Harold J Wilson
 

 

THE STORY OF JESUS AS A MAN    VII                                          by Jay Wilson

 

The mythic story of the life of Yeshua Bar Joseph, the rabbi of Nazareth, is one of the dominant Master Narratives of  western civilization. It still has much more symbolic and religious importance for many people than all the other various epics, novels, or dramas now extant, at least in the West. Certainly the lives of Buddha and Mohammed are comparable in their religious spheres, although here also there is a good deal of confusion about the ‘factual’ details of their lives. But because there are so many different aspects and critical approaches to the story of  Jesus, it is hard sometimes to come to grips with the historical figure behind all the surrounding  piety and scholarship. For many people there is even what I would call a false familiarity with the figure of Jesus which distances him as much as the scholarship does. And for these reasons, I would like to focus down a little on a neglected and unfashionable aspect of the narrative of Jesus, the story of his life as a man.

To begin with, the life of Jesus starts, not in the New Testament but in the Old.   
And in the Old Testament, the main player is Yahweh, the Yahweh of Sinai and the desert, who leads the Hebrews out of paganism into His  Covenant, from Egypt into Canaan, out of Henotheism into, eventually, Monotheism, out of  the Code of Hammurabi into the Torah, and then by way of His prophets into the sacrifice of the inner man, of the heart, the offering up of a life to the one who, reciprocally, has brought it into being and helped you to shape it into something worth offering up. In the Old Testament, God is the true and only King of Israel, and it is the prophets who reveal his relationship to Israel as the Father.

This Fatherhood of God has its stern judging side and its compassionate nurturing side. The prophets hold these aspects of God together in their sayings, and show how Israel must be guided by a concern both for righteousness and for mercy. The content of Jesus’ teaching as presented in the gospels shows extensive knowledge and understanding of the Hebrew prophets, and you should note that the concepts of God as Father and of  His Kingdom as a transcendent order are the two principal themes of Jesus’ preaching, most often in parable form.

One may assume that fifty percent or so of the people of Israel have usually been female, and a study of those females who are depicted in the Hebrew scriptures shows them as frequently wise, daring, loyal, and cunning. Still and all, those scriptures are mainly focussed upon the lives of men as fathers, leaders, heads of families. If  the Jewish religion is concerned largely with the regulation and shaping of male lives, it may well be for a very good reason – men need it the most. It is men whose envy and resentment lead most often to war and to the breaking of relationships. It is not that women are unconcerned with control or possession, but they will try to achieve their ends with less destruction. Male emotions lead often to the inflatedness of anger and cruelty, of boastful fantasies, to lusts which are willing to destroy rather than merely appropriate. It is important for men to be centered in and  able to act from higher values in their spheres, whether of the home or of their professions, or in the affairs of state. It may well be said that only a God such as Yahweh who was willing to struggle with Israel from its infancy could have created such a people as the Jews.

And only the Jews could have created Jesus who was willing to struggle with those same people every day in order to bring some of them back to the Father and the Kingdom. It is this quality of struggle which is sometimes missing in the ‘modern’ Jesus, his urgency, his loving impatience, his prophetic angriness, and what we might call his ‘edge.’ Jesus, I am afraid, the real Yeshua, has become in present theology a little too easy. And so God also has become a sort of doting but largely absent parent. A ‘non-interventionist deity’ is what some call Him.

The word ‘Father’ has similarly achieved a certain ‘lightness of being’ in our era. One remembers that Zeus meant ‘Father’ to the Greeks and to their Indo-European forebears while it had a tremendous weight for the Roman Patricians as well. The Iranian term, ‘Dyaus-piter’ or Sky-father, turns to Zeus in Greek and to Jupiter in Latin. Jesus appears to have tried to teach his particular ‘Father-consciousness’ via the Lord’s Prayer, and this awareness, which in him amounted to a prophetic vision, was no mere restoration of a concept but the lifting of ordinary piety to a transcendent level. When the word becomes only a sociological term or minor classification, then one may expect what in fact we are now beholding in our own time, a society of unfathered adults who behave like children and who have no deeply rooted values, many of them near to ‘sociopathic’ in different areas of behaviour such as the sexual and the familial, or even the professional. 

