Human Jesus, Humane Faith
Luke 12:22-31; Mark 6:8, 9
In Graham Greene’s novel The Power and the Glory, the action moves between children being told of a time of martyrdom in Mexico and the actual events that took place. The children are told a story about a priest that emulated Christ along predictable lines of Catholic piety. He was arrested for his faith, taken before an unjust tribunal where he refused to renounce his allegiance to Christ, was dragged before a firing squad, and died in a courageous pose of Catholic piety, testifying to reality of G-d even in his death.
The actual story was quite different. It seems that the real priest was deathly afraid of being caught by the Communists and was in hiding throughout the country- side, traveling from small village to small village, under cover of night. He was running away as best as he could.
Furthermore, he did not feel adequate to be a priest. He drank heavily. There was an incident with a woman in his past that haunted his Catholic conscience. He was ashamed of himself and had censured himself from the priesthood. The only problem was that the people would not let him go. Every small village he went to, the people would somehow recognize him as a priest. Almost spontaneously, they would refer to him as Father, despite the fact that he would deny the title.
When he would arrive at a small village, the whole area would be mobilized. Somehow, communion wine would appear. Somehow, bread to be consecrated would accompany the wine. Against his will, the people would assemble in clandestine fashion, and force the priest to say the Mass, quite in spite of himself. They brought their children to be baptized, their sick to be anointed. The priest complied out of a sense of compassion for the people that overrode his own sense of inadequacy.
At the end of the book, he is indeed martyred. He dies with the same fear and uncertainty that any ordinary man would experience, the same sense of ambiguity about his own life, the same sense of isolation and abandonment that comes from dying before an executioners squad. In the juxtaposition between the stylized persona of spiritual martyrdom that comes from Catholic tradition and the human portrait of compromised compassion, it is clear that humanity has a much more moving authenticity to it in all of its vulnerability.
The irony of The Power and the Glory is also present in the two contrasting portraits of Christ that are depicted in scripture (and in the dogmatic tradition as well). The one is a very vulnerable humanity, the other a sovereign divinity.
The vulnerable Jesus comes through only in spots in scripture but it is powerful nevertheless. Jesus is remembered in Matthew, Mark and Luke as having sent the disciples out on a mission at one point. He sent them in pairs and “instructed them that they should take nothing for their journey, except a mere staff-no bread, no bag, no money in their belts. They were to wear sandals but, he added, ‘Do not take a spare tunic.’” (Mk. 6:8, 9; compare with Lk. 9:1-6 and Mt. 9:35; 10:1, 7-11, 14). Matthew and Luke record his teaching about a non-anxious approach to life. “That’s why I tell you not to worry about your livelihood, what you are to eat or drink or use for clothing. Isn’t life more than just food? Isn’t the body more than just clothes? Look at the birds in the sky. They don’t sow or reap, they gather nothing into barns, yet Our G-d in heaven feeds them. Aren’t you more important than they There is a striking, almost naïve vulnerability that is implied in both of these teachings.
Yet it is not a naïve vulnerability in the sense that he doesn’t realize the full difficulty and challenge that such a trust in G-d implies. Both Matthew and Luke record someone approaching Jesus with the pledge “I will follow you wherever you go”. Jesus responds by saying “Foxes have holes, birds in the sky have nests; but the Chosen One has nowhere to lie down” (Mt. 8:18-22; compare Lk. 9:57-62). Jesus understood that the path that he had taken was open to risk, fear, unpredictability such that most people could not follow that lead. He lived his life in that kind of vulnerability. As the passion narrative makes clear, he was subject to misunderstanding, betrayal, arbitrary power, injustice, violence, desertion, existential loneliness, torture, and death. That is not a path that one can follow without preparation and serious intent. Knowing what we know about the path that Jesus actually followed, there is a certain impetuous naivete to the would-be-disciple who remarks “I will follow you wherever you go.”
It becomes a question posed to the disciples in the gospel of Mark. In chapters 8,9, and 10 the question of Jesus’ identity and mission is posed three times and all three times the disciples indicate that they don’t really understand who Jesus is or what Jesus is about. Throughout the section there is an irony between the disciples’ anticipation of glory and what the reader knows will be Jesus’ fate on Calvary. It reaches a culmination when James and John ask Jesus “See to it that we sit next to you, one at your right and one at your left, when you come into your glory”(Mk. 10:37). The readers know that it will be two ordinary thieves on crosses that will actually accompany Jesus when he comes into his glory. Jesus responds to the disciples “You do not know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup that I will drink or be baptized in the same baptism as I? (Mk. 10:38) It is a question that every impetuous would-be-disciple ought to ask themselves.
