Son of San Antonio

Book cover
A God of Incredible Surprisesby By Virgilio P. ElizondoRowman & Littlefield. 176p $19.95

Recently I received an e-mail from a Jesuit newly arrived in El Salvador to do some pastoral work. He remarked on how his eyes had been opened by the reactions of ordinary Salvadorans to Gospel stories. He wrote:

I’m struck by how differently they hear the Scriptures as a result of having been the victims of a brutal war. For example, when I was preaching on the Scriptures for the third week of Advent, I wanted to focus on how hope can be an energizing force, the focus of the first two readings. But when I opened it up for their reflections, the first thing one of the men focused on was John the Baptist’s instructions to the soldiers not to intimidate and brutalize the people, “the way Monseñor Romero spoke to the soldiers before he was killed.” And I realized that I’ve never focused much on those words of John the Baptist.

His words came back to me as I prepared to review Virgilio Elizondo’s remarkable new work on Jesus, another in the series “Explorations in Latino Spirituality and Theology,” of which he is editor. Elizondo reads the story of Jesus from the point of view of a Tejano, a Mexican-American born in Texas, and in doing so opens our eyes to what it might have been like for Jesus and Mary and other Galileans of their time.

Not that Elizondo has not done his homework on biblical studies. He is, after all, currently on the faculty of theology at the University of Notre Dame after a career in San Antonio, where he founded the Mexican-American Cultural Center and served as rector of the San Fernando Cathedral. But he wears his scholarship lightly and uses stories of Tejanos to make the story of Jesus come to life. The author makes a nice comparison between the status of Jews in Galilee and Mexican-Americans in Texas. Just as Tejanos are marginal to the dominant culture surrounding them and disparaged by both white Americans and Mexican citizens, so too were the Jews of Galilee marginal and disparaged by both the Greek speakers in their area and by the Jews of Jerusalem. After reading this book, one reads passages such as “Surely the Messiah does not come from Galilee, does he?” (Jn 7: 41) or “Certainly you are also one of them, for your accent betrays you” (Mt 26: 73) differently. One senses prejudice and a sneer more easily.

Elizondo takes the reader through the life of Jesus, stressing his humanity and especially his marginal status in his own country. He cites Leonardo Boff’s insight that the early Christians finally came to the conclusion that Jesus was so completely human that he had to be divine. Stories of women who have been raped and then ostracized by their families and communities bring home the difficult situation faced by Mary of Nazareth and by Joseph, her fiancé, and make us aware that stories circulated about Jesus’ questionable birth after his death, and probably even during his lifetime. People who have been marginalized because of their birth or their upbringing find in Jesus someone with whom they can identify. Moreover, they are awed to realize that God has become just like them.

A third-grade student asked Elizondo: “Why did God allow those evil men to kill his son? Couldn’t he stop them?” He says that he knew then that the atonement theory according to which the Son had to suffer to appease the anger of God the Father did not make sense. He comes to the insight that God in Jesus so loved us that he would give his life rather than take someone else’s, and in dying would forgive those who did the killing. Thus, Jesus stands with all those powerless people who suffer unjustly and makes it possible for them to endure and to find it possible to forgive their oppressors.

In a final chapter, in which he imagines Jesus living today in San Antonio, Elizondo invites readers to read the Gospels from the perspective of those who live “in the ‘Galilees’ of today’s world, those living in the margins and crossroads of civilizations.” When they are read from this perspective, they take on new life, but they, in turn, become “the interpretive lens through which our own life and struggles take on a beautiful new meaning and direction.”

I have some cavils. The author does not take sufficiently into account the fact that his audience is broader than his own people. One is too often left wondering about the meaning of phrases and names. He presumes, for example, all know who Quetzalcoatl is. I also believe that he goes too far in making Jesus aware of himself as being not only Messiah, but also a Greek hero. The ambiguity and mystery of Jesus can be explained, I believe, in purely Jewish terms. Finally, with more careful editing a few bloopers could have been avoided: e.g., “vale” for “veil” (p. 103) and “tenants” for “tenets” (p. 144). But these criticisms aside, I recommend the book highly.

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