How Human Was Jesus?

Feb 24, 2014 | Updated Apr 26, 2014

"Do you also wish to go away?" -- John 6:67

The Christians of my teen years were big on optimism at all costs, and they used verses from the Bible to support their claim. A girlfriend once interrupted my confession of weakness with "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me" (Philippians 4:13). Others asserted that "whatever is not of faith is sin" (Romans 14:23). In our Pentecostal church, we boldly sang --complete with hand gestures -- that "God has not given us the spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of sound mind" (2 Timothy 1:7).

None of these proclamations cited the Jesus of the gospels -- especially not the Jesus who asks the haunting question above.

I have read this question many times and, in each reading, have seen it as a simple setup for the punch line: Peter's robust declaration "Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God." It is a ringing affirmation of what most Christians believe about the triumphant Christ.

Dwell on the question by itself, however, and something else emerges. Jesus had just finished the most controversial discourse of his ministry to date, calling his followers to eat his body and drink his blood (a precursor of the Christian Eucharist). He had already upset the religious authorities, but this was different: many of his own disciples now "turned back and no longer went about with him."

If the tone of his question is any indication, he was rattled.

Other gospel passages echo this vulnerability. Here and there in the gospel of Mark -- what I call the "cranky Jesus passages" -- the Lord of life appears exhausted, insecure and even hungry. He travels to a foreign city possibly to recharge his batteries (7:24); while there he calls a Canaanite woman a dog (7:24-30). He sighs with what appears to be frustration and exhaustion (8:11-13). When famished in the morning, he looks for breakfast on a fig tree and, finding no figs, curses it (11:12-14): if it were me, I'd call this a classic case of low blood sugar. And from the midst of it all arises his poignant question (8:27): "Who do people say that I am?" As editor Cullen Murphy wrote in the Atlantic:

This is one of the most resonant questions in the whole of the New Testament. It is the question, it seems, of a man who wishes to disturb but who is also himself disturbed; of a man who has somehow found himself in deeper waters than anticipated; of a man at once baffled and intrigued by a destiny that he may have begun to glimpse but of which he is not fully aware.... It is an affecting and very human moment.

Other explanations for these passages are more commonplace in various Christian circles. Jesus curses the fig tree to make a point about faith. He expresses anger with his followers, but their lack of understanding is at fault. In calling the woman a dog, he was testing her belief in his ability to heal. Indeed, testing is a common explanation for many of his obscure questions.

These interpretations may well be correct. But I cannot read them anymore without wondering whether they gloss over something at once simpler and more profound -- a Jesus who was more human than we have ever imagined.

And oh, is this good news. If Jesus can be this human, so can we. By living into all the facets of the human spirit, including the less attractive ones, Jesus invites us to do the same.

This may not be a new idea to the parts of today's Church that de-emphasize guilt and judgment. But it is still radical to those who, because of their experience with generations of Christian legalism and struggle mightily with their "sins." It is radical for the millions of us who do not experience the required optimism of the church of my youth -- who do not enjoy sound mind, who endure weakness rather than wield power and who feel ashamed of their agonizing doubt. When God incarnate lives with feelings and mindsets like these, they become not failings or sins, but elements of being human. The more we live into them, the more human we become.

Yes, a treasure of the Christian faith is the hope it gives. Christians are called to that hope, as the optimists might remind us. But Jesus also issued an invitation to "all you who are weary and heavy laden." Just as compelling, he lived into that weariness and, by example, shows us how to do the same.