Jesus taught through stories. Now Father Andrew M. Greeley, author of some 50 books and a storyteller in his own right, examines the parables told by Jesus in seeking to reach a fuller understanding of him and his message. Greeley was invited on TODAY to discuss the book. Here is an excerpt:
We must begin a search for understanding some of the stories of Jesus with the realization that he is deliberately elusive, mysterious, enigmatic, paradoxical. Hence we will never finish our search. We will never understand him. He is a man of surprises, appropriate for one who claims to witness a God of surprises. Thus, when we think we at last have figured him out, truly understand him, and can sign him up for our cause, we find that he has slipped away. When we are convinced that we can quote him in support of our own side in any argument, Jesus is out of here. The Jesus we have shaped to fit our ideas, our needs, our fears, may be a very interesting and special person, but he’s no longer Jesus. We must begin our story of Jesus by granting him permission to surprise us endlessly—not that he needs our permission because he will surprise even without our permission.
Those who followed him in Palestine a couple of millennia ago were fascinated by his stories. They had heard most of them before, but he insisted on ending the stories with a disturbing twist, a disconcerting finale. Troubled and confused, they continued to follow him, if only to see what kind of outrageous paradox or contorted ending he would tell the next time. His good news indeed sounded good, perhaps too good to be true, but it didn’t fit the expectations of his followers, even the closest followers. It disturbed them. He disturbed them.
If he doesn’t disturb us, then he’s not Jesus.
The disturbance begins at the beginning with the Christmas stories, those preludes to two of the Gospels that charm us today because we are so familiar with them, at the risk of losing strange, almost weird content of the stories.
Chapter One: The Christmas Surprises
At that time Emperor Augustus ordered a census to be taken throughout the Roman Empire. When this first census took place, Quirinius was the governor of Syria. Everyone, then, went to register himself, each to his own hometown.
Joseph went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to the town of Bethlehem in Judea, the birthplace of King David. Joseph went there because he was a descendant of David. He went to register with Mary, who was promised in marriage to him. She was pregnant, and while they were in Bethlehem, the time came for her to have her baby. She gave birth to her first son, wrapped him in cloths and laid him in a manger—there was no room for them to stay in the inn.
There were some shepherds in that part of the country who were spending the night in the fields, taking care of their flocks. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone over them. They were terribly afraid, but the angel said to them, “Don’t be afraid! I am here with good news for you, which will bring great joy to all the people. This very day in David’s town your Savior was born—Christ the Lord! And this is what will prove it to you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
Suddenly a great army of heaven’s angels appeared with the angel, singing praises to God: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace on earth to those with whom he is pleased!”
When the angels went away from them back into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us.”
So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph and saw the baby lying in the manger. When the shepherds saw him, they told them what the angel had said about the child. All who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said.
Mary remembered all these things and thought deeply about them. The shepherds went back, singing praises to God for all they had heard and seen; it had been just as the angel had told them.
Two lovely stories, right? One needs only a Christmas tree, carols in the background, and softly falling snow (accumulation one inch or less, please) to create just the right atmosphere of sentimentality. 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 (which is usually quite unpleasant in the mountains of Palestine) 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 the 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 the nations, the anointed one, the messiah to come into the world? Is this not revisionism of the Prophets and vigorous revisionism at that?
The whole collection of Christmas stories in Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels must be called bizarre, surprising indeed but strange, almost offensively so. We don’t know where they come from, who wrote them, and how they found their way into the two Gospels. However, if we understand that the adult Jesus was also surprising, strange, disturbing, and also often more than a little weird, the nativity stories are good “trailers” (as they now call what we used to dub “previews of coming attractions”) for the stories yet to come. If we could hear the Christmas stories as though we were hearing them for the first time, we would be shocked or at least awakened out of our usual boredom. This babe who was born in Bethlehem was likely to be one very odd man when he grew up.
Moreover, whoever put the stories together did so with a keen eye on the Jewish Scriptures and made allusions to passages in the Jewish Bible that only someone steeped in those books could have noted. Two questions arise immediately from our contemporary obsessions about literalism. Who wrote these tales and are they true? And a third question might be: why are the stories in Luke and Matthew so different?
In all probability the nativity stories floated, drifted around in the traditions of the followers of Jesus in the middle and late middle of the first century. Someone may have combined them into a catena of stories that was available to St. Luke and he appended them to his Gospel. Unless I am completely mistaken about Luke he was not unaware of the surprises crammed into the stories and how they foretold a lot more surprises from the adult Jesus.
