On the Absurd Stumbling Block

The brief “reading” for the midday Office on Tuesday of Holy Week is taken from 1 Corinthians 1, the famous passage that reads: “The Jews demand ‘signs’ and the Greeks look for ‘wisdom’, but we preach Christ crucified – a stumbling block to the Jews and an absurdity to the Gentiles.”

Christ was not entirely averse to giving “signs.” He gave quite a few, in fact. Greek “wisdom,” moreover, was not to be disdained either. A whole book in the Bible is named “the Book of Wisdom.” Paul was sent, immediately, not to India, China, or Africa but to Macedonia, the home of Aristotle and Greek wisdom.

What was the problem here? At the Crucifixion, the mockers shouted to Christ to come down from the Cross and they would believe. But would many of them have believed if He did come down?” Probably not. What precisely was this “stumbling block” that the Crucifixion presented? Why was it an obstacle?

Evidently, the Via Crucis was not the way that the Messiah ought to have come – in majesty and power. He raised no armies, accepted no civil authority. Therefore, He was not the long-awaited Messiah.

Why did the Crucifixion appear so “absurd” and “foolish” to the wise Greeks? Paul tells us that to those Jews and Greeks who did believe, those who were “called” in other words, Christ was both the “power” and “wisdom” of God. If this latter is true, the Crucifixion itself, for all its hapless horror, contained the reason why the path to human redemption led through betrayal, false accusations, Pilate’s “truth,” and the High Priests’ plottings.

Jews did not execute by crucifixion. They tended to use stoning. The Romans really did not want to be involved in this whole mess of what was an intra-Jewish squabble. They used crucifixion as the final deterrent, a death everyone knew was horrible. Avoid it at all costs! Yet, here they were – stuck with, conned into something that seemed to be against their own renowned law.

The Crucifixion took place in Jerusalem under the procedure of Roman Law at the instigation of contemporary Jewish authorities. Tiberius was the Caesar. But the Crucifixion was also under divine law. What does that mean? It means, as St. Basil says in the Second Reading of this same day, that we are observing a “plan” being worked out.

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First, we must realize just “who” it was who was being crucified. It was a man all right, but a man who was the Logos, the Word made flesh. He is being “obedient” to the will of His Father. The Word evidently does not concoct this “plan.” The Father does.

Surely, this Father could have come up with a better “plan”? The Romans and the Jews would have accepted power. The Greeks would have been delighted to see how this “plan” through suffering made sense. Yet if we recall the great teaching of Aeschylus, that “man learns by suffering,” maybe it did make sense when spelled out. Maybe this relationship is why Paul was sent to Macedonia.

What was the Father’s problem with the human race anyhow? They had rejected the initial offer in the Garden whereby they should not taste death. How was the Father to counter this rejection without showing overwhelming power or forcing men to be free?

The Father, as it were, had to come up with a counter plan for mankind that left them free, but also one that would make clear to them that the Crucifixion was the result of their sins. They were to be redeemed by someone else, a divine Person, no less, taking their place.

Since we are created free, we cannot accept God’s plan for us until and unless we choose to accept it. In other words, no one is saved who does not himself want to be saved. This fact means that no one is saved automatically or in spite of himself.

Christ, as Paul said, is both the “power” and the “wisdom” of God to those who accept the plan of salvation through suffering, the suffering of Christ on the Cross.

What does that mean on the human side? It means initially that, even in such a serious issue as our own redemption, we are left free to accept God’s invitation or to reject it. If we were forced to accept it, so that all human beings would be saved, salvation would not be worth our time. It would have no real relation to us as the kind of beings that we actually are.

In the end, the stumbling block to the Jews and the foolishness to the Greeks is the wisdom of God. It can be made evident both to the Jews and the Gentiles and even, as Isaiah says in the first reading at Mass, to those at “the ends of the Earth.”

 

*Image: Lamentation Over the Dead Christ by Jusepe de Ribera, c. 1623 [National Gallery, London] Mary Magdalene is at the Lord’s feet, as the Apostle John supports His body, and His Blessed Mother stands between.

James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019)

James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019)

James V. Schall, S.J. 1928-2019, who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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