Such words as ‘maturity’, ‘completeness’ or ‘integration’ are much easier as rhetorical emphases than as achieved states of being, and it may also be that our modern de-emphasizing of gender differences has confused as many young people as it has liberated. In this connection, although the Christian gospels are radical in their vision of a generous nurturing deity, they may still provide much guidance for behaviour based on their depiction of Jesus’ masculine qualities as seen in his response to the demands made on him by his life and its calling. Such a ‘gender-based’ approach to Jesus need not rule out other approaches, nor in any way preclude the fact that both men and women can find their Christian vocations in the approach to God which his ministry has indicated. But, still and all, what does his very specific manhood, as related in the gospels, have to tell us ?

The beginning of Jesus’ public ministry required an initiation, a rite which would set him apart and consecrate his future energies. This was accomplished in his Baptism by John, arguably the last of the Hebrew prophets, in the Jordan River, and by a subsequent period of fasting and meditation alone in the wilderness.  The Baptism required an open sort of humility from Jesus and also sealed him as the prophet of God’s coming Kingdom, but his subsequent temptation by Satan is a fascinating account of a spiritual testing which must have been a psychological process related in parable form. Under the terms of this testing, if Jesus is liable to youthful male inflatedness, he may choose to portray himself as the great healer and saviour of the poor, ‘changing stones into bread.’ If his belief in God is flawed and immature, he may try to force God’s hand by proclaiming himself the Messiah, metaphorically casting himself ‘ from the pinnacle of the temple’ so that God will be forced to intervene in human history on his behalf.

What I take to be the final or most important temptation, rule over ‘the kingdoms of the whole earth’ is another clear appeal to the masculine power drive. In answering all three temptations, Jesus cloaks himself in the Sacred Scriptures rather than asserting any authority drawn from his own status; thus he is protected from the ego inflation to which power seekers have been liable throughout history. His male initiation complete, he is now ready to embark on a ministry in which the temptation to inflatedness will recur as he is consistently challenged and berated by religious opponents and betrayed by his own close disciples. Is this only a temptation from an external source, or is it perhaps inherent in his own personal vocation – as a human - who seeks the highest closeness with the Father?

The New Testament does not really tell us much about Jesus’ family, and apart from the Gospel of Luke it was evidently unimportant to most of those who chronicled his life and ministry. If he was indeed a ‘carpenter’ this would mean that he had learned how to work with stone or wood and knew the value of daily labour. There is one tempting passage in Mark where Jesus is preaching and his mother comes with his brothers “because”, they said,” he is beside himself.” Jesus, when told that his family has come for him, is reported to have said, “my brothers, Who is my mother and my brothers ? He who hears the word of God and does it, he is my mother and my brothers. “ There are other similar statements about coming to bring “not peace but a sword”, about dividing families, and about letting the dead bury the dead. An important part of becoming a man is going out from the protective enclosure of the family and building your own life in the world. When, however, it comes to the ‘little ones’, those whom the Father has called out of the world into his Kingdom, Jesus is fierce in his attitude towards those who would take them away from him – perhaps to return them to their own families! “It were better for that man that a millstone were hung about his neck” –and that he were cast into the sea? A fairly violent warning from the Prince of Peace..

