Peter Gomes Preaches 'The Scandalous Gospel'

Rev. Peter Gomes

Ordained as an American Baptist minister, the Rev. Peter J. Gomes has served at Harvard University's Memorial Church for nearly four decades. He is the author of several books, including The Good Book and Sermons. Courtesy of Goldberg McDuffie hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of Goldberg McDuffie

Longtime Harvard professor and pastor Peter Gomes says his latest book, The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus, isn't at all what its racy title suggests.

"Any of you who are looking to buy this book in the hope of filling out the particular genealogy of Jesus or the continuing relationships with Mary Magdalene ... or John, for that matter, I'm sorry to disappoint you," Gomes says.

On the contrary, the "scandal," according to Gomes, is the lack of attention to the gospel, even among those who consider themselves to be faithful Christians. The author argues that people tend to focus too much on who Jesus was and what he would do when "the question should be, 'What would Jesus have me do?'"

Gomes chides "religious conservatives," because, he says, "What is there to conserve? We haven't got there yet."

But as in each of his previous books, which include two bestsellers — The Good Book, published in 1996, and Sermons, published in 1998 — he steers away from the polemics of either the right or the left, seeking from his perch in the middle to make the Christian religion more relevant to people's lives.

Ordained as an American Baptist minister, Gomes has served in Harvard's Memorial Church for nearly four decades. He is an eloquent — even mesmerizing — speaker for whom the Gomes Lectureship at the University of Cambridge in England was named. He was featured in the 1999 premiere of Talk magazine as one of "The Best Talkers in America: Fifty Big Mouths We Hope Will Never Shut Up."

In The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus, Gomes doesn't pretend that following Jesus' teachings would be easy.

"It may be scandalous," he says, "if we actually tried to apply it in our communities ... to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, love our neighbors ... those are dangerous things."

This reading of The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus took place in November of 2007 at the Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C.

Book Excerpt: 'The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus'

'The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus'

Chapter One: We Start with the Bible

In the new paradigm, what-is-preached shifts from the Bible or a passage of the Bible to Gospel and elements of the world of Gospel. —Edward Farley, Practicing Gospel

Some years ago I was on a night flight from Boston to London on a Saturday and was to preach in a London church on Sunday morning; in those days I was not intimidated by jet lag and looked forward to my engagement within a few hours of landing at Heathrow Airport. Then, midway over the Atlantic Ocean we encountered significant turbulence and were warned to keep our seatbelts fastened. Less concerned about the storm than about my sermon, I took out my notes and my Bible, and as I read, the lady beside me, who had been mercifully quiet throughout the flight, observed me. As the turbulence increased she noticed that I was reading the Bible, and finally she asked, nervously, "Do you know something that I should know?"

In the preaching profession that is known as an "illustration in search of a sermon"—although it was one I declined to preach at that moment. As with so many people, my seatmate had assumed that the answer to the present dilemma, whatever it was, would be found in the Bible; and while she might not know where or how to look for it, she assumed that, as a clergyman, I did. To many people the Bible remains a book of magical properties: taking an oath or swearing on a stack of Bibles is meant to assure the truth, for example, and a Bible in the drawer of a hotel bedside table implies not only the presence of the Gideons but a formula for relief in moments of temptation or desolation.

We assume that the Bible has something to tell us that we need to hear. It is read out faithfully in every church in the world; preachers protest that they preach from the Bible and only the Bible, and Bible schools, Bible colleges, and Bible institutes have never been more popular. To turn on cable television is to discover a wide variety of Bible preachers and teachers, from well-known televangelists to any media-savvy preacher who can afford a satellite disk or a website. The camera angles always show large auditoriums filled with enthusiastic listeners, their Bibles open to follow the exposition of the text, and many of the programs have their own patented Bible courses of study which, for an appropriate contribution, are available for purchase.

No one in the Bible business simply says, "Read the text and it will be made plain to you." Although many will argue for the "plain sense" of scripture, that sense is made clear only through the guidance of one who presumably knows more about it than we do; and there is the assumption that once we read and understand it, the Bible will have something useful to say to us. This confidence in the text's ability to speak to our condition reminds me of the practice of settling disputes and troubles by opening the Bible at random and putting one's finger on a verse, which is taken to be the answer to the problem. Had I applied that principle to the question of my seatmate on my flight to London, what would she or I have made of the situation if my finger had landed, for example, on John 6:12, which reads in part: "Gather up the fragments left over, that nothing may be lost"?