No, there is something disturbingly vulnerable about Jesus that is frankly frightening in its starkness. I’m not sure that we get it today any more than the disciples as recorded in Mark 8-10. Right out of the gate, so to speak, the early church was in search for a ground of authority on which they could stand and make sure of their witness. They needed a kind of surety and full proof witness, which would contain that vulnerability, whether the actual drive for containment was intentional or not. We devised an elaborate liturgy for our worship, which both examined that vulnerability and surrounded it with assurances of the sovereignty of G-d. We built sturdy monumental churches that both suffused the worshipper with a sense of mystery and anchored them in the solidity of a G-d more substantial than the arching granite vaults. We established tradition and orthodoxy that gave us a sense of certainty about our witness to the vulnerability of the Christ, thereby allowing us to peer near what he was pointing at without have to actually embody the existential fright that his vulnerability entails. We developed an institutional authority with lines of accountability. In liturgy, architecture, orthodoxy, and institutional structure we armored the vulnerability of Jesus at every turn.
Surely this is to be expected as humans are simply uncomfortable with ambiguity, undefined goals, and unstructured responsibility. We are uncomfortable with precisely the human vulnerability that Jesus pointed us towards in the passion narrative. We want something a little more definite than the vague promise at the end of Matthew “know that I am with you always, even until the end of the world” (Mt. 28:20).
The answer for surety is already given in this passage. Jesus has already made a significant transition from being the teacher on the way to Jerusalem to something of a living icon worthy of worship. In verse 17 we read that “at the sight of the risen Christ they fell down in homage, though some doubted what they were seeing”.
Jesus addresses them, giving them the basis for their commission, the direction and structure of their mission, and the promise of divine presence to accompany them. He says “All authority has been given me both in heaven and on earth; go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations. Baptize them in the name of Abba God, of the Only Begotten, and of the Holy Spirit. Teach them to carry out everything I have commanded you. And know that I am with you always, even until the end of the world” (Mt. 28:12-20).
Authority is granted to the disciples through Jesus. Jesus is part of the trinity, the divine godhead itself. The point is that Jesus has authority and that authority derives from God.
But critical scholars point out that the way this takes place, making Jesus himself become more godlike, is pretty consistent with the way that people in ancient Greece and ancient Rome already thought about these things, suggesting they are the form but not the essential message that Jesus came to teach us.
One way of illustrating this to look at the development of divinization that attended an earlier Greek hero, the physician Asclepius. I doubt any of you have ever heard of Asclepius, but along with Hippocrates and Galen, he is considered to be one of the founders of modern medicine.
He is actually mentioned in the Iliad, generally thought to have been written somewhere between 1100 b.c.e. and 1300 b.c.e., Asclepius is depicted as a heroic physician who was extraordinarily gifted with the art of healing. He is recognized as having personally developed a number of cures to illnesses that had been deemed incurable, particularly illnesses related to psychiatric and emotional trauma. Homer even notes that his sons, Machaon and Podaleirius, were physicians themselves in the army that fought the Trojans with Odysseus.
Over the course of the next thousand years, the eminence of Asclepius began to develop and centers for healing and spiritual retreat were built in his honor, implementing many of the cures that he had developed during his career. I’ve been to many of them in Greece and they housed thousands of people at one time, huge retreat centers with spas and medical clinics. People came to them from all around the Mediterranean
The three most famous ones are at Epidauros, Cos, and Pergamon were designed to meet the healing and retreat needs of thousands of people at one time. To this day at Epidauros, the registration center has the original testimonial tribute, where pilgrims would etch in their witness of healing, miraculous and therapeutic, at the center. There are hundreds of these testimonies that you can still read.
Asclepius went through an evolution from an extraordinary physician to become a semi-divine being. This evolution accompanied the growth of the healing cult that surrounded Asclepius. By the time of the second century CE Asclepius was born of a virgin mother and the god Apollo. Furthermore, he not only was able to heal through insightful medical remedies, he also healed others miraculously. Indeed, stories about him noted that he even raised people from the dead. Finally, Asclepius himself was reported to have been raised from the dead.
The divinity of Asclepius evolves over time and becomes more important than his humanity. Likewise, the divine aspect of Asclepius is located in his miraculous powers that transcend the ordinary limitations that attend mortals. The testimonials to the curative powers of the Asclepian healing centers stress the exceptional or miraculous quality of their restoration. By the time of the early church, Asclepius is worshipped and a whole cult of devotion has grown up around him.[i]
Quite apart from the internal logic of the intimate relationship between Jesus and God, quite apart from the charismatic authority that Jesus manifest throughout his career, there was also a cultural thought forms in the world into which Jesus was born that would have encouraged the development of the divine nature of Jesus at the expense of his human nature, one that stresses the miraculous nature of Jesus at the expense of his humane humanity. It comes as little surprise that this is what we got. By the time the Nicene Creed was formulated in 325, it was the divinity of the Christ which trumped the humanity of Jesus.
The first article, referring to G-d the Father is quite brief. It says simply “I believe in one G-d the Father Almighty; Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.”
