The Scandal of the Gospels: Jesus, Story, and Offense

The Scandal of the Gospels: Jesus, Story, and Offense by David McCracken
Michael Dodaro
Reprinted from First Things; Journal of Religion and Public Life

Even occasional readers of the Gospels notice that Jesus offends or
astonishes most of the other characters who inhabit these ancient
narrative landscapes. To those with vested interests in the political
and religious status quo he is such an inflammatory presence that even
mutual adversaries, Jews and Romans, conspire to destroy him. David
McCracken, a literary critic who deals with the texts mostly in their
present form, reasons that Jesus becomes the stone over whom many
stumble because his discourses bristle with paradox, irony, and even
satire. Briefly, his thesis is that Jesus is so disorienting, the
narrative accounts of him so nuanced, that an encounter with him is
likely to become a crisis leading either to scandal or to faith.

It comes as no surprise that Kierkegaard should be cited extensively in
support of this view. Kierkegaard’s arguments–which, as anyone who is at
all familiar with them knows, are legion–have at their core the question
of what it means if, rather than taking offense at Jesus, one responds
in faith. For modern readers Kierkegaard probes the depths of
alienation, even from the self, that result from an encounter with
Jesus. And for the encounter with Kierkegaard, McCracken proves to be an
amiable negotiator: facing the austere Dane through his good offices is
not the ordeal it can sometimes be.

McCracken begins by pointing out that the parables in the Gospels are,
paradoxically, obstructions to understanding as well as revelations of
the Kingdom of God. Not merely for rhetorical purposes does he refer to
the parables as lies; even the terminology he uses to denote their
revelatory aspect, “parabolic truth,” has a relativistic tone. The
parable of the vineyard laborers is, of course, problematic in any
reading. The generosity, or unfairness, of a landowner who pays short-
term laborers first, and just as much money as he pays those who have
worked all day, poses the kind of enigma embodied in parables.
Interpretations that come easily-that the parable represents abundance
in the kingdom of God, or God’s grace-are unsatisfying. The landowner’s
explanations only justify himself: he had an agreement with the earliest
workers for a denarius; he can do as he wishes with his money. But what
he calls generosity is conspicuously ungenerous to workers who got only
what they bargained for.

What is most often revealed in the interpretation of ambiguous images is
the disposition of the interpreter. McCracken says “enthusiastic
capitalists” are prone to read their ideology into the parable of the
laborers in the vineyard. It would seem that redistributionists could
have a field day with it. Either way an ideological interpretation
evades what McCracken calls a “collision” with truth. This highly
charged event is latent in parables, but it comes only with the
possibility of offense. If the story becomes an offense to normal
expectations, and one is exposed in his habitual cant, the shock of
recognition can be regenerative.

In the final analysis, McCracken argues, no interpretation of parables
will suffice. In a section of his book called “Collision and Crisis,” he
finds a speaker who describes the crisis leading to faith, a crisis that
continues, that, in the final analysis, is faith. Kierkegaard’s Johannes
Climacus of The Concluding Unscientific Postscript refers to it
as the “highest passion of subjectivity,” possible “only when the
existing individual is at risk, venturing out over seventy thousand
fathoms.” Since man is a synthesis of the temporal and the eternal, the
physical and the spiritual, existential tension, inescapable for fully
conscious living, becomes primary in a life lived before God. To shun
the tension, to avoid paradox as embodied in parables, is to waste an
opportunity to meet absolute otherness. McCracken adds, “To become
conscious, to become a self, to become aware, requires the presence of
the absolute other, God. The parables oppose spiritual blindness versus
knowing what has been hidden since the foundation of the world, offense
versus faith, death versus life.”

McCracken takes up a dramatic incident from Matthew in which a Canaanite
woman persists in spite of rebuffs and prevails on Jesus to heal her
daughter. This scene is similar to a parable in that it sets up the same
crisis. It carries the urgency of alienation and offense leading to
faith. Jesus treats the woman with scandalous contempt: “It is not
fitting to take the children’s bread and feed it to dogs.” But she
tenaciously refuses to be offended and corners him with the logic of his
own metaphor. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their
master’s table.” Jesus marvels, and she gains her objective.

The conclusion to be avoided with regard to parables, encounters with
Jesus, or entire Gospels is that they are Rorschach tests which disclose
the contents of the psyche, or Zen koans defying rationality. They do
disclose the secrets of the heart, and they often confound reason, but
McCracken is arguing that instead of a “void of meaning,” there is to be
found, at the locus of conflict in these narratives, a person. An
encounter with the God-man is not information: it is an event. Not a
meaning, but a meeting.

The story of the Canaanite woman is scandalous enough to create a shock
wave over twenty centuries. A fury like that latent in this incident for
modern readers seems to follow Jesus, in the Gospels, everywhere he
goes. His chief antagonists, the Pharisees, go ballistic on every
encounter with him. Even his followers have their teeth set on edge by
his fanaticisms. “Cut off your hand if it causes you to sin!” he rages.
“If anyone comes after me and does not hate his father and mother and
even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.”

