Our “Scandal” Will Always Be With Us (May-Aug 2004)

By Matt Dabbs

by C. Robert Wetzel
May – August, 2004

God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block (skandalon) to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God (I Corinthians 1:21-24).

It must have been a scandal. I mean that time when the teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought before Jesus the woman caught in the act of adultery. Immoral sexual behavior has always tended to be seen as either a scandal or simply the topic of salacious gossip, or both. But here she was, thrown before Jesus as an occasion to compromise him. Would he condone the stoning according to the Law of Moses or would he, in an attempt to show mercy, condone the act of adultery?

When I have read this account in the eighth chapter of John I have always wanted to ask, “But where was the man?” If the woman was caught in the act of adultery then they surely must have known who the man was. The passage to which the Teachers of the Law appealed is Leviticus 20:10: “If a man commits adultery with another man’s wife—with the wife of his neighbor—both the adulterer and the adulteress must be put to death.”

In any event we can only pray for the wisdom and love of Jesus when we too are confronted with scandals. But here let me sound like the father in the film, My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Because interestingly enough the English word ‘scandal’ comes from a Greek word, skandalon. And it carries the idea of a stumbling block, an offense, or an immoral act that discredits a person or institution.

In the past two months we have heard and read much about two significant cultural scandals. The first one came at the half-time performance of the Super Bowl. Musicians Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson concluded a song entitled, “I Want to See You Naked” by letting live television see a bit of forbidden nudity. The public outcry led CBS to apologize and assure the public that it would not use MTV productions for future half-time entertainment. Janet Jackson did offer an apology of sorts, but more of that later. On the other hand Justin Timberlake seemed entirely unrepentant. Interestingly enough most of the news coverage and commentary has centered on Janet Jackson, not Justin Timberlake. It makes me ask the same question I raised above about the woman taken in adultery: “Where was the man?” At least the woman offered an apology.

Janet Jackson began her apology by saying, “If I have offended anyone I am truly sorry….” I cannot resist commenting on this speech form. It is so common when you hear public figures making an apology: “If I have offended anyone….” Obviously they have offended someone or they would not be making an apology. So why say, “If I have offended anyone…” I would find apologies more sincerely stated if the person would simply say, “I have offended. I am sorry.” Of course we all hope that Janet Jackson was indeed sorry for her part in the offense.

But at least Janet Jackson was willing to make an apology unlike the man whose name I could not even remember and had to look it up on the internet. Perhaps, like the Teachers of the Law and Pharisees of old, we too are tempted to focus on the sins of the woman and not the man. But I will not try to unwind that one! Rather let me talk about the good that has come out of this scandal.

Of course there are those who would still defend these acts of indecency as somehow protected by the free speech clause in the Bill of Rights, but at least for the time being the wind has blown against them. The scandal was too great, and some major corporations and government officials had to come down on the side of decency. The moral of this episode is that we as Christians must let our voices be heard in the democratic process that characterizes this country in which we live. We have buying power and voting power and we can use both. Let me add that protesting is not enough. When we see some corporation or government official responding in a positive way, we need to say thank you. You would be surprised how gratified these people are to receive a thank you note among the numerous criticisms they receive.

The second culture scandal in recent months has been the film, The Passion of the Christ. Although I read and heard many reviews of Mel Gibson’s film before I saw it, none of them prepared me for the experience. It is by far the most powerful and most artistically done biblical film I have seen. And for those of you who have not seen it, I will not do my own review of it here. Frankly I am still trying to assimilate the experience.

I can think of no film that has been more strongly attacked by critics who were offended by its message. There is that word, “offended”! And this is why I call it a scandal. And no one seems to be more scandalized than Frank Rich writing for The New York Times. He is convinced that the film is “a free pass for behavior that is unambiguously contrived to vilify Jews.” In watching the film it would not have occurred to me that Jews as a people were being vilified. After all, Jesus and his disciples were Jews. And Caiaphas looks like a grumpy old man compared to the sadistic Roman soldiers who scourge Jesus. But on the other hand, I can understand Jewish sensitivity because of the whole history of anti-Semitism that has existed in so-called Christian countries. It was sometime in the Middle Ages that the persecution of the Jews was justified because they were “Christ killers.” And it is an anti-Semitism that exists to this day. Do you remember that scene in the film, The Hiding Place where the pastor comes to warn Corrie Tenboom’s father about hiding Jews from the Nazis. The pastor says, “After all you remember what the Jews did.” Mr. Tenboom responds, “Yes, they gave us the Old Testament.”

My own opinion is that the charge of anti-Semitism is a distraction from the actual offense created by the film. The preaching of the cross has always been an offense, a scandal. Paul admitted it readily when he said, “we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block (skandalon) to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” What Paul says here about Jews and Gentiles can be applied to two states of mind. Many theists, be they Jews, Muslims or some other form of generic theists find the idea of the cross an offensive claim. How could God who is eternal and almighty become flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth and be executed like a common criminal? One can appreciate Soren Kierkegaard’s challenge to the intellectual elite of his day: “One can either look at the cross of Christ and say, ‘It is absurd, and I don’t believe it.’ Or he can look at the cross of Christ and say, ‘It is absurd, and I believe it.’” Let’s face it. From the perspective of your average theist the heart of Christian faith is an offensive absurdity. It is no wonder that the Stoic and Epicurean philosophers laughed Paul to silence at the meeting of the Areopagus in Athens when he got to the place in his sermon about the resurrection.

The heart of Christian faith is that God revealed himself in Jesus Christ, that he was crucified, died, and buried, and that he arose from the dead. We ought not to be surprised when sophisticated intellectuals of our age find our belief to be foolishness. Nor should we be surprised when theists find the core of Christian faith to be a scandal. And yet as the Apostle Paul says, “but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God”(I Cor. 1:24).

There are some scandals we as Christians cannot live with: acts of public indecency, immoral behavior of Christian leaders, division in the church. But there is one scandal we can live with. In fact it is a scandal we live by and glory in. It is the scandal of the cross.New Wineskins

Robert Wetzel is president of Emmanuel School of Religion. He earned a Ph.D. in philosophy and literature at the University of Nebraska. Dr. Wetzel was Recognized Lecturer in the University of Birmingham (England) from 1980–1991; he taught philosophy and humanities at Milligan College from 1961 to 1980. He has published numerous essays and articles in both popular and scholarly sources. Dr. Wetzel and his wife, Bonnie, are parents of two adult children.

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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