebuke you but will rejoice over you with singing” (Zephaniah 3:17). These words are spoken to a people who, like Peter many years later, felt alone and lost; they are words spoken to us.

Can we choose to accept God’s delight, rather than assuming a divine dismissal that never comes?  Can we choose to hear God’s singing rather than reading criticism and rebuke into every look and statement? This is God’s response to us. This truth is not in question, it held in the trustworthy presence of God.

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