Monday, 4 June 2018

Jesus, with feeling

Paulklee144 v vierspaltig

1424 words, 7 min read

While the focus in the Gospels is mostly on what Jesus said and did, the Evangelists in some cases also report how they thought he felt, which is what I would like to look at in this post.1 Reading the Gospels with this aspect of Jesus in mind underlines the sense that it is his words and actions that were of greatest concerns to their authors, with little thought given most of the time to what Jesus’ emotional life might have been at any given moment. This makes the few explicit reference to his feelings the more interesting since they seem to point to instances where Jesus’ feelings were either not obvious (he may have done or said a certain thing in different states), a key to understanding his subsequent actions or of particularly high importance.

For a start, and unsurprisingly, Jesus felt love towards others, alongside loving them by what he said and did. Mark tells us about this being Jesus response to a man who observed the commandments since his youth:
“Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said to him, “You are lacking in one thing. Go, sell what you have, and give to [the] poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”” (Mark 10:21)
And he also felt love towards his friends:
“Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.” (John 11:5)
Jesus also felt hunger, as all three synoptic Gospels report. Matthew and Luke speak about Jesus’ understandable hunger after 40 days of fasting in the desert:
“He fasted for forty days and forty nights, after which he was hungry.” (Matthew 4:2)

“Filled with the holy Spirit, Jesus returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the desert for forty days, to be tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and when they were over he was hungry.” (Luke 4:1-2)
Mark instead tells us about Jesus’ hunger as a way to set the scene for the episode where he curses a fig tree for bearing no fruit out of season:
“The next day as they were leaving Bethany he was hungry.” (Mark 11:12)
Beyond the strongly biological, the Evangelists also report Jesus feeling amazed and astonished, in all cases in the face of faith or the lack thereof. Matthew and Luke tell us about Jesus’ response to the unexpected faith of the Roman Centurion, whose daughter is ill and who takes it as a given that Jesus has the power to heal here even at a distance:
“When Jesus heard this he was astonished and said to those following him, ‘In truth I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found faith as great as this.” (Matthew 8:10)

“When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him and, turning, said to the crowd following him, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.”” (Luke 7:9)
Mark, instead reports the complement - Jesus’ amazement at the lack of faith in his own home town of Nazareth:
“He was amazed at their lack of faith.” (Mark 6:6)
Jesus also takes such surprise and responds to it with greater displeasure by being stern and strict when he wants to emphasise that his instructions are to be adhered to without fail. Mark reports this attitude when Jesus admonishes unclean spirits not to reveal his true nature:
“He warned them sternly not to make him known.” (Mark 3:12)
Matthew first mentions this when describing how Jesus spoke to two blind men whom he cured:
“And their sight returned. Then Jesus sternly warned them, ‘Take care that no one learns about this.’” (Matthew 9:30)
and then when describing Jesus’ reaction to Peter declaring who he thought Jesus was:
“Then he strictly ordered his disciples to tell no one that he was the Messiah.” (Matthew 16:20)
Sternness becomes indignation, as far as Mark is concerned, when he describes Jesus discovering that his disciples wouldn’t let kids come to him:
“When Jesus saw this he became indignant and said to them, “Let the children come to me; do not prevent them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”” (Mark 10:14)
And Jesus even feels anger and grief when the good he does - of curing a man’s hand - is disapproved of:
“Looking around at them with anger and grieved at their hardness of heart, he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out and his hand was restored.” (Mark 3:5)
Jesus then feels perturbed and troubled upon receiving news of his friend Lazarus’ death:
“When Jesus saw her weeping and the Jews who had come with her weeping, he became perturbed and deeply troubled, and said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Sir, come and see.” And Jesus wept. [...] So Jesus, perturbed again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay across it.” (John 11:33-35,38)
The same feelings return to Jesus on the night before his crucifixion. First, already during the last supper, after washing the disciples’ feet and telling them that one of them will betray him:
“When he had said this, Jesus was deeply troubled and testified, “Amen, amen, I say to you, one of you will betray me.”” (John 13:21)
Then, on the way to the Garden of Gethsemane, when feelings of sorrow accompany his distress and being troubled:
“He took along Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to feel sorrow and distress.” (Matthew 26:37)

“He took with him Peter, James, and John, and began to be troubled and distressed. Then he said to them, “My soul is sorrowful even to death. Remain here and keep watch.”” (Mark 14:33-34)
Finally, the time in the Garden culminates in feeling agony:
“He was in such agony and he prayed so fervently that his sweat became like drops of blood falling on the ground.” (Luke 22:44)
However, the feeling most often reported by the Evangelists is one of compassion - of feeling pity and feeling sorry for the condition others are in. Jesus felt this for the public at large as he was teaching in towns and villages:
“And when he saw the crowds he felt sorry for them because they were harassed and dejected, like sheep without a shepherd.” (Matthew 9:36)
And he felt this in particular who followed him even to deserted places with a disregard for their own needs:
“When he disembarked and saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them, and he cured their sick.” (Matthew 14:14)

“When he disembarked and saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.” (Mark 6:34)

“My heart is moved with pity for the crowd, because they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat.” (Mark 8:2)
Feelings of pity were also elicited in Jesus by individuals at the periphery of society, like a leper and two blind men, whose healing was triggered by his feelings:
“Moved with pity, Jesus touched their eyes. Immediately they received their sight, and followed him.” (Matthew 20:34)

“Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand, touched him, and said to him, “I do will it. Be made clean.”” (Mark 1:41)
Finally, pity was a also how Jesus felt when seeing a widow from Nain mourn her dead son:
“When the Lord saw her, he was moved with pity for her and said to her, “Do not weep.”” (Luke 7:13)
What strikes me most about having read the Gospels through the lens of Jesus’ emotions is that they point to his having engaged with the world fully and richly, responding to it with great closeness at certain times and with forceful rejection and condemnation at others. His feelings in some cases grew out of his own self (bodily and psychologically) while in others they came about as reactions to events unfolding around him. Instead of an aloof, otherworldly apparition come to deliver a message, Jesus clearly had preferences, needs and dislikes, making himself one with us and therefore showing the way to a life of fulfilment through compassion and self-giving.

1 Two principles guided my choices: first, to look for instances where it is the Evangelists who directly describe Jesus’ feelings (i.e., I left out verses where his actions are described and where these could be used to infer his feelings), and second to try and be exhaustive.