Authors: James Martin
For Daniel J. Harrington, SJ, who teaches Jesus in his classes, through his books, and with his life
ESUS IS WALKING WITH
his friends to Caesarea Philippi, a town roughly twenty-five miles north of the Sea of Galilee. The story comes midway through the Gospel of Mark. Out of the blue Jesus asks, “Who do people say that I am?”
His friends seem caught off guard. Perhaps they are embarrassed, as when someone mentions a taboo topic. Perhaps they have been discussing that very question furtively, wondering who would be forthright enough to ask Jesus about his identity. Maybe Jesus had even overheard them arguing over who he was.
The disciples offer halting responses: “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah,” they say, “and still others, one of the prophets.” That's probably a fair summary of popular opinion at the time. Herod, the first-century ruler of Galilee, thought that Jesus might be John the Baptist come back to life. A number of Jews believed that Elijah's return would herald the reign of God, which some in the region expected to come soon. And the comparison to a prophet like, say, Jeremiah seemed sensible because of similarities between the prophet and Jesus. But the disciples are careful to avoid saying what
So Jesus asks them directly, “But who do you say that I am?”
Who is he? Why another book on this first-century Jewish man? Why have I spent years studying the life of an itinerant preacher from a backwater town? Why did I spend two weeks traipsing around Israel under the broiling sun to see places where a former carpenter lived and sites that he may (or may not) have visited? Moreover, why have I committed my life to Jesus? The answers turn on the question of who I believe Jesus is, so it's fair to tell you before we begin our pilgrimage.
My starting point is a classic theological statement: Jesus Christ is fully human and fully divine. This is one of the first things that Christians learn about their faith. But what does it mean?
To begin with, Jesus of Nazareth, the person who walked the landscape of first-century Palestine, wasn't God pretending to be human.
He was a flesh-and-blood, real-life, honest-to-God man who experienced everything that human beings do.
Jesus was born and lived and died, like any human being. The child called Yeshua entered the world as helpless as any newborn and just as dependent on his parents. He needed to be nursed, held, burped, and changed. As a boy growing up in the minuscule town of Nazareth, Jesus skinned his knees on the rocky ground, bumped his head on doorways, and pricked his fingers on thorns. He watched the sun rise and set over the Galilean countryside, wondered how far away the moon was, and asked why the stars twinkled.
Jesus had a body like yours and mine, which means that he ate, drank, and slept. He experienced sexual longings and urges. The adult Jesus felt joy and sadness, laughing at things that struck him as funny and weeping during times of loss. As a fully human being with fully human emotions, he felt both frustration and enthusiasm. He grew weary at the end of a long day and fell ill from time to time. He pulled muscles, felt sick to his stomach, and maybe sprained an ankle or two. Like all of us, he sweated and sneezed and scratched.
Everything proper to the human beingâexcept sinâJesus experienced.
Jesus's humanity is a stumbling block for many people, including a few Christians. Incidents in the Gospels that show Jesus displaying intense and even unattractive human emotions can unsettle those who prefer to focus on his divinity. At one point in the Gospel of Mark, he speaks sharply to a woman who asks him to heal her daughter.
The woman is not Jewish and, as a result, Jesus seems to dismiss her with a callous comment: “It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs.”
That is a stinging rebuke no matter what the context. When the woman responds that even the dogs get crumbs from the table, Jesus softens. And he heals her daughter.
Why did Jesus speak so sharply? Was it because he was visiting what Mark calls “the region of Tyre,” a non-Jewish area, where he was presumably not expected to perform any miracles? If so, why didn't he respond to the woman more gently, rather than using a term that was seen in his day as “highly insulting”?
Was Jesus testing her faith, challenging her to believe? If so, it's a harsh way of doing so, at odds with the compassionate Jesus whom many of us expect to meet in the Gospels.
Perhaps, however, Jesus needed to learn something from the woman's persistence: his ministry extended to everyone, not just Jews. Or maybe he was just tired. A few lines earlier in the Gospel, Mark tells us, “He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there.” Perhaps his curt remark indicates physical weariness. Whatever the case (and we'll never know for sure) both possibilitiesâhe is learning, he is tiredâshow Jesus's humanity on full display.
But there is another part of the story: a healing. Jesus says to the woman, “For saying that, you may goâthe demon has left your daughter.” She returns home, says Mark, and finds her child lying on the bed, “the demon gone.”