Jesus charmed men and women alike

By  Fr. Murray Watson, Catholic Register Special
  • February 18, 2007
jesus_womenJesus: A Meditation on His Stories and His Relationships with Women, by Andrew M. Greeley (Forge Books, 176 pages, $21.95, hardcover).

Many know Andrew Greeley primarily as as the writer of a long-running series of crime novels featuring Irish-American sleuths such as Fr. Blackie Ryan. Others know him as a sociologist of religion, a frequent political and spiritual pundit on network TV. But what is often forgotten is that, first and foremost, Andrew Greeley is a diocesan priest — Fr. Andrew Greeley — with more than 40 years experience as a pastor and homilist.
He is a down-to-earth scholar with an incisive mind, and a gifted storyteller whose Irish roots show through in the yarns he spins. So, when Greeley sets to examining the parables of Jesus, and His relationship to women, you can expect to be entertained, informed and challenged.

{sa 0765317761}The fundamental premise of Greeley’s new book is that, in many ways, we Christians have succeeded in domesticating Jesus. We have become so familiar with His message and His stories they no longer shock, surprise or overwhelm us as they were meant to.

Says Greeley, “Jesus was not a creep, not a grim, dour prophet of gloom. . . . Large crowds do not follow a sombre, dull, melancholy man with angry eyes and a thin, rigid smile.” Greeley insists Jesus was a man who, on the level of His humanity, was infinitely attractive and appealing — whose words and actions drew people to Him, and who ceaselessly surprised and scandalized even His closest followers with images that must have bordered on lunacy in His culture. Over and over, from the events of Jesus’ birth to the gentle but real surprise of Easter morning, Jesus (like a good storyteller) turns people’s expectations on their heads and causes them to question received truths.

Greeley is no radical skeptic like the scholars of the Jesus Seminar, whom he critiques. He is someone who looks at the Gospels with wonder, humour and faith, and succeeds in weaving together contemporary biblical scholarship, theological insights and a storyteller’s attention to detail. He uncovers new and inspiring insights that are profoundly relevant for Christians today, and can be an excellent starting point for reflection and personal prayer.

The core of Greeley’s book deals with Jesus’ relationships with women, which were unusual for a Jewish holy man of His time. But, Greeley says, too often we have yielded to one or the other extreme — we have either over-sexualized Jesus’ interaction with women (Da Vinci Code, Last Temptation of Christ) or we have shied away from any real emotional engagement between Jesus and the women He encountered, making Him somewhat less than fully human and even remote.

Ever the thoughtful provocateur, Greeley dives into the question with gusto and sensitivity, unpacking 12 key Gospel episodes in which Jesus interacts with women, both Jews and Gentiles. His conclusion? Jesus was supremely lovable because of the respect, compassion and attention He consistently showed to women, and He was not immune to the pull of human attractions and deep friendships — relationships that, he insists, remained entirely chaste and were directed to the Kingdom of God.

“Because He represented the Father-in-Heaven, an incredibly charming God, Jesus had to be the most charming man who ever lived. His eyes, His expressions, His smiles, His posture, His laughter, must have melted human hearts, male and female. He attracted people because He was attractive, He won them because He was winning, He excited them with His good news because the good so animated Him. . . . Jesus was a graceful man.”

Did women love Jesus? Absolutely, Greeley asserts. And Jesus loved them in return, in ways that were always life-giving, liberating and expressive of the prodigal love of His Father. There was no condescension, no exploitation, no second-class status. Greeley is understandably critical that this vision has not been more consistently lived out in Christianity in the 2,000 years since.

It is this shockingly generous love and forgiveness that is Greeley’s key theme and this book’s greatest strength. It is most clearly expressed in the “Great Parables” that Greeley examines in depth — stories that are eminently familiar, but whose subversive, shocking power he manages to recapture, by approaching them in fresh, new ways (the story of the workers in the vineyard becomes “The Crazy Vintner”; the Prodigal Son is actually “The Prodigal Father”).

Like Jesus Himself, Greeley overturns traditional readings that have often downplayed the radicalness of Jesus, have taken the edge off His teachings. But Greeley is not aiming to be a theological maverick. He has evidently done his homework in the writings of such respected commentators as Raymond Brown, Sean Freyne, John Shea and Robert Funk. He incorporates key exegetical and theological insights in such an informal way that you hardly realize you are being educated as you read.

Some of his speculation is intriguing to ponder. Were Mary, Martha and Lazarus a family of three adolescents? Is “the Good Samaritan” intended to say more about God’s powerful, barrier-bursting love for us than about our duty to love even unlovable human “neighbours”?

It is tempting to tame God, to find comfortable readings of favourite Gospel texts. We can attempt to tone down the miraculous, the shocking, the seemingly implausible, in the interests of making our faith seem rational and easy-to-digest. But it is only when we allow ourselves to be quite literally blown away by a God whose compassion is excessive, whose mercy is unacceptable, whose justice can seem insulting by human standards, that we begin to grasp something of the mystery of a God whose “ways are not our ways, who thoughts are not our thoughts” (Isa 55:8-9).

Andrew Greeley’s newest book is part meditation, part provocation, but entirely a hymn of praise to God’s amazing love, which he invites us to ponder and experience in new ways in the Scriptures. Those who seek solid, relevant and inspiring scriptural reflections will find in Greeley’s Jesus a God of endless surprises, and a renewed look at an age-old faith.

(Watson, a priest of the diocese of London, Ont., is completing his doctorate in New Testament studies at All Hallows College in Dublin, Ireland.)

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