From the April, 2001 issue of Touchstone

The Ever-Changing Scandal by Thomas S. Buchanan

The Ever-Changing Scandal

Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is he who is not scandalized in me.”
—Matthew 11:4–6

John the Baptist was a fascinating man. Josephus said that he was “a good man who commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God.” Jesus said, “Among those born of women there has risen no one greater than John the Baptist.” Traditionally, he is given a lot of attention in the church year. In the Eastern liturgical cycle, there are special services for John’s conception, birth, and beheading, as well as for three findings of his head! His life and death have all of the ingredients one could wish for in a TV miniseries: illicit love, exotic dancers, soldiers, violence, murder, and the hint of scandal.

The notion of scandal is hinted at by Jesus, but it is a far cry from the Clinton-era escapades. Perhaps John and his followers were scandalized in thinking that Jesus wasn’t what they had expected. Too free-spirited, willing to eat and drink wine and attend parties with disreputable people. Compared to John, the arch-conservative Nazarite who ate bugs and wore caveman clothes, Jesus appeared to be a left-winger. After all, he wasn’t a stickler for the law: He touched lepers, spoke to single women, and did strange things on the Sabbath. John expected Jesus to be a bit more like him. The scandal of John was that he appeared to doubt that Jesus was the One because John feared he was a bit left of the mark.

Today, many are scandalized because they think the Jesus described in the Bible is too far to the right. He condemned divorce, fornication, and even lust. His apostles condemned homosexuality and did not promote feminism. The scandal of Jesus continues, but the basis for comparison is different for every person and every generation. If we are scandalized by Jesus, then our idea of right and wrong and true and false is off the mark.

We do well to ask ourselves: What does it mean to be at the right or at the left? To put it another way, right or left of what? As Christians, our frame of reference, our basis for comparison, should be centered on our Lord himself. Our standard is orthodox Christianity as defined through the ages. Values defined by cultural norms that vary from generation to generation may be very different from those of him who is the same yesterday, today, and forever; and if they form our frame of reference, then we are looking to something other than Christ to guide the way we live.

Does it matter if we are to the right or to the left? Yes, it does, if we are being accused of being to the right or left of orthodox Christianity. But if we are condemned for being off the mark of some other standard, then we do well to consider the accusation in the context of the proper criterion (i.e., orthodoxy).

If orthodox Christianity is our standard, our touchstone, then we also will be, on some points, a scandal to our neighbors. There will come times when we shall be excluded or shunned. There will come times when we will be persecuted for his name’s sake.

If we are completely accepted by all those we meet, then we are probably not doing something right. Of course, we should not try to alienate others, but at times our very presence should make others uncomfortable.

Our Lord calls us to a life of scandal. We should not be afraid of not fitting in. It should be a mark of our lives as Christians. This is not easy, for being accepted is a basic human desire. But if we are serious about our faith, we have to align our lives with his, and this will require us to take up our scandalous crosses daily. He wishes us to be a different people, a chosen people, set apart for his work. He will bless those who are not scandalized by him.

Thomas S. Buchanan is a member of the Orthodox Church and lives in Chester County, Pennsylvania, with his wife and three children. He is a senior editor of Touchstone.

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