A canon of the historical-critical school is that a saying of Jesus is
probably authentic if it is dissimilar both to historical Judaism
preceding Jesus’ time and to the teaching of the Hellenized Church of
the later first and early second centuries. There would be little motive
for the early church to invent such scandalous material. Schweitzer
considered the hard sayings of Jesus to be of a piece with late,
disillusioned Judaism. Interestingly enough, he considered them to be
authentic and turned the world of biblical scholarship upside down with
his thesis that the historical Jesus was thoroughly eschatological. If
we could not have Jesus in the old progressive liberal guise, Schweitzer
and many who followed him were willing to send him with his apocalyptic
delusions back to his own pessimistic time and distinctly unmodern
place. Eschatology was more scandalous to ideas of human progress
prevalent at the beginning of the twentieth century. At the end of the
century, when ebullient modernism is nearly extinct, Jesus does not
shock us with his forebodings. The offense persists in new forms, but
literary critics like McCracken may yet revive some of the vitality,
even hope, to be found on the other side of crisis.

Kierkegaard, the recluse, encounters the absolute other in moment-by-
moment, solitary crisis. But a great deal of Gospel narrative is
dialogue. Jesus is so disturbing that people challenge him, trying to
entangle him in some problem raised by what he says or does. Luke’s
parable of the Good Samaritan is an example of scandal as it arises in
dialogue. When a lawyer asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal
life, Jesus, in turn, asks the lawyer how he reads the law of Moses,
meaning, more explicitly, how he interprets the law. The lawyer’s answer
extracts essential truths from a large body of commentary with which he
was apparently familiar, and Jesus commends him. Love of God and of
neighbor is the essence of the law. Jesus says simply, “Do this and you
will live.” But this is not the query of a devotee; it is a test. “Who
is my neighbor?” asks the lawyer. The parable of the Good Samaritan is
Jesus’ scandalous rejoinder.

Using a Samaritan as moral exemplar among first century Jews is so
outrageous it eclipses all other paraphrasable meanings that can be
found in the parable. Unless modern readers grasp the offensiveness of
this exchange, its impact is neutralized. The Samaritans’ worship was
not recognized as orthodox or in any way legitimate. The idea that a
merciful Samaritan finds God’s favor doing good neglected by a priest
and a Levite would be inconceivable to the lawyer. It would be the
equivalent of asking an Ivy League divine to admire a rural Jehovah’s
Witness, or an Evangelical to admire a New-Age enthusiast. Only after
this offense has registered can we consider the ostensible moral lesson
of the parable. McCracken finds three potential scandals in the parable:
the wounded man who might defile the ritual purity of the priest and
Levite; the Samaritan as moral exemplar to a progressive commentator on
the Law; and the command to be merciful, which scandalizes both the
lawyer in the story and the reader.

The Samaritan belongs to a category called “the eccentric” by Mikhail
Bakhtin. The Samaritan, as McCracken points out, is outside the “normal
seemly world.” The parable in its entirety overturns the official
established order in what Bakhtin calls carnivalized scandal. The
Gospels are rife with carnivalized scandal. McCracken identifies Jesus’
low birth and “the mesalliance of high and low characters: the
son of God consorting with fishermen, lepers, prostitutes, and tax
collectors.” The severity of Jesus’ statement, “Pluck out the offending
eye,” can be read as carnivalized scandal if we interpret it as a parody
of moralism. The revivalist Charles Finney, after John Wesley, held to a
doctrine called “entire sanctification.” This refers to attainment of a
level of purity at which one does not sin. What Jesus seems to be saying
to the Pharisees and to puritans of every stripe can only be grasped in
strident hyperbole, “You want to be righteous? Then don’t even look at a
woman lustfully. If your eye offends you, pluck it out. Cut off your
hand if it causes you to sin!” Entire sanctification indeed, Mr. Finney.

Rigorists forget that moralism is the object of satire in the Gospels,
but moral imperatives cannot be trivialized on the basis of words spoken
in a very different cultural setting. Jesus criticized people hungry for
the appearance of righteousness. When a fascination with antiheroes
prevails, sympathy for eccentrics need not be encouraged. There are many
ironies ripe for parody in a historically Christian culture when people
are bending over backwards to evade the moralistic tendencies of old
conventions. The Socratic tone of Jesus’ teachings suggests that he
thought conventional wisdom was mostly wrong. But carnivalistic scandal
would have to cut both ways in a time when throwing off convention has
itself become conventional, when puritanism has yielded to an obsession
with sex, the Protestant work ethic to the welfare state, and
aspirations toward an exemplary society, a “city on a hill,” have been
supplanted by an ethos that vilifies Western culture. If the parable of
the good Samaritan is going to lead to a crisis of morality or of
encountering God for modern readers, it might have to be modified
considerably. To be scandalous, it might involve a motorist who stops at
the roadside and is assaulted by a thug feigning injury. Justice may be
the theme rather than mercy.

There is a corollary to McCracken’s thesis that encountering Jesus in
the Gospels creates a crisis which leads to offense, or to faith. If
parables are lies, and truth “parabolic,” faith is entry into a
territory where God is so determinedly personal that he opposes
systematic closure on theological and moral issues. Faith in a personal
God defies reduction to doctrine. Morality requires attention to case-
by-case complexity. The ground is slippery here. McCracken assays it in
his final chapter on the Gospel of John.