Are they true? There was no video camera ready for the conversation between Mary and Gabriel, nor a stenographer, nor any witness at all. Are those the exact words they exchanged? Who knows? However, given the people involved and the matter at hand, there is a certain verisimilitude in the conversation—at least till we get to the words of the Magnificat, which seem to be unlikely in the mouth of a young peasant woman, but perhaps not impossible. A virginal conception? That of course boggles the mind, though there can be no doubt that was what the author of the story and Luke who collated the story into his Gospel also believed. Such a belief must have existed among some Christians in the late middle years of the first century, so it will not do to claim that it is something that “the Church” imposed in subsequent years. It is of course a scientific impossibility, which is why many Christians reject it today. In a closed universe such conceptions simply do not occur. Yet how closed is the universe?
Father Raymond Brown describes the infancy narratives as theologumenons—stories with a theological point. The author(s) of the narratives were teaching powerful theological truths through their narratives—the most powerful of which is that something utterly new happened with the coming of Jesus, something unexpected, confounding, disorienting, and monumentally surprising: the birth of a new creation or a rebirth of the old (same thing), not only news, but exorbitantly good news. If one can accept that truth then the possibility of a virginal conception—or a resurrection—should seem no big deal. Those who are so eager to reject a virginal conception never seem to pay any attention to the beginning of a new creation, the birth of a second Adam. Either Jesus was what he said he was or he was not. If he was, then there was a special intervention outside the human system (the nature of which we do not understand). If he was not, then his whole story is either fraud or self-deception. Those who would remove from the Jesus story the wondrous, the marvelous, the miraculous, the incredible surprise, destroy the story altogether.
The Christmas stories are either superstitious, if beautiful, nonsense or they tell us something critically important about the babe and about the man he would grow up to be.
The infancy stories of great men of the ancient world are usually spectacular. Signs and portents abound. The Jesus stories, however, are almost drab by comparison. One angel and one maiden, a visit to a cousin who is also miraculously pregnant, a journey to Bethlehem, angels on a hillside, shepherds and magicians, a lost boy in Jerusalem, all rather commonplace. One or two miraculous interventions, but certainly in a low key. Some poetic outbursts that seem a little excessive—how dare this girl child claim that she will be praised by all future generations, a prediction that must have seemed excessive to the collector of the story and perhaps to Luke himself.
She was right, of course. Or whoever put the words in her mouth was right. These thoughts always give me pause. What was going on here, I ask. And I find no answers, save for the thousands of Madonna images that Christian art has produced. Did she really foresee them? Or did the ghost writer?
The power of the infancy narratives is not therefore in their spectacular rhetoric but rather in the astonishing assertions they make in ordinary, commonplace contexts. Surprises in a minor key that rattle the structures of human history, not unlike, come to think of it, the parables themselves. The compilers of the Christmas stories were utterly matter-of-fact about their claims. They did not need to embroider the claims with dramatic events. The substance of the surprise was enough.
But note the surprises that run through the stories—Mary is surprised by the words of the angel. Joseph is surprised by the same angel. Elizabeth is surprised by her elderly pregnancy and by the reaction of her child when Mary comes to visit. The concatenation of surprises leads Mary to the Magnificat. Zachary is surprised by the promise of an heir. His friends and colleagues are surprised by the name given the little boy. The shepherds are surprised by the angels. The Holy Family is surprised by the shepherds’ visit and the subsequent appearance of the gentile magicians and the warning to depart into Egypt. Later Mary and Joseph are surprised by Jesus’ behavior in the temple. The stories are intoxicated by surprise. To ask whether all these stories must be taken literally is to miss the point completely: surprises rained down on those who were involved—hints powerful enough for them that the greatest surprise in human history had occurred, although almost no one had noticed. The world had been turned upside down, as G. K. Chesterton once remarked, and from this perspective it had suddenly made sense. Or in the words of John Henry Newman, “The Infinite was in swaddling clothes, Omnipotence in bonds.” The Word was made flesh and pitched his tent among us. The Kingdom of God was at hand.
Was it really?
It is difficult to understand how someone who denies this surprise can claim to be a follower of Jesus.
Why, however, did the Father-in-Heaven choose this odd style for producing the biggest surprise of all?
To try to understand the Father-in-Heaven is, as a seminary classmate complained to me, an effort at unscrewing the inscrutable. “Where were we?” the Father-in-Heaven might point out as he did to Job when he created the stars.
