Our English word “scandal” comes ultimately from the Greek skandalon, “a stumbling block.” A “scandal” is something that causes people to “stumble,” i.e. that offends or injures them in some way. As we will see, the exclusive claims made for and by Jesus in the readings for this Sunday are scandalous to the pluralistic and relativistic culture we live in today.
1. The first reading is Acts 4:8-12:
Acts 4:8 Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Rulers of the people and elders, 9 if we are being examined today concerning a good deed done to a cripple, by what means this man has been healed, 10 be it known to you all, and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead, by him this man is standing before you well. 11 This is the stone which was rejected by you builders, but which has become the head of the corner. 12 And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”Peter and John have been taken before the Sanhedrin (the Jewish combination Congress and Supreme Court) and are actually being tried for healing a man in the name of Jesus.
Peter says its is “by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth” that the crippled man was healed. The “Name” motif runs strongly through this reading. The concept and reality of the “Name” of God is very rich in the Old Testament. God’s “Name” has virtually the same attributes as God himself. Thus, the revelation of God’s “Name” to Moses is essentially the revelation of God’s own self to Moses (Ex 3, cf. Ex 33–34). Later in Israel’s history, God will make his “Name” dwell in the Temple (Deut 12:11 et passim), which is virtually the same as saying God’s own presence will inhabit the Temple. The “Name” of God continues to be important in the New Testament as well (see John 17). Here in Acts we are seeing that Jesus Christ of Nazareth has become God’s “Name,” i.e. the expression of his power and presence.
We can almost say that the “Name” of God in the Scriptures is all but the same as his “Word,” and that both “Name” and “Word” are ultimately the Second Person of the Trinity. So, the fact that this man is healed “in the name of Jesus” implies that Jesus is “the name of the LORD” (cf. Pss 116:4,13,17; 118:10-12,26) and therefore Jesus is divine: a scandal for St. Peter’s hearers. He knows that most of them will not accept this message, so he continues with a quote from Psalm 118: “The stone the builders rejected has become the head of the corner” (v. 22). In other words: “Jesus, the rock that you consider a ‘skandalon,’ an offense, an inconvenient cause of stumbling, has in fact become the foundation stone of the Temple of God.” The whole building metaphor, after all, has the Temple specifically in view. The building of which Jesus is the “head of the corner”—that is, the first stone laid, crucial for the stability of the whole structure—is the Temple of God, built not of stones but of persons (see Eph 2).
St. Peter concludes his message with this line: “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” This is the line that offends our modern pluralism. Isn’t arrogant for Peter to claim that Jesus is the sole way to “salvation”? I don’t think it is, once we understand what “salvation” is.
“Salvation” as defined by Jesus and the Church is not an eternity in a garden of sensual delights. Rather, “salvation” is to share the very life of God. It is to participate in the divine nature, to become a “child” or “son” of God, and enjoy him forever.
The founders of other major world religions do not even claim to offer a way to this “salvation.” The Buddha taught that the problem of human existence was the illusion of our self-hood, and he offered a way by which we could lose this illusion and thus essentially cease to exist as personal beings.
This is not what Christians mean by “salvation.”
Mohammed taught a way of obedience to a monopersonal god, “Allah,” who would reward those who were his obedient servants in this life by granting them an afterlife of sensual pleasure and comfort. He did not offer divine sonship, nor a participation in the divine nature (2 Pet 1:4).
This, too, is not what Christians mean by “salvation.”
We could continue this analysis, mutatis mutandis, with the other founders of world religions and philosophical systems. They do not claim to offer what Jesus Christ claims to offer: divine sonship (childhood), which is a participation in the life of God himself, forever.
If there are three vendors on a street in a marketplace, one selling bananas, one selling oranges, and one selling apples, it is not arrogant for the banana merchant to proclaim, “ I am the only way to bananas!” Apologies for the humble analogy, but likewise it is not arrogant for St. Peter to proclaim on behalf of Christ, “There is no other name by which we must be saved!”—provided we understand what it is to be “saved” according to Jesus and the Apostles.