Jesus is supremely at home with men, of whatever age, and spends most of his time teaching and conversing with them. Although it appears that he may have expected that the Kingdom of God would end world history as we know it within or shortly after his own lifetime, he was still sensible of the need to train leaders and successors who could head his community. This is why there is a strange, wry, and very masculine humour in the gospels. Jesus is very definite in his ethical teachings, even uncomfortably so, and yet the Apostles, those closest to Jesus, often could not readily understand his teachings about the Father and the Kingdom. Like all prophetic teachers, Jesus’ sayings about ultimate things are most often cloaked in metaphor or parable and some instruction and personal discernment are required of those who receive them in order to penetrate to the deeper level of the teachings. “ Those who have ears, let them hear …” 

Many of Jesus’ sayings are also clothed in the language of absurdity like Zen koans.
‘Forgiving debts’ would collapse the economy, ‘tearing a cloak in half’ would not produce two cloaks but two rags. ‘Turning the other cheek’ would invite people to walk up your back. Jesus knows that what he is saying is ridiculous to those whom he addresses, but, like the Zen koan (‘the sound of one hand clapping’) it sets a hook in the mind of the hearer. And the hook brings him back, or may do, to the meaning which, in any case, is prophetic. The absurdity of Jesus’ gospel, his basic message, is a very important part of what he has to say. It cuts across the ordinariness of your usual sense of meaning in an almost violent way. “What is wrong with this man ? Why does he talk to me this way ? What does he really mean ? Could he possibly be right ? What do I have to give up to join him ? Why do I even ask this question ? What does he want of me ? Why am I so impelled even to ask this ? Why am I still listening to him? Why why why why why….?

So there is always a tension between Jesus and those whom he addresses, even between him and his closest disciples such as Peter. But this is negligible compared to the tense opposition between Jesus and all the other religious groups in his society. Another prominent male quality in him is his deeply uncompromising assertion of the primacy and authority of his teaching over against that of previous rabbis and influential Pharisaic groups. He avoids being identified with the Zealots by disclaiming the nationalistic title, ‘Son of David’; and later he goes on to affront the Sadducees with his prophetic act of ‘driving the money changers out of the temple,’ although he knows that they will be back again shortly afterward, while saying (‘absurdly’), “I can tear down this house and build it again in three days.” Jesus also deals in a fairly short way with the disciples of John the Baptist, now dead, who seek him out to see how his teachings agree with those of their leader. What does he say about John – “Even he who is least in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than he.” Not such a collegial rejoinder.

But even in his daily encounters with inquirers and representatives of other religious groups, Jesus frequently does not choose the most irenic path of dialogue; and in the cut and thrust of public argument, he does not turn the other cheek and always appears willing to give as well as he gets. He appears from the gospel record to be at home with women and willing to teach them, as well as concerned about their rights under Jewish divorce law. But when the Cyrophoenician woman implores him at one point to heal her child, he tells her that it is not fitting to “take the children’s meat and throw it to the dogs.” When she answers him with humour and resourcefulness, “Still, Lord, the dogs may eat of the crumbs which fall from the master’s table,” he answers “Woman be it unto thee according to thy will.” Once again, he is working the seams of confrontation and testing as he usually does in his dealings with outsiders, an abrasive and highly masculine trait though not, perhaps, entirely opposed to compassion.  

Impelled by his sense of the will of the Father, Jesus sends out the disciples into the surrounding towns of Galilee, to heal and teach and summon others to this new community of God’s Kingdom. Crestfallen, they soon return with little to show for their efforts. The failure of the Galilean Ministry, since the disciples cannot wear the mantle of Jesus’ authority themselves, means that the Kingdom cannot be more widely received  by those for whom it seems intended;  so this now points toward the necessity of a subsequent, more conclusive, confrontation between Jesus and the powers of the world. What can have been in his mind? He knows the prophets and how they themselves were offered up so that God’s word might live beyond them. He knows Jeremiah’s thought of the Suffering Remnant through whom God’s power is released and mourning turned into joy for Israel. He knows the Servant of Second Isaiah by whose stripes we are healed. So, since a prophet cannot perish away from Jerusalem, he goes up to that ‘City of God’s Peace’, where he will seek to discern what further unpeaceful demands  the Father will make upon him.

