The CATHOLIC THING: The Humanity of the Jewish Jesus

As the Church continues to celebrate Easter, Laurie Woods delves into an aspect of Jesus’ life that is not always acknowledged.

When Christians look at the life and personality of Jesus, their vision of the Jewish man from Nazareth is often blurred by the overlay of a faith tradition that emphasises the divine Son of God figure over the human Jesus. The gospel writers themselves, when relaying the tradition of the Jesus movement, decades after the life of Jesus, were intent on portraying their hero as the Jewish Messiah having a unique relationship with God; a more than human figure in many ways. And yet failure to accept the fact that Jesus was an authentic human being would be a denial of the Incarnation and the early Christian creeds that affirm Jesus to be truly human. So what aspects of this Palestinian Jew can Christians come to appreciate?

Growing up in Nazareth, Jesus was known in his native Aramaic as son of Joseph, Yeshua bar Yosef (Mt 13:55). The glimpses of his adult character in the gospels say a lot about his upbringing. His encounters with people reveal a deep respect for others and a ready acceptance of the worth and dignity of the other. These qualities must have been instilled in him by Joseph and Mary and practised in the healthy and balanced environment of their home. The maturity of the adult Jesus reflects the maturity and common sense that characterised his home during his formative years. Luke gives us a hint of this when he writes in 2:52 that Jesus grew in stature (= personal bearing and reputation) and wisdom (= knowledge, practical savvy and common sense) and graciousness (Aramaic taivoutha = goodness, kindness, graciousness) in the eyes of God and his fellow human beings. This is a clear statement of Jesus’ growth toward wholeness, self-possession and human maturity.

Both Matthew and Luke are careful to show how Joseph and Mary were pious Palestinian Jews who observed the Torah, the Mosaic law and its traditions, and it is no wonder we get glimpses of Jesus demonstrating great respect for the religion of his ancestors (Matthew 22:36-40; Mark 7:8-12). After all, as an observant Jew, his way to God was through the spirituality of Judaism. Along with his love of Torah, the gospel writers have allowed us to see a very practical Jesus whose down-to-earth attitude to life and human relationships forms the foundation of his guiding priorities. For example, he pointed out to the Pharisees that “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath” (Mk 2:27). He is saying that the Sabbath (and all law by implication) was there to enhance human relationship with God. If there were times when a certain law got in the way of our relationship with God and others, it might be better to set it aside for a particular occasion. Here is Jesus showing that people come before regulations. He is not anti-law, nor is he defying the Commandments. Rather, he is demonstrating pure common sense with a maturity that comes from balance and human wholeness.

This same common sense shines through in the way Jesus related to all sorts of people. He goes to Peter’s house where Peter’s mother-in-law is lying in bed with a fever (probably a dose of flu). He takes her by the hand and lifts her up, whole again (Mk 1:31). He has just broken a Jewish taboo by touching a woman who is not a family member and rendered himself ritually unclean by touching a sick woman. But that gentle healing touch has brought about a greater good. Similarly, the woman who burst in on Jesus and the other guests having a meal in Simon the Pharisee’s house made Jesus unclean by washing his feet and anointing them with perfumed ointment (Luke 7:38). The woman was in a highly emotional state and outraged the Pharisees present. They passed judgement on Jesus for allowing himself to be touched by a sinful woman. Jesus, clearly sensing the host’s reaction, reminded him that he had not practised the niceties of hospitality, whereas the woman had shown great love. Her regard for the person of ‘the other’ far outweighed her sins and shamed the neglect of the Pharisee. Jesus acknowledged that the rules of clean and unclean paled in the presence of great love and respect for other human beings.

These stories demonstrate Jesus’ ability to see beyond the externals of everyone he encountered to the potential that lay within. He never made a snap judgement on first meeting or on appearances. Rather, he took time to look more deeply into the eyes – and soul – of individuals. Mark tells the story of the rich man who ran after Jesus on the road and fell at his feet, addressing Jesus as ‘good teacher’ (Mk 10:17ff). Straightaway, Jesus saw the marks of deep respect and honour the man paid him. When the man asked what he should do to gain eternal life, Jesus knew there was a deep and urgent searching for goodness and right in the man’s life. Jesus gave a stock answer, saying he should keep the commandments of the Torah. When the man answered that he had kept them since his bar mitzvah], Jesus saw his sincerity and ‘loved him’, as Mark put it. Here is a relationship being formed between Jesus and this stranger. Then Jesus, seeing the potential in the man, challenged him to go further by abandoning his riches to become a disciple. The man went away sadly because he could not take that step, but Jesus did not chase after him or even explain himself further; neither did he stop loving and appreciating him. He knew the man was not ready to follow him and he respected that. Jesus allowed him his own space. We see here a mature love coming from Jesus as he appreciated where people were but was also ready to challenge them to bring to fulfilment their own potential.

A close reading of any of the gospels can reveal aspects of Jesus’ human maturity and wholeness of character that we rarely hear about. Sadly, there are no books on the practical common sense of Jesus, and yet it was this, along with his deep respect for all those he met, that drew crowds to hear his wisdom and be touched by his honest and down-to-earth approach to the traditions of his beloved Judaism. It was these qualities that prompted people to see him as ‘good news’, offering a way to quality life in the here-and-now through nourishing sound relationships with God, self, fellow human beings and the environment.

Laurie Woods is based in the School of Theology at the ACU Strathfield campus of Australian Catholic University. He has been teaching biblical studies at ACU in Sydney for 25 years and is also involved in conducting teacher inservice sessions and parish reflection days in the dioceses of Sydney, Parramatta, Bathurst and Wollongong.

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Dr Laurie Woods Image
Dr Laurie Woods

Laurie Woods is based in the School of Theology at the ACU Strathfield campus of Australian Catholic University. He has been teaching biblical studies at ACU in Sydney for 25 years and is also involved in conducting teacher inservice sessions and parish reflection days in the dioceses of Sydney, Parramatta, Bathurst and Wollongong.

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