2. The responsorial psalm is Psalm 118. We have discussed this Psalm in previous posts: its significance as a todah psalm, its use in the Passover liturgy, its frequency in the Lectionary during this time of the Church year. In today’s mass, the Psalm complements the first reading, in which Peter quotes it concerning the “rejected stone”:
Psa. 118:21 I thank thee that thou hast answered me and hast become my salvation. 22 The stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner. 23 This is the LORD’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. 24 This is the day which the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. 25 Save us, we beseech thee, O LORD! O LORD, we beseech thee, give us success! 26 Blessed be he who enters in the name of the LORD! We bless you from the house of the LORD. 27 The LORD is God, and he has given us light. Bind the festal procession with branches, up to the horns of the altar! 28 Thou art my God, and I will give thanks to thee; thou art my God, I will extol thee. 29 O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures for ever!3. The second reading is taken from the First Epistle of John. While at first it appears that this reading does not share themes with the others, in fact it does, in a profound way: the Apostle John emphasizes the element of Jesus’ Gospel that the world finds so scandalous: the offer of divine sonship. This is what the Buddha would have considered silly and Mohammed blasphemous:
1 John 3:1 See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God! And so we are! The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. 2 Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.Our eternal destiny is mysterious, something beyond what can be fully comprehended in this life: “it does not yet appear what we shall be.” It is not an eternal Disneyland or garden of sensual delights. It will be, however, eternal communion with God: “we shall see him as he is.” Gazing (looking intently upon someone) is a profound form of communion in the Scriptures, as can bee seen in the Song of Songs, a book which deeply influenced the Apostle John and echoes of which can be found in strategic places in his Gospel.
4. The Gospel reading, however, does not show the influence of the Song of Songs, but of two other key OT texts: Psalm 23 and Ezekiel 34. We are speaking of the famous “Good Shepherd Discourse”:
John 10:11 I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 He who is a hireling and not a shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees; and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13 He flees because he is a hireling and cares nothing for the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd; I know my own and my own know me, 15 as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 And I have other sheep, that are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will heed my voice. So there shall be one flock, one shepherd. 17 For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life, that I may take it again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again; this charge I have received from my Father.In Psalm 23, David proclaimed: “The LORD (YHWH) is my Shepherd!” So in claiming to be the “Good Shepherd,” Jesus is implicitly claiming to be the LORD.
Other passages come into play here, as well. In Ezekiel 34 the LORD promises that in the latter days, “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord GOD. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the crippled, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will watch over; I will feed them in justice” (vv. 15-16). Jesus is clearly developing this passage and its larger context, and applying it to himself.
But Ezekiel 34 also promises that in the latter days, “I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd” (v. 23). Hmmm, that’s curious. Lord, I thought you just said that you yourself would be the shepherd of your sheep (Ezek 34:15)? How is David going to fit into this picture? Will there be two shepherds, the LORD and David? But that can’t be, because “I will set up over them one shepherd …” (Ezek 34:23).
In claiming to be the Good Shepherd, Jesus is assuming the mantle of both the LORD and David, the two of whom, Ezekiel prophesied, would constitute the one shepherd of Israel in the latter days.
But here is an element of Jesus’ teaching that is not clearly foreseen in Psalm 23 or Ezek 34: namely, that the LORD-Shepherd would submit to death: “I lay down my life, that I may take it again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” (vv. 17-18).
This is a final “scandalous” element of Jesus Gospel: a savior-God who loves us to the point of death. This, too, is something not found in Buddha, Mohammed, and the other great religions and philosophies. It’s scandalous, too, because if our Shepherd, Lord, and God laid down his life in love, that sets an example for us: an example we often balk at following. May the grace that we receive from communing with Christ in this Eucharist empower us to lay down our lives in love this coming week, in whatever form that may take in our various vocations.