Fair question, but we can speculate a little from the hints he has left lying around. We began to understand the physical universe when we discovered protons and electrons, the tiny, misty building blocks of all that is. Then we discovered “the singularity,” the tiny spot that, when it exploded, produced everything that is, including the biopolymers that would make our human life here on this miserable little planet possible and our minds, working in a relatively small brain, a reflection, as Père Teilhard put it, of the whole evolutionary process. The Father-in-Heaven delights in mystery. In truth, I suspect he revels in it. Why should this vast cosmos, built up with such tiny building blocks, fit the models of advanced mathematics that our frail human intellects in their most playful moods have pasted together? Why should he bother to send Jesus to reassure us that what we fear to hope is, in fact, true—at the center of all creation is the greatest surprise of all, his impassioned and implacable love?
In my more troublemaking moods I contend that God is a comedienne, sometimes even a playful teenage comedienne who enjoys mystery, wonder, and especially surprise—and surprise parties. More seriously I argue that it is God’s nature to play, that God has no other choice but to play and love because that is what God is. Not only is playfulness of creation itself a trailer for the Jesus story, not only the playfulness of the Big Bang and the biopolymers, not only the hint that God is impassioned love, so is the playfulness of the Christmas stories. The babe in the manger will die, but that is not the end of the story. The Father-in-Heaven is also and necessarily the God of happy endings, which are the biggest surprise of all. All will be well, all manner of things will be well, as Blessed Juliana promised.
How the Father-in-Heaven will work out all the happy endings is beyond us, but Christmas and the Resurrection and the parables are a promise of happy endings and Christmas is the trailer promising all that will come. The three canticles that should be read as part of a single contribution are the musical background for the Christmas narratives.
Mary said, “My heart praises the Lord; my soul is glad because of God my Savior, for he has remembered me, his lowly servant! From now on all people will call me happy, because of the great things the Mighty God has done for me. His name is holy; from one generation to another he shows mercy to those who honor him. He has stretched out his mighty arm and scattered the proud with all their plans. He has brought down mighty kings from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away with empty hands. He has kept the promise he made to our ancestors and has come to the help of his servant Israel. He has remembered to show mercy to Abraham and to all his descendants forever!”
“Let us praise the Lord, the God of Israel! He has come to the help of his people and has set them free. He has provided for us a mighty Savior, a descendant of his servant David. He promised through his holy prophets long ago that he would save us from our enemies, from the power of all those who hate us. He said he would show mercy to our ancestors and remember his sacred covenant. With a solemn oath to our ancestor Abraham he promised to rescue us from our enemies and allow us to serve him all the days of our life.
“You, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High God. You will go ahead of the Lord to prepare his road for him, to tell his people that they will be saved by having their sins forgiven. Our God is merciful and tender. He will cause the bright dawn of salvation to rise on us and to shine from heaven on all those who live in the dark shadow of death, to guide our steps into the path of peace.”
The Nunc Dimitis
“Now, Lord, you have kept your promise, and you may let your servant go in peace. With my own eyes I have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples: A light to reveal your will to the Gentiles and bring glory to your people Israel.”
The canticles we encounter in St. Luke are musical background for the Christmas narratives, the first Christmas carols, though they are not like any subsequent carols. If the community of Jewish Christians composed the canticles because they fit the stories that they were telling, it is not impossible that they were sung during the recitation of the Christmas narratives.
Mary’s Magnificat can be read as a celebration by the “Poor People” of the wonderful deeds God performs for those who realize their own poverty and weakness and their ultimate dependence on God’s love, exactly as they saw the utter trust in God that marked the Mother of Jesus. They imposed their theology on Mary and praised her for her humble acceptance of it. They saw the Christmas surprise as indeed coming from the Jewish heritage but also as destined for all people who will praise Mary for her courage, a theme of universalism that will occur often in the Gospel stories.
In the Benedictus Zachary sees the stories of Mary and Elizabeth, Jesus and John, as evidence of the graciousness of God, yes to Israel but also to all humankind, in his bright dawn of hope to those who live in the dark shadow of death. Finally Simon at the presentation of Jesus in the temple becomes quite explicit: Jesus is a wonderful surprise, a light to the gentiles and glory to Israel. The theme of Jews bringing the light to the gentiles is clear in some of the books of the Jewish Scriptures, yet remained somewhat scandalous to the Jews of Jesus’ time. He would push this surprise to its absolute limit.
Excerpted from “Jesus: A Meditation on His Stories and His Relationships with Women” by Andrew Greeley. Copyright © 2007 Andrew M. Greeley Enterprises. All rights reserved. Published by . No part of this excerpt can be used without permission of the publisher.