We start with the Bible because, like Everest, it is there, and it looms large. There is no point in pretending otherwise, but while we may begin there, are we meant to end up there as well? If it is a means, to what is it a means? I suggest that the Bible, in all its complex splendor, is but the means to a greater end, which is the good news, the glad tidings, the gospel. Jesus came preaching—we are told this in all the Gospels—but nowhere in the Gospels is there a claim that he came preaching the New Testament, or even Christianity. It still shocks some Christians to realize that Jesus was not a Christian, that he did not know "our" Bible, and that what he preached was substantially at odds with his biblical culture, and with ours as well.

A Matter of Interpretation

There is the doubtlessly apocryphal story of the accountant in a large firm who handled a deceptively simple question put by his boss, "What is two times two?" by replying, "What would you like it to be, sir?" and thereby landed a plum job. To many people the notion of interpretation, particularly where the Bible is concerned, seems much akin to that of our wily accountant, for interpretation is somehow seen as an alien and intervening force between the reader and the truth of the text.

For many years I have taught a course in Harvard College, "The Christian Bible and Its Interpretation," and at the conclusion of the introductory lecture I invite questions from the hundreds of opening-day "shopping" students who might under the right circumstances decide to take the course. Invariably someone asks, "Is this a course about what the Bible says, or is it a course about what people say the Bible says?" It is a hostile question, and I don't make the situation any easier when I say that the very act of reading is an act of interpretation, and that in a course of this sort it is impossible not to read what people are both finding in the text and bringing to it. One does not have to be a postdoctoral student in literary criticism to know that a sixteenth-century German Lutheran and a twenty-first-century Latin American Catholic are likely to read and interpret scripture differently. My course is a survey of how readings of the same constant text have varied over the centuries, from the formation of the canon to our present time, dependent on context and subtext. A community in exile will read differently from a community in apparent full possession of all it surveys, with those who have nothing welcoming the promised overturning of the standing order, and those who have much of this world's goods not longing for the end of the age.

Depending, then, upon how one reads and interprets, either the Bible is a textbook for the status quo, a book of quiescent pieties and promises, or it is a recipe for social change and transformation. There are churches dedicated to each point of view, each claiming its share of the good news; but what is good news for some is often bad news for somebody else. We will see how this double-edged sword of the gospel makes Jesus' own preaching and teaching so dangerous, not only way back then but right here and now, and we will see why it is a very dangerous thing to take seriously the question "What would Jesus do?"

Ignorance and Reticence

A decade ago when I wrote The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart, I hoped that I would contribute a small bit to the raising of biblical literacy in a country and culture that increasingly prided itself on its biblical bonafides. After all, Jimmy Carter described himself as a born-again Christian and taught Sunday school, Ronald Reagan relished biblical imagery and endeared himself to religious conservatives, Bill Clinton could quote scripture with the best, and now George W. Bush is perhaps our most publicly professed chief executive in the history of the presidency. It seemed to me to be imperative that we know more about what could and could not be said about the Bible as more and more of our public policy decisions seemed to be based upon vague appeals to biblical authority.

In The Good Book I made no pretensions to new or earth-shattering scholarship. As noted by one of my mildly censorious colleagues on the Harvard Divinity School faculty, I had simply put down what any seminarian ought to know after the first year of study. What amazed me, therefore, in my many travels across the country to book fairs, church halls, and media interviews was how new and unfamiliar this material seemed to so many. It was as if the past five hundred years of biblical scholarship had not existed, as if we were dealing with a book as preciously obscure to the average reader as Jerome's Latin Vulgate.

This should not have come as such a surprise, however, for when I had gone off to Bates College more than forty years earlier, I had been warned by my pious old Sunday school teacher, for whom I had memorized vast quantities of the King James Bible, "Don't take a Bible course; they'll give you criticism and you'll lose Christ!" "Bible 101," a staple in every required liberal arts curriculum in those days, did introduce us to a more complicated biblical universe than the one that most of us had left behind in Sunday school. I had never noticed, for example, that there were two creation stories, that the second version was older than the first, and that Moses could hardly have written the first five books except posthumously.

Instead of determining the moral authority of scripture and dealing with the truth-claims of the resurrection, Bible 101 was more concerned with textual criticism, authorship, historicity, and the formation of the canon. English majors had a special course in the Bible so that they could make sense of biblical allusions in Shakespeare, Milton, and T. S. Eliot.

For many people, certified as well educated by the possession of a bachelor's degree, this would be the first and last exercise in anything like formal biblical studies. For the rest of their days, if they were religiously inclined, they would depend upon devotional biblical bits, unedifying preaching from the Bible, and the therapy that passes for "Bible study" in most Protestant churches.