The interplay of scandalous story and mythic plot, equivalent in other
terminology to the relation of concrete and universal, begins in John’s
familiar prologue. The archetypical Logos doctrine is scandalized by
rejection of the Word made flesh in the world. In Wagner’s
Ring, scandal erupts from the bottom of the river at the
beginning of Rhinegold. Alberich steals the Rhinegold and
disturbs the cosmos in a way that engages the gods. After the final
immolation in Gotterdammerung, the river floods, and
transcendence dissolves the offenses of human beings, gods, and other
characters who are both or neither. The mythic plot of the Gospel of
John begins in cosmic time, before the foundation of the world. In this
transcendent realm, the Word is God. Scandalous story begins with the
figure of John the Baptist, a voice crying in the wilderness. McCracken
says, “The Logos-Jesus constitutes John’s mythic world plot, which, like
light, illuminates events in time. John is the antithesis of the
postmodern deconstructionist: [the author’s] text, since it begins with
and centers on the Logos, is ‘logocentric,’ the bete noir of
deconstructionists, and,” he adds, “worse yet, John is willing to name
the Logos in the form of flesh.”

What McCracken calls the “end of interpretation” is not a void of
meaning, but, as in the synoptics, kerygmatic narrative, the purpose of
which is “that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the
Son of God, and believing, have life in his name.” This end is pursued
by the author of John using a device through which he attests both to
the historicity of the record and to his being an eyewitness to the
events he relates.

But he eludes attention of the sort directed at apprehending precisely
who he is through the enigmatic figure he calls the “Beloved Disciple.”
McCracken likens the Beloved Disciple to “the Man in the Mackintosh who
wanders through Ulysses or the Boy in the Shirt, of Matthew and
Mark, who runs away naked when Jesus is arrested.” “The enigmatic
Beloved Disciple is,” McCracken argues, “John’s means for effecting the
interaction between anecdote, news, or information on the one hand, and
myth, Logos, and truth-for-me on the other.”

The Beloved Disciple is with Peter in the empty tomb when, seeing only
the absence of a body, they believe. He is in the boat with the
disciples when Jesus appears and calls them to the lakeside. He comes
face to face with Jesus returned from the dead. A rumor concerning the
Beloved Disciple is refuted near the conclusion of John when the author
insists on literal accuracy. McCracken points out that he carefully
distinguishes what Jesus said from what had been rumored in the
community. “Jesus did not say that this disciple would not die, but ‘If
it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?'” Since
the sayings and events of the Gospel connect time with the eternity of
the Logos, they are to be treated with regard for explicit detail. Their
meaning is beyond interpretation.

As in the synoptics, the anecdotes in John are themselves scandalous.
After treating his mother much as he treats the Canaanite woman in
Matthew, Jesus turns water into wine. Early in John’s Gospel, he
cleanses the temple, and when he is asked for a sign, having turned over
the money-changers’ tables, he instead comments cryptically in a way
that only obfuscates his purpose. He offends Nicodemus, a teacher
[literally, the teacher] of Israel, who comes to him by night. Another
Samaritan, the woman at the well, is so confounded by Jesus that she
stirs up a whole community of Samaritans who come out to meet the man
who told her “everything she ever did.” Sayings of the form, “I am the
light of the world, I am the vine, I am the way, the truth, and the
life,” run through the book in resonance with sayings in the synoptics
and the “I AM” of the Sinai theophany in the Moses epic. They embody the
ultimate scandal: God as flesh.

The miraculous feeding of a crowd in the sixth chapter of John leads to
the saying, “I am the bread of life.” In response to the complaint that
he is a mere man, “the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know,”
Jesus utters words that are said to turn back even many of his disciples
from following him: “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood will live
because of me.” McCracken’s exegesis includes analysis of the Greek
text, which, as he demonstrates, reads literally, “He who ‘gnaws’ on my
flesh. . . .” This scandalous metaphor is hard, offensive, and,
McCracken argues, uninterpretable.

Using the literary critic’s tools to illuminate the Bible as one would
Shakespeare or Joyce is an idea whose time has come. Robert Alter’s
Art of Biblical Narrative, an examination of prose conventions
in the Hebrew Bible, appeared in 1981. McCracken’s Scandal of the
Gospels opens vistas to which historical criticism and theology
seem blind because the Gospels themselves defy reduction to historicism
or doctrine. One of the postulates of literary theory for McCracken is
that story depends on scandal, on the interruption of accepted reality,
of what everybody knows. As the Christological controversies of the
third and fourth centuries attest, working the scandal of the Gospels
into systematic theology is a problem of abstraction for Olympian
intellects. The best of them were willing to concede that the
Incarnation is a mystery. McCracken’s work preserves the offensiveness
of the Word made flesh. In the portent or eruption of scandal, a
domesticated spirit vanishes. The provocative figure of Jesus appears,
his proclamation threatening violence. But, for those who are not
offended, the encounter with him opens new terrain accessible to faith.

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