 Another male quality in Jesus is his willingness to meet risk. He will not risk everything on a high roll of the dice – that would be to give way to the second Temptation all over again, and during the Galilean ministry he himself had withdrawn from the danger of Herod Antipas. But he must drink the cup which is given to him and which no one else, at this point, can share.  And therefore he now comes to that final part of his ministry which is the Passion.

The Marys’ witness to the death and resurrection of Jesus and are therefore the closest sharers in the passion. Peter and the others are confused and undirected. Their time to witness will come later. Attempts to shift the ‘blame’ for Jesus’ death to the Jews or to the Romans simply misunderstand the character of the event. It is his last purely prophetic act, that confrontation with the powers of the world which is demanded by his vocation. It were easily avoided if that had been appropriate. But Jesus’ resoluteness was in the face, not merely of death or suffering, but also of the risk which his death involved for the survival of his ministry and that little community which was the first fruits of the Kingdom. But then his risk was meant to bear a further fruiting, a thousand thousandfold.

Paradoxically, what our theological emphasis on the Incarnation quite often obscures is the specific quality of Jesus’ manhood. Here is a person who was willing to alienate his own family, the chief religious groups of his society, the Roman authorities; who  mainly relied on a group of uneducated labourers as his disciples;  who offered only argument, challenge, and scathing sarcasm  to anyone who questioned his credentials publicly; someone who believed so totally and urgently in his vision that he apparently made all his own decisions without much advice or good counsel from others; a man consumed with prophetic zeal, anger, urgency, and impatience. And yet it is out of this self-offering, this kind of manhood, that God fashions a  reconciliation between himself and men ? It is from this he cobbles together an Incarnation ? But this is not even a notably complete human Self as our current vocabulary, drawn in large part from the social sciences, would recognize it. This kind of Yeshua is too foreign, narrow, strange, even God-possessed. Even, dare I say it, too Jewish. He is also very definite, focussed, authoritative, engaged. And in all his abrasive eagerness, he is very much a man.

Obviously an emphasis on the vocation and ministry of Yeshua the Prophet need not rule out a believer’s view of him as the Christ, the anointed and expected one, given out of the fullness of time, the Kairos, to the new Israel. That is indeed my personal position and belief now for many years. But it seems to me necessary that this more Hebraic view of Jesus be a necessary precursor, at least in the west and nowadays, to the further metaphysical view of him as the Second Person of the Holy Trinity and partaker of the one Godhood. Otherwise, there is too much danger of  believers wholly misunderstanding Jesus as Pantocrator, Ruler of All, or as simply one more mythic avatara, or perhaps of idealising and sentimentalising his qualities of compassion, his preaching of love, as has been  done most signally in Liberal Protestantism. 

God acts, creates, through specific acts and consequences, subject oftimes to our human mediation. In Yeshua barYusuf he found/created that seedground mentality which became supremely fruitful and transparent to his purposes. But for Jesus to know himself as ‘divine’ would have been an inflated refusal of God’s purposes in bringing near the Kingdom. It would have made a mockery of his courage and judgment and of his personal agon of struggle and risk. It would, in fact, have been a surrender to the Temptations all over again. Christians have too often made that kind of surrender of our own wills to worldly power throughout the centuries, although that is not what Jesus willed for us. In this connection, note  Dostoevsky’s portrait of the Grand Inquisitor who banishes Christ in the name of the Kingdom of This World.

Whatever one may say, critically, about the ‘patriarchalism’ of the gospel tradition or about  the authenticity of the core texts, there is a coherence in the portrayal of Jesus as a specific man, of a particular time and place, and of a definite prophetic tradition which bears its own powerful witness as a narrative. It is in and from that narrative that the events of the Resurrection take their root and from it that the subsequent theology of St. Paul makes sense. It is faith which finds there that ‘higher coherence’ which our lives require; and as well the higher sacrifices by which “thy will, not mine, be done.” But our faith needs also to be informed by a strong sense of the man Jesus and the vision of God which was his personal Gospel, with which he struggled in order to keep his own faith and bear it back, along with ours as well, ultimately to the Father.