Hung Up on Our Notions of Jesus the Man

Friday in the Fourth Week of Lent: Wisdom 2:1a, 12-22, John 7:1-2, 10, 25-30.

I don’t know about you, but I get a clear sense of inertia drawing us towards the Passion and Holy Week in today’s readings. I’ve always found the rejection Jesus experiences in St. John’s gospel to be palpable, and when joined with the reading from Wisdom today, it creates a profound and sad condemnation of the people in his time. We might be more implicated in this sad commentary than we realize.

The passage from the Book of Wisdom sounds like a real-time response from the skeptics listening to Jesus, yet it was written some 80 years earlier. The wicked people in the passage complain that “he is obnoxious to us … He professes to have knowledge of God and styles himself a child of the LORD. To us he is the censure of our thoughts; merely to see him is a hardship for us.” This sounds very much like the internal mental script of the chief priests and scribes who attack and test Jesus. What’s more, we hear truly wicked, devilish thoughts: “With revilement and torture let us put him to the test,” “For if the just one be the son of God, he will defend him and deliver him from the hand of his foes.” These last bits of blasphemy and mockery actually did occur while Jesus hung on the Cross:

Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, “You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” In the same way the chief priests also, along with the scribes and elders, were mocking him, saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said, ‘I am God’s Son’” (Lk 27:39-43).

The Mocking of Christ (1616-1617), Gerard van Honthorst | Wikimedia Commons.

Such similarities emphasize the wickedness of the people who mocked Christ; their words are nearly identical to those called out in the Book of Wisdom decades earlier. However, as we look at this entire chapter of the Book of Wisdom from which this passage comes, we see that this wickedness refers to a larger group of people than just those who mock Christ. The chapter starts by identifying these people as those caught up in existential angst: “Short and sorrowful is our life, and there is no remedy when a life comes to its end … For we were born by mere chance, and hereafter we shall be as though we had never been … reason is a spark kindled by the beating of our hearts; when it is extinguished, the body will turn to ashes” (Wis 2:1-3). These people have rejected God and the teachings of the Jewish fathers, that He intentionally created us and has given us His covenant. This rejection is even deeper in that they reject the Spirit that is in each of us when they say that reason is a “spark” that comes just from our biology and when that spark is extinguished, nothing is left but ash. This is a full denial of the spirit and the soul. It is secularism, atheism, scientism.

What to do with this existential angst? The response of these wicked ones is to live life voraciously while they can. They say, “let us enjoy the good things that exist … Let none of us fail to share in our revelry; everywhere let us leave signs of enjoyment” (Wis 2:6, 9). When there is nothing to our existence but the world we see in front of us, there is also no basis for moral considerations. There are no repercussions beyond this world. Therefore, they say, “Let us oppress the righteous poor man; let us not spare the widow or regard the gray hairs of the aged. But let our might be our law of right, for what is weak proves itself to be useless” (Wis 2:10-11). By rejecting God in their flawed understanding of their own existence, these people have lost their moral bearings. Everything looks to be ripe for the picking, for the using and for the abusing. Thus, the final indictment against the thoughts and words of these people that we read today can be extended to all those who are amoral, who reject God, and who employ Social Darwinism in their worldview. It reads: “These were their thoughts, but they erred;
for their wickedness blinded them, and they knew not the hidden counsels of God; neither did they count on a recompense of holiness nor discern the innocent souls’ reward.” The “recompense of holiness” and the “reward” is eternal salvation itself, the greatest testament to God’s being. The fact that God is there and offers us recompense and reward drives the need to order our lives according to His Word.

This criticism is just as important today as it was 2,000 years ago. Our culture and economy are almost entirely devoted to consumption and living life voraciously. Our politics are infused with an evil streak of Social Darwinism where “might is right.” The root of the problem is the same: a rejection of God, a disavowal of the spirit and soul, and a blindness to the revelation of the Lord in history that points to a greater life beyond this one. The frightening implication is that when we descend into materialism or scientism, in a way we are participating in the mockery of Christ. They are logically and inexorably connected.

Let’s put this more plainly. When all we can think about is that new car, new dress, new thing we want to buy; or when we think that the world is made of only explainable natural phenomena; or when we feel that it’s our right to get what we want, well, that’s when we’ve shut ourselves off from the source of life, from accepting the mystery, from living in the humility of a creature in God’s presence. And joined with these perspectives is a gut reaction that someone righteous telling us otherwise “is obnoxious to us.” In these moments, we are much further down the road of mocking Christ on the Cross than we might realize.

Christ Carrying the Cross (1510-1535), Hieronymus Bosch or follower | Wikimedia Commons. Bosch is a master of grotesque human expression, and this piece is no exception. It strikes me to see the variety of ways evil is personified – that is, made personal by various people – and how the power of Satan twists and distorts us, obscuring what is good in us. The other striking thing about this painting is the serenity and prayerful visage of Christ in the midst of this miasma. 

