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 Gotterdammerungm , 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.
Michael Dodaro, a new contributor, is a writer, medical technician, and baritone soloist in the choir at Blessed Sacrament Church in Seattle, Washington.