I, however, did not know when to quit and went on to divinity school. At Harvard in those days we had the benefit of the teachers of our teachers, for our biblical professors, including Krister Stendahl, George Ernest Wright, Frank Moore Cross, Jr., Helmut Koester, and Amos N. Wilder, were the men who wrote the books that everybody else used. We were schooled in the fine arts of textual exegesis, the history of criticism, the close study of particular books, and the debates about authorship. Barth, Bultmann, and Tillich were as relevant to our biblical studies as were Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and we were even persuaded against our natural desires that study in the original languages, however mediocre, was superior to English-only biblical study. In the introduction to the New Testament, our class was divided into the "Greeks," who actually read the Koine text, and the "Barbarians," who could not.

Also in those days, Harvard was not unique in its emphasis on biblical study in all its complexity. Nearly every seminary was devoted to this course of study, and it was noteworthy that the conservative theological schools were even more devoted to thorough biblical study, but with the agenda of maintaining biblical orthodoxy.

When I visit old colleagues and students I always look in their bookcases, and I usually find that those books having pride of place but showing very little wear and tear are the books of biblical scholarship. This perhaps explains the phenomenon of the reticent pulpit, for how else can one account for the remarkable lack of biblical knowledge that exists in the pews except for the reticence of the pulpit? Recently I asked some of my students in the ministry if their biblical studies had any effect on their preaching, and most said that they found it next to impossible to translate what they knew of biblical criticism into the vernacular of their preaching. When they tried to do so, people complained. When they offered to Bible classes the benefits of their knowledge, they were told that people preferred the way they had always done things; and this remains the case. In his sermon "Shall the Fundamentalists Win?" Harry Emerson Fosdick famously said, ". . . people don't care about the Jebusites, etc."

If to this state of affairs one adds the iconography of most Protestant churches, which gives pride of place to an open Bible propped up between flowers or candlesticks, and the declaration that "This is the word of the Lord," then we have given the Bible a position that does not permit of criticism or examination. In those circumstances the reticence of the pulpit is understandable, but the result is costly, for an ignorant people and a reticent pulpit are the recipe for theological and biblical disaster.

A Greater Problem Than This

The inadequate study of the Bible is bad, and I was once naïve enough to think that if we could only improve our methods of instruction and proclamation, then we would be well on the way to a more informed reading and living of scripture. There are places where rigorous Bible study is the rule and not the exception, but what does it profit a congregation or a believer to have mastered all the critical skills of biblical study, to know all there is to know about the Gospels, but nothing about the gospel itself?

My predecessor as Plummer Professor of Christian Morals in The Memorial Church at Harvard University, George Arthur Buttrick, was generally regarded as one of the princes of the pulpit in his generation. He was quoted by everyone, and perhaps most famously endeared himself to generations of preachers through his editorship of The Interpreter's Bible, which has brought many a preacher from Saturday night to Sunday morning. Buttrick, however, was not only a great preacher but a great teacher of preachers. He would listen to the student sermons in his course, comment on the structure, the gestures, the biblical analysis, the exposition of the text, and invariably would ask, in his quavering voice, "But, Mr. Jones, where's the good news? Where's the good news?"

By this question George Buttrick did not mean what many contemporary preachers seem to assume, which is that every sermon must end on a happy, upbeat note like the fourth movement of a classical symphony. No; Buttrick understood that the sermon in general and the text of the Bible in particular had to be measured against a more exacting standard than its own words, and that standard was the gospel. Where is the good news in the oft-repeated story of the Prodigal Son? Where is the good news of the road to Emmaus? Where is the good news of the Seven Last Words from the Cross? Where is the good news in the book of Revelation?

Buttrick understood what we must now recover: that what we call "the Bible" is only the means to a deepened understanding of what Jesus called the gospel, or glad tidings, and that for us to understand this we have to understand afresh, or perhaps for the first time, the radical nature of the substance of Jesus' preaching.

Early on in their theological studies, seminarians learn that Jesus, who came preaching, became the preached. It is adequate but not sufficient to say that Jesus is the gospel or the good news. That is true, but it is not all there is to the matter. Those who heard Jesus preaching and teaching heard him give specific utterance to a point of view that he himself called the glad tidings. He came preaching not himself but something to which he himself pointed, and in our zeal to crown him as the content of our preaching, most of us have failed to give due deference to the content of his preaching.

It is easy to see why. In the first case, what Jesus proclaimed did not happen, nor has it yet; the glad tidings remain a proclamation of things to come. The world remains pretty much as it was when he preached his first sermon at Nazareth, and although there are many more Christians now, and the world is older, that Yum Yahweh—day of the Lord—appears no nearer now than it was at the time of Jesus' proclamation.

