Wednesday, April 18, 2007

A Surprising Jesus

“We must begin a search for understanding some of the stories of Jesus with the realization that he is deliberately elusive, mysterious, enigmatic, paradoxical . . . He is a man of surprises, appropriate for one who claims to witness a God of surprises.” Rev. Andrew Greeley, a noted sociologist, author, and Catholic priest, sets out to bear witness to some of these surprises in “Jesus: A Meditation on His Stories and his Relationships with Woman.”

Greeley divides his reflections on Jesus’ surprising nature by themes, beginning with his birth narratives, moving along to the Resurrection experience, his life as a Jew, his relationship with women, and the stories he told. One of the things about the Jesus stories is that most of us are so familiar with them, they have lost their ability to surprise us. We may listen to the words of the Gospel, but think to ourselves, “Oh, I already know that one. I think I can tune out now.” Greeley invites us to take a second look and really consider what is going on in these stories. For example, in his discussion of “The Christmas Surprises,” he writes:

We have perhaps seen so many Christmas cards during our lives that we are immune to the absolute weirdness of the nativity stories – an angel wanders into a hut in Nazareth and tells a very young woman (fifteen perhaps) that she is about to conceive a child of the Holy Spirit. The young woman, who is probably illiterate, asks how this is to be and then recites a complex poem steeped in the language of the Jewish Scriptures and makes the astonishing prediction that all nations will call her blessed. What’s going on here?

Then she and her husband (who is not the child’s father) go off on a difficult journey in the middle of winter . . . and the newborn babe is laid in a pile of straw in a cave somewhere. Then a crew of angels appears in the sky and praises the new babe, whom the shepherds dash over to inspect – shepherds, the absolute bottom of the Jewish social structure, dirty, smelly, rough, ignorant, and religiously unclean men. And what’s this about magicians? Jews were not supposed to believe in magic and certainly not in gentile magic. What’s this all about? Is this a decent way for the expected of nations, the anointed one, the messiah to come into the world?

Greeley states that this unusual beginning of Jesus’ story is just a preview of the surprising life that is to follow.

Greeley does not approach scripture from a literal viewpoint. He understands that the oral and written tradition that served as a foundation for the Gospels we read today developed over time, but he does allow much room for mystery and faith and maintains that each of the stories has a theological truth to share with us. Each story reveals something about God.

Jesus’ relationship with women was revolutionary for its time, and given the current state of male-female relations, perhaps even today. “Someone has remarked that the attitudes and behavior of Jesus with women in his time and place are enough by themselves to suggest that he might be the Son of God.” According to Luke 8:1-3 women traveled with the twelve apostles and Jesus. This was, quite simply, not done. “Women may have ministered to the great rabbis of the Second Temple era, but they did not travel through the country with them. What terrible scandals might come of such an arrangement? . . . To make matters worse – and this would shock the Romans perhaps even more that the Jews – St. Luke practically equates the women travelers with the apostles.” Greeley maintains that this was such a radical concept that the other evangelists don’t even make mentions of these women until they are at the foot of the cross bearing faithful witness after most of the men have run away. Jesus treated his women followers with “great respect and reverence as well as sensitive and gentle tenderness. He did not demean them or talk down to them of keep them in their place – whatever that place might be.” Greeley then illustrates that point by delving more deeply into Jesus’ relationships with several women in the gospels: his mother, Mary and Martha of Bethany, Mary of Magdala, the Samaritan woman at the well, the Gentile woman who asked for her daughter to be healed, the sinful woman who anointed his feet, the hemorrhaging woman, and the widow of Naim. Greeley maintains that these stories taken together provide a seamless picture of how Jesus treated women. “Nowhere in the New Testament does Jesus denounce women, nowhere does he condemn them. . . .Jesus is the model for all male followers of Jesus. One has to say that for much of the history of his followers that model has not been followed, not even seriously considered as a model.” Greeley calls for us as Church to reexamine Jesus’ attitudes towards women for the surprise that they are and reclaim them as our goal for today.

Of course the greatest surprise of all is the Resurrection and the promise that it holds for each of us. In “Jesus: A Meditation of His Stories and His Relationships with Women,” Greeley invites is to reflect on this Jesus who surprises is at every turn. He invites us to reconsider the old familiar stories with fresh eyes and insight. While there are moments of digression when Greeley attacks those who have portrayed Jesus differently (Martin Scorcese, Dan Brown, etc), on the whole this is a very readable, interesting book which add to the reader’s understanding of Jesus.

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