Some of the parables that Jesus told were highly controversial in their original context: the most obvious example is the parable of the vineyard (Mark 12:1–12; Luke 20:9–19), which Jesus aimed at the Jewish leaders, who perceived that he had “spoken the parable against them” (Mark 12:12; Luke 20:19). But there are also stories about Jesus that move towards controversy; in terms of the gospels as a whole, they provide the suspense that direct us towards Jesus’ crucifixion. One trap inherent in hearing such stories is that we might see these merely as historical explanations of why Jesus suffered as He did; an even more dangerous trap would be for us to exploit these as a means of distancing ourselves from the human response of some who encounter Jesus and reject God the Son (“This is what they did! Isn’t that just terrible!”). The preface to John’s Gospel stands as a constant reminder that the controversy stories speak to the human condition: in that cosmic context, the phrase “He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him,” can never be restricted to refer to the Jewish or first-century people. Israel’s role, instead, is to show up close what we are all like, as though there were a magnifying glass over humanity. And, of course, rejection is not the whole story. After all, the apostles, as Jews, were his own, and “to as many as received him, He gave the power to become the children of God.” The controversies, then, show God’s modus operandi in dealing with us, the intransigent and hostile, and serve to highlight his truth and his mercy.
A significant controversy story about Jesus, that reflects the first major controversy faced by the Church after Pentecost, is recorded in Matthew 15:1–11, and more extensively in Mark 7:1–23. We have noted this passage already in terms of its application to later problems, but let’s consider here how it unfolds as an argumentative passage. Jesus’ debate is held specifically with the Pharisees and is so important that some of the players are scribes (scholars) of Torah who have come down from Jerusalem to check the teaching and practice of this new “rabbi” and his followers. The shape of the controversy is most easily seen in Matthew’s briefer narrative: Jesus is challenged by Pharisees and scribes disturbed by religious practice (or lack of it); Jesus answers their question with a question, in typical rabbinic style; He then explores the issue; finally, He caps his critique of the scribes with a prophetic quotation, which serves as a “zinger.” This basic shape— challenge, counter-challenge, discussion, and proclamation— is filled out in Mark’s version, which also explains, for the purpose of his Gentile readers (including us), some of the particulars of Torah and how it was understood in Jesus’ day. Many manuscripts of Mark, as we have seen, also explicitly link this controversy with the problem encountered later by the early Church regarding the eating of kosher food (Acts 15): “So He declared all food clean” (7:19).
From Matthew, we derive the drama, and see the Gospel at logger-heads with what had morphed into a cancerous Pharisaic tradition; from Mark, we understand through Jesus’ willingness to challenge his contemporaries, both the historical detail and the theological application. In all of this, we see the grace of our LORD matched by his passion for truth. Jesus’ harsh words are, paradoxically, born of “love,” for he does not want to see those of fragile faith led astray by “blind guides” (Matt 19:14). Controversy here casts light on the truth, and also on the character of the One who is Truth.