So, one of the reasons it is easy to ignore the content of Jesus' preaching is that it is not confirmed by the experience of history. That, for example, is why Advent is a more painful season than Lent. In Lent we can apply piety to personal circumstance, we can recreate something of an affinity with the historical phenomenon of Christ's suffering and of our own development through suffering. Advent, on the other hand, speaks of a perennial hope, a great expectation that, despite the language of the hymns that tell us that the day is drawing near and that light prevails over darkness, actually seems just like the "same old, same old." How many "theologies of hope" can trump the stubborn facts of good news postponed?

If we read the Epistles, especially those of Saint Paul within the circle of the writer's expectations and those of his first audience, we can only be disappointed in our expectations. The very first book of the New Testament canon, not Matthew, which has canonical priority, but 1 Thessalonians, which is older, is concerned with the anxieties of the faithful about the realization of the good news. The writer, especially in 1 Thessalonians 4, reassures the faithful that they should not lose heart even though many have already died. In chapter 5, the writer offers his famous analogy of the Lord coming like "a thief in the night," or "a woman in travail." The word is to wait, work, and watch, and not to lose heart or patience. Modern audiences find solid comfort in these counsels; the only alternative is to proclaim an imminent return of the Lord, an end of the edge. There is a large and vibrant culture of expectation that suggests that the time is near.

In the meantime we can understand a reluctance to focus too much on the content of Jesus' preaching, largely because it is easier to talk about him than it is to talk about what he talked about.

Changing the Focus

The radical nature of the Jesus story is not in the way of his death— the via dolorosa—nor is it even in his glorious resurrection, to which we instinctively respond when strangers fill the churches on Easter. The radical dimension of the Jesus story has to do with the content of his preaching, the nature of the glad tidings that he announced to be at hand. It would take a miracle and a man of Mel Gibson's genius and chutzpah to make a film about what biblical writer Thomas D. Hanks calls the subversive gospel. This is the good news that was bad news to many in Jesus' time, so much so that at the beginning of his preaching they nearly killed him, and at the end of his ministry they succeeded.

There is a famous New Yorker cartoon that shows plutocrats leaving a church after having said sweet nothings to the preacher at the door. In the caption the wife, swathed in furs and jewels, says to her top-hatted husband, "It can't be easy for him not to offend us." In the wildly popular British import comedy The Vicar of Dibley, the vicar, the bodacious Geraldine Granger, is often accused by her Tory-blue Senior Warden of preaching "socialist twaddle." "Why not stick to the gospel?" he asks; and she sweetly replies that "this is the gospel."

If the focus is nearly always on the man for others who in the short term loses but who one of these days will return in triumph to win, then it is no wonder that so much of the Christian faith is either obsessed by the past or seduced by the prospects of a glorious future. In the meantime, things continue in their bad old way, and we live as realists in a world in which reality is nearly always the worst-case scenario.

The last thing the faithful wish for is to be disturbed. Thus it is easy to favor the Bible over the gospel, because the gospel can somehow be seen as those nice, even compelling, stories about Jesus that have next to nothing to do with us "until he comes."

In my preaching course I assign texts to my students for Sunday preaching. They don't like it, for they would rather choose their own texts or preach their tradition's lectionary, and I understand that. I choose contentious texts, however, passages with which they would never willingly wrestle, and often I choose from the Gospels some of the eschatological stories having to do with justice and the reversal of fortune. One of my favorites is the story of rich man Dives and the poor beggar Lazarus, the terrifying account of the rich man who on earth enjoys good things but in death ends up in hell while Lazarus, the beggar at his gates, ends up in Abraham's bosom. The rich man, even in hell, is accustomed to being listened to and so he asks that Lazarus direct some water to relieve his parched lips. It is not to be. He then asks for his brothers still on earth to be warned to do good and not to follow his example so that they may avoid his fate. Father Abraham declines, however, saying that they have had Moses and the prophets and every opportunity to repent. It is now too late.

My students find this story relatively easy to exegete, but nearly impossible to preach. "Why?" I ask. "Our people wouldn't stand for it," they reply; or "It is not motivational enough"; or "I don't believe God behaves that way." When I suggest that apparently Jesus took the story seriously enough to tell it, and that the evangelists took it seriously enough to record it and ascribe it to Jesus, their best response is, "Well, that was then and this is now." Is there a good word here? Is this a part of the good news? How does this square with so much of the rest of Jesus' preaching and teaching? I think we know the answer. The gospel can easily be lost in the Bible. It was not so with Jesus, for he found the Hebrew Bible—the only one he knew—the means to the gospel. If we look carefully at what constituted his preaching, his definition of gospel, we might be surprised to find how much the gospel is at odds with conventional Christianity. It is very difficult to preach the gospel as Jesus did without giving offense, and the world has been filled with people perfectly capable of being offended.

