There is even a new TV show called “Scandal.” It’s star, Olivia, is a former communications director to the President of the United States, who left the White House to start her own prestigious “crisis management firm.” She has “dedicated her life to protecting and defending the public images of the nation’s elite,” says the show’s byline, and then this, “[Olivia is both r]evered and feared at the same time.” Now that’s the root of scandal, a kind of person, whether elite, celebrity, or iconoclast - we love to hate! It’s so delicious, isn’t it? We are jealously desirous, and offended, at the same time.
One could make a pretty good case, that, America is run on scandal! Political scandals that can actually affect our lives, or, when there’s a slow news day, Hollywood scandals, which are a dime a dozen. Magazines at the checkout counter tell the scandal of the week, online news headlines grab for our attention daily: divorce of the rich and famous, secrets, supposedly revealed, that turn our rock solid belief in the stars we thought we knew, upside down, and pictures of amazing photo-shopped body types we revere and hate. Scandal is all around. It attracts and repels us endlessly, in one delicious concoction after another.
Can it be the same for Jesus? 2,000 years ago? Was scandal alive and well already? In our reading today, Jesus returns to Nazareth, his home town, where he grew up. It was a small town in Galilee, and everyone knew him even before he became famous. Jesus returns after healing the two daughters of Israel, the woman with the flow of blood and Jairus’ daughter, scandalizing the crowds and leaders of Jerusalem. Jesus is creating scandal wherever he goes – but not to continue the cycle of scandal, but to offer himself as a way out. Not to feed the desire for more scandal, continuously looping back around in our lives, leaving us in the same unfulfilled place, but to overcome scandal and offer us a new model, bring us to a new place, a realm where we are fulfilled and truly satisfied – as we are by the bread from this table. As in all his stops, as he travels from town to town, Jesus starts at the synagogue in Nazareth, teaching and healing. Have you ever gone back to your home town, or your home congregation? Been to a high school reunion? Is it surprising how people remember you? Do people allow for change in your life? Why is it that we say, the more people change the more the stay the same?
The people of Nazareth who listened to Jesus preach were astounded, and said where did this man get all this? We had no idea he was this good! How did he get so wise all of a sudden, get such ability? But in the very next breath they were cutting him down: He’s just a carpenter – Mary’s boy. We’ve known him since he was a kid. We know his brothers and his sisters. Who does he think he is? And, …they were scandalized by him, it says. They were amazed, and repulsed. They were attracted, and despised him. Titillated and offended.
So, what if we do love scandal? What’s the big deal? Where’s the harm?
Just this week, the headline that grabbed me was, “Following Barclays' Scandal, Stiglitz says 'Send Bankers to Jail': Without threat of prosecution, says Nobel economist, expect little to change.” For that one day, everyone was attracted, and repelled, by this breaking story. There it was, out in the open, banking’s elite, talking plainly to one another about how to hide their willful defrauding of government and public. Same old, same old, seemed to be the reaction. But as Nobel economist Joseph Stiglitz says in the article, where are the consequences for such behavior? Why is it so natural to jail the little guy down the street for petty theft in the midst of economic peril, and those who have engineered fraud in the billions with a B, get to retire with million dollar bonuses? But I digress! My point is simply that this scandal, as humungous as it is, faded away as quickly as it sprang up. Why? Because the system we live in no longer provides justice in these cases, so the attraction quickly gives way to repulsion, a scandal with no teeth. But we can’t say, there’s no harm done.
Jesus understood this and said, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their relatives, and on the streets they play in as a child.” So, Jesus subverts the pain and violence we do to each other, as long as we live by scandal, and for our sake unveils the destructive mechanism at work within it, so that we can live new, and life-giving relationships with one another. In Jesus’ case we can see that the stumbling block for the home town crowd of Nazareth is –not that they don’t believe the insightful teachings and powerful deeds Jesus does- but that this fellow carpenter they grew up with, can do such things! They are scandalized, amazed and repulsed, by the realm of God dawning in their midst.
So that’s the harm of scandal. It can fulfill a desire we have to be like those we look up to, but traps us into blaming the victim, whenever we fail to measure up. When we are scandalized, we feel powerful, but only in a voyeuristic way, which leads, really, only to powerlessness itself, as our jealousy and envy leave us unfulfilled, and we turn on the former object of our desire. We are attracted, but because we want to be something we are not, and can’t be, because it’s not authentically us. What is it that we confess at the beginning of this liturgy?
“We have thought better of ourselves than others…
acted in ways we wish we could take back…”
But the biggest scandal of all in the gospel story, of course, is the cross and resurrection. This very same stumbling block of being scandalized by Jesus, the boy wonder who we know is really only a boy carpenter, the one who offers new wine in old wine skins, and who bursts our bubble, is the same kind of scandal at the end of the gospel story. On the one hand, the crowds love Jesus for challenging the leaders and authorities who devise the rules which help to keep them in poverty, but they hate Jesus because he goes willing, without a fight, to the degrading cross of defeat. Our love for him turns to shouts of, “crucify him, crucify him!”
But on the third day, Jesus unveils what no one expected, but everyone, at least the 99%, wanted. God vindicates Jesus, and our stumbling block becomes for us the corner stone of a new construct – the scandal is resolved, and the way of life and truth itself, are handed over to all who are beginning to see. Jesus reveals that when life is lived for the other, that anyone can see their way into the interconnectedness of life in this increasingly global village. The way to authentic life is modeled by leaders who practice servanthood, instead of privilege. Jesus, becoming, and revealing scandal, is for us, the building block of a new life beyond the tempting concoction of scandal that never fills us up. We see it in the cross, once a symbol of shame, now a symbol of victory and new life. Then our confession becomes more than just liturgy – it is our joy and our freedom: “cleanse us, O God, and heal us, for the sake of Jesus, our Savior.”