"We must begin our story of Jesus by granting him permission to surprise us endlessly...." ---from the Introduction
Jesus of Galilee taught through stories, which even today contain the power to startle us out of our prejudices and preconceptions. Now Father Andrew M. Greeley, one of America's most beloved storytellers, examines the parables told by Jesus in search of a fuller understanding of the man and his message.
This engaging and informal collection of homilies reveals a Jesus whose simple parables carry profound lessons about the Kingdom of Heaven. Along the way, Father Greeley touches on such provocative topics as the significance of Jesus's Jewish roots, his deep and revolutionary relationship with women, The Da Vinci Code, and The Passion of the Christ. He also singles out the four greatest parables, which best illustrate the infinite love and mercy of the God whose kingdom began with Jesus and continues even today.
As a storyteller, Jesus often surprised his listeners with unexpected twists that challenged them to see the world in a whole new light. Father Greeley's insightful tour of the Gospels provides a fresh look at the parables that strips away centuries of false and mistaken interpretations to get at the essential truth of who Jesus really was and what he believed.
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Priest, sociologist, author and journalist, Father Andrew M. Greeley built an international assemblage of devout fans over a career spanning five decades. His books include the Bishop Blackie Ryan novels, including The Archbishop in Andalusia, the Nuala Anne McGrail novels, including Irish Tweed, and The Cardinal Virtues. He was the author of over 50 best-selling novels and more than 100 works of non-fiction, and his writing has been translated into 12 languages.
Father Greeley was a Professor of Sociology at the University of Arizona and a Research Associate with the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago. In addition to scholarly studies and popular fiction, for many years he penned a weekly column appearing in the Chicago Sun-Times and other newspapers. He was also a frequent contributor to The New York Times, the National Catholic Reporter, America and Commonweal, and was interviewed regularly on national radio and television. He authored hundreds of articles on sociological topics, ranging from school desegregation to elder sex to politics and the environment.
Throughout his priesthood, Father Greeley unflinchingly urged his beloved Church to become more responsive to evolving concerns of Catholics everywhere. His clear writing style, consistent themes and celebrity stature made him a leading spokesperson for generations of Catholics. He chronicled his service to the Church in two autobiographies, Confessions of a Parish Priest and Furthermore!
In 1986, Father Greeley established a $1 million Catholic Inner-City School Fund, providing scholarships and financial support to schools in the Chicago Archdiocese with a minority student body of more than 50 percent. In 1984, he contributed a $1 million endowment to establish a chair in Roman Catholic Studies at the University of Chicago. He also funded an annual lecture series, “The Church in Society,” at St. Mary of the Lake Seminary, Mundelein, Illinois, from which he received his S.T.L. in 1954.
Father Greeley received many honors and awards, including honorary degrees from the National University of Ireland at Galway, the University of Arizona and Bard College. A Chicago native, he earned his M.A. in 1961 and his Ph.D. in 1962 from the University of Chicago.
Father Greeley was a penetrating student of popular culture, deeply engaged with the world around him, and a lifelong Chicago sports fan, cheering for the Bulls, Bears and the Cubs. Born in 1928, he died in May 2013 at the age of 85.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
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 endlesslyÑnot 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 mangerÑthere 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 storiesÑan 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. WhatÕs 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 conversationÑat 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 Òthe ChurchÓ 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 theologumenonsÑstories with a theological point. The author(s) of the narratives were teaching powerful theological truths through their narrativesÑthe 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 conceptionÑor a resurrectionÑshould 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 wo...
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