It is not that we are ignorant. We know what gives offense, which is probably why we spend so much time talking about sex and Jesus spent so much time talking about money. When the emperor Constantine ceased to prosecute the Christians and made toleration of their religion Roman policy, he knew that the way to domesticate the incipient rival to his own ultimate power was to make the church comfortable and complacent; and that to do this, the radical edge of Jesus' preaching and teaching of the gospel would have to be dulled. The church, then, is made an agency of continuity rather than of change, conformity rather than transformation becomes the reigning ideology of the day, and the church that is comfortable with the powers-that-be is no threat to them.

The earliest translators of the Bible into vernacular English, William Tyndale and John Wycliffe, were held as dangerous and put to death as heretics because they argued that if people could read the gospel for themselves and see what Jesus said and did, and compared that biblical gospel conduct with the behavior of the bishops, priests, and deacons who presumed to preach in his name to an ignorant population, then there would be the basis of a social revolution. The Magnificat's proud boast that "He hath filled the poor with good things, and the rich he hath sent empty away" would proclaim that the status quo is not the gospel's work but the work of clever and self-interested persons. Those shrewd bishops and officers of state recognized that in those translations of the Bible into English was to be found a threat to everything they valued; and they were determined not to be threatened.

When Martin Luther King Jr. was urged by the respectable Christian clergy of Birmingham, Alabama, to stop his protests on the grounds that good people would be intimidated, even turned off, by tactics that, the white clergy argued, were essentially un-Christian, King replied:

In your statement you asserted that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. Isn't this like condemning the robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery? . . . Isn't this like condemning Jesus because his unique God-consciousness and never-ceasing devotion to God's will precipitated the evil act of the Crucifixion?

From ancient times onward, every movement for social justice has been charged with misunderstanding Jesus' true intentions. Martin Luther, the Father of the Reformation, was horrified when German peasants took as the basis for their revolt against the established order what he had given them in the Reformation Bible; and when in eighteenth-century England and nineteenth-century North America Christians argued against chattel slavery on the grounds that it was an offense to the gospel, they were sharply criticized by those who regarded themselves as good biblical Christians. In the twentieth century, first with the appeal of the gospel resulting in the so-called theologies of liberation in the most oppressed places on earth, and subsequently in the battles for a change in attitude and policy toward sexual minorities, those in favor of these changes always have the gospel on their side but are routinely repulsed by those who argue from the Bible.

No One to Blame but Us

For the parlous state of affairs in which we find ourselves, the church has no one to blame but itself. The new pope, Benedict XVI, decried the secular culture in his sermon to the College of Cardinals, speaking eloquently and passionately against a culture of arrogance and self, the "dictatorship of relativity." It is this very same pope, however, who as Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger declared the theologies of liberation—which for a short time flourished in the churches of Latin America and Africa—as without God, and equated them with communism. Nearly all of his predecessors on the throne of Peter were faced with the nonresolvable conundrum of doctrine that argues for the status quo versus the radical words of Jesus, whose gospel would not have been unsympathetic to the famous social slogan of the nineteenth century, "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need."

Rarely has the Christian church risked its temporal position to proclaim the glad tidings of Jesus' preaching and teaching, for the risk to the status quo is almost always too great. The danger of the gospel is that if we take it seriously, then like Jesus we will risk all, and might even lose all. On the other hand, we do not know the names of those guards who executed Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Germany at the end of World War II, but Bonhoeffer's name and, more important, his example, live through all time. Could it be that we spend so much time trying to make sense of the Bible, or making it conform to our set of social expectations, that we have failed to take to heart the essential content of the preaching and teaching of Jesus? When they stand to give their first sermon, all student preachers are reminded, "Remember, you are to preach the gospel, and not the Bible." Perhaps now, and in the pages that follow, is the time and place to look at just what Jesus preached and taught. How did it go down with his listeners? Is it any easier for us to hear than it was for them? If by this exercise we learn nothing else, we will discover that Jesus was always more concerned about tomorrow than about yesterday, but tomorrow's implications are lived out today, here and now. If we are sincere in wanting to know what Jesus would do, we must risk the courage to ask what he says, what he asks, and what he demands. Only if we do so will we be able to move, however cautiously and imperfectly, from the Bible to the gospel.

Excerpted from The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus by Peter J. Gomes. Copyright © 2007 by Peter J. Gomes. Excerpted by permission of HarperOne. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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