The second article is not only substantially longer, it focuses overwhelmingly on the divine nature of Jesus. It reads “And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance [essence] with the Father; by whom all things were made; who, for us men and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man.”
After that extended excursus on the divine nature of the Christ, his humanity is treated with brevity. It only says that “he was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; he suffered and was buried.”
This brief mention of the vulnerable humanity of Jesus is surrounded on the other side of the confession with an equally lengthy confession of the Holy Spirit. “And I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of Life; who proceedeth from the Father and the Son; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; who spoke by the prophets.”
The humanity of Jesus appears to be little more than the vehicle for the expression of his divinity. It is precisely our suffering, sinfulness and death which have been redeemed by his mission. It would not be possible for this very human reality to be assumed and redeemed by God, had not they been entered into by God through the Christ. The humanity of Jesus is not developed in any serious fashion because the implicit question driving the confession is that of divine redemption.
It comes as little surprise that the humanity of Jesus is seriously underdeveloped for several hundred years. It comes as little surprise that corresponding Christian piety so resembles that taught to the children in The Power and the Glory, emphasizing super-human miracles, heroic confession, and ascetical renunciation as evidence of the divine presence at work in our lives. Divine transcendence does not express itself through our humanity so much as it overrides our human limitation.
Part of the reason that orthodoxy has difficulty reaching people in this generation revolves around the fact that it has an answer to a question that no one is asking. People are not generally concerned with the after life. Most everyone believes in the after-life, but they are not worried about the fate of their ultimate destiny as it relates to their confession of faith.
They are concerned about sinful things- war, poverty, injustice, our personal hypocrisy- but they are not worried that their sinfulness will form an ultimate barrier to G-d, either in this life or the next. They aren’t worried about being rescued from hell.
And today, we have little or no experience of anything like the miraculous. Some things happen that are still a mystery- people get healed, improbable coincidences take place- but we don’t routinely pray for miracles to get healed. We go to the doctor where the technological wonders of medicine routinely amaze us. We pray for each other in humane concern, joining our powers of compassion and love with your need in solidarity because we humans are social creatures and blessing each other makes us better.
We no longer look at humanity as a limitation. Ever since the Renaissance, we have been increasingly celebrating the preciousness of what it means to be human.
Rather than worry about the after life, our generation seems to be more concerned about how to develop integrity and authenticity in this life. Jesus remains an important spiritual guide for us precisely because he manifested authenticity and taught about the importance of integrity and the renunciation of everything which stands in its way.
Our generation appears to be very concerned to develop spiritual purpose for our lives that can transcend the materialism of this decade and give them an order and direction that will outlive them. Jesus pointed us towards finding that purpose in G-d and the coming reign of G-d’s realm.
Our generation is very concerned with finding spiritual meaning in the midst of a world that also contains random acts of violent terrorism, life-threatening diseases that suddenly and rudely manifest themselves, economic upheavals that undermine vocational stability. We want to come to grips with our own dying. Jesus showed us how to suffer and die and his example suggests that we can find spiritual integrity even in the most G-d forsaken moments of our lives.
Perhaps, we shall find at the end of this quest, much what Dorothy, the Lion, the Scarecrow, and the Tin man found in their search for what they needed. Standing before Oz, billowing smoke and thundering pronouncements, the dog Toto pulls back a curtain to reveal a portly gentleman, pushing levers. Aghast, Oz shouts out “never mind that man behind the curtain.” But, they won’t ignore him and finally they discover that the great Oz is the mechanized persona of a mayor from Kansas. What a lovely man he turned out to be, once he became confident that he could simply be himself and that was all the authority he needed.
But the seekers on the journey- Dorothy and the Scarecrow- were crestfallen for they had come seeking a miraculous blessing and were now talking with a kindly old man. What kind of blessing could he give? The Mayor’s response to the Scarecrow was wonderful. “Where I come from there are men that haven’t any more brains than you have. But there’s one thing they have that you don’t, a diploma.” And with that he bestows upon the Tin Man an honorary degree. The Tin Man beams with blessing.
The Mayor from Kansas later explains to Dorothy “you’ve always had everything you needed.”
And so do you. This is the humane message of Jesus to all of us. You are more powerful and precious than you know.
And may you too find the freedom to accept your vulnerable humanity as the portal towards the path of spiritual authenticity. May you be free to risk love in a world too filled with indifference, violence, and hatred. May you be faithful enough to live in hope through all of the suffering and injustice that seems to attend our lives. And may you become blessed to personify compassion and bloom those around you. And may we all stumble on genuine spiritual community as we share our fragile lives together.
[i] Ruttiman, Josef Rene. Asclepius and Jesus: The Form, Character and Status of the Asclepius Cult in the 2nd Century CE and its Influence on Early Christianity (Harvard University: 1986).