In the gospel reading, Christ struggles with Jews who have turned themselves away from hearing and seeing God. The reading opens by tracking the movements of our Lord almost as if He is under siege: “he did not wish to travel in Judea, because the Jews were trying to kill him.” In the full text of Chapter 7 in John’s gospel, we hear him encourage his brothers to go to Jerusalem without him during the Festival of the Tabernacles. Then he also goes, but secretly. Then, “About the middle of the festival Jesus went up into the temple and began to teach” (Jn 7:14). It seems that God’s will is that his incarnate Word be present and be heard at the festival. The Festival of the Tabernacles is symbolically important because the Jews commemorate their time “on the move” from Egypt to Israel when they lived in temporary accommodations (the title of the Festival, Sukkot, is translated as “tabernacles” or “booths”). Thus, they are commemorating their temporary status, and Jesus is there to move them to a new place spiritually.

The Jews are “astonished” by his teaching and say, “How does this man have such learning when he has never been taught?” His answer is that the teaching is not his but “his who sent me.” Today’s reading focuses on this concept: hearing God through Jesus, seeing the invisible in the visible, encountering the unknown through the known. The question is if the Jews (and, by extension, we) can overcome our earth-bound notions to do so.

The Jews are hung up on a single fact: “But we know where he is from. When the Christ comes, no one will know where he is from.” They reference a belief, possibly from a passage in Isaiah or Micah, that people will not know from where the Messiah comes. Ironically, they are about to prove this belief as correct, since they do not comprehend from where Jesus comes.

Jesus acknowledges that they might know he’s from Nazareth, in Galilee, but that’s not the whole story. He says, “You know me and also know where I am from. Yet I did not come on my own.” The Greek word translated here as “on my own” is ἐμαυτοῦ (emautou), which is translated in other editions as “of my own initiative,” “of my own accord,” and “on my own authority.” He adds, “but the one who sent me, whom you do not know, is true.” I prefer the ESV Bible version of this last sentence for clarity’s sake: “He who sent me is true, and him you do not know.” This establishes Jesus’s relationship as an ambassador for God, and the fact that the Jews do not know God in the way they should. He doubles down with his final sentence: “I know him, because I am from him, and he sent me.” He accomplishes several things in this sentence, establishing his own knowledge of, proximity to, and mission from God the Father. Note that Greek words used to say “from him” are παρ’αὐτοῦ (par’autou), and English doesn’t quite convey the close proximity that is connoted here. It properly means “close beside,” “in the presence of,” or “from the side of.”

Jesus thus makes a series of explicit statements in this compact exchange:

  1. You indeed know me and that I come from Galilee
  2. But I haven’t come to you on my own authority
  3. The one who sent me is not made up, is real and, in fact, the source of all truth
  4. What’s more, you don’t know this source of truth, who happens to be your God
  5. Finally, I am the one who knows Him, I am from close beside Him, in fact He sent me specifically to you

I find it interesting that Jesus was astonishing the Jews in the temple with his learned and perfect teaching, but John doesn’t give us any of his words of teaching. Instead, we get this passage that he “exclaims” or “cries out” as he is aware of the doubts in the crowd. John is more concerned with showing us the drama of the Jews accepting Jesus the man joined with the divine Word of God. It’s interesting because this has hung up believers for millennia. The heresies of Adoptionism and Arianism reared their heads as early as a few hundred years after Christ and continue into the present day. The heart of these heresies (and of the Jewish doubters in the crowd) is that notions of Jesus as a man rule out other, mystical truths.

Jesus Preaching in the Temple, c.1800, unknown Russian icon writer | Wikimedia Commons.

This is an easy trap to fall into, especially these days as our way of knowing the world is dominated by the scientific method. I, for one, love history, imagining ages past and influences on people of different eras. But using a historical lens to interpret something fundamentally mystical — that is, the mysterious descent of the divine into the flesh of humanity — well, it leads to atrocious conclusions about Jesus like those found in Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. Sadly, this book has been a #1 New York Times Bestseller and does nothing but present Jesus as a failed political zealot. Plus, it’s a tired, old argument of doubt. It’s so old that it happened exactly when Jesus was preaching astonishingly at the temple. It’s there in today’s reading.

We must do better than this. We can’t ignore the historicity of Jesus, but we also can’t simply use the scientific/historical lens to look at Jesus the man. Pope Benedict XVI published Jesus of Nazareth (he was Cardinal Ratzinger at the time) as a more mature reconciliation of the facts of Jesus operating in a specific time and culture with the mystical reality of his Personhood in the Trinity. As he notes, “We are not meant to regard Jesus’ activity as taking place in some sort of mythical ‘anytime'” (11), so his historical person is important. But, he points out that his book “sees Jesus in light of his communication with the Father, which is the true center of his personality; without it, we cannot understand him at all, and it is from this center that he makes himself present to us still today” (xiv).

This is what today’s readings are telling us: we cannot know Jesus without seeing how he dwells with the Father. Our notions of Jesus the man are simply inadequate in understanding Him, the mystery of God, or the great Church that has emerged as his Body and Bride here on earth. 

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