The Personage: Marginal, Prophetic, Human

Resources »Eapr »East Asian Pastoral Review 2003 »Volume 40 2003 Number 1 »The Personage Marginal Prophetic Human

José Ig. González Faus, S.J.

José Ignacio González Faus, S.J. is the director of Christianisme i Justicia, Study Center under the initiative of the Jesuits of Catalunya, Barcelona, Spain. He is a former professor of Christology of the Faculty of Theology of Catalunya. His many writings include La Huminidad Nueva; Ensayo de Christología (9th edition); Acceso a Jesús (9th edition); Vicarios de Cristo; Los Pobres en la Teología y en la Espiritualidad Cristiana.


We have no immediate access to Jesus' conscience. We can only draw close to the human being through his words, through his acts and his style, especially when these are habitual.

But given the fact that the ancient notion of historiography is not exactly ours, the criterion to gain access to the personage cannot be isolated texts (although a few do offer serious guarantees) but should be the confluence of texts that trace a trait, even though some could possibly be of doubtful historicity. We will look for access to Jesus through the following features.

"Abba" and Kingdom

here are two words that no critic argues were repeated by Jesus with notable frequency: the invocation to God as Abba (Father) and the near advent of the Reign of this God. Jesus invited His disciples to call God Abba.But to understand correctly what is signified by that paternity, we can only do so by considering what Jesus Himself understood by the Reign of God. These are some of the ways of access to this "Kingdom" that reveals God.

Surrounding Testimonies

In the first place the description given in Psalm 145. The Psalm enumerates a human situation of freedom, justice, the overcoming of sickness and need, goodness and the welcoming in of the weak. When this occurs "God reigns."

There are besides two useful texts in the apocryphal gospels: "the Kingdom of the Father is extended over the earth but men do not see it" (Gospel of Thomas 113). And this other: "He who knows God will find the Kingdom because knowing Him you will know yourselves and you will understand that you are children of the Father. And so you will know that you are citizens of heaven. You are the city of God" (Pap Oxyr. 654).1

The above two texts are very rich in meaning and the words marked in italics give us subject matter for thought. I choose these quotations not because they have more guarantee of historicity (given their sources, it is not possible to affirm this) but because they sum up the teaching of the gospels about the Kingdom. We can add these other two quotations of Paul: "The Kingdom of God is not food or drink but justice and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit" (Rom. 14,17), that is to say, equality among men, reconciliation with oneself and the referring of all this to Gratuity. And again, "The Kingdom of God does not come through words but through its own strength" (I Cor 4,20), in the line of the gospel of Thomas, quoted above.

The Praxis of Jesus

In the second place Jesus Himself appears to have interpreted His healing task as a "sign that the Kingdom of God is arriving", and not as a demonstration of supernatural power that guarantees His Divinity. This last interpretation although it appears more traditional, proceeds from our Modernity. The Pharisees did not question either the healings of Jesus or their "strange" character. They tried to explain these off by attributing them to magical arts or to the devil. And that gave occasion to Jesus to explain how He understood them (see Lk 11:20).

His Parables

In the third place, let us highlight two characteristics of the parables:

a) The Kingdom of God is like a hidden treasure. He who discovers it will have so much joy that gladly he will give all that he has for it (Mt 13:44ss): it is like a seed that, looked after well, keeps growing by itself, although the farmer sleeps (Mk 4:26ss). And nevertheless

b) a controversial point makes its appearance once again: in this Kingdom it is not the "moral" people (the Pharisees and Scribes) who enter but those excluded for their immorality ("publicans and prostitutes"). Because the morality of the established (dis)order is morality without solidarity that by its excluding action forces many people to these immoral conducts.

Let us put one example of this in the parable of those that attend the banquet (Luke 14, 15-22). The public banquets of the rich were a wellknown practice in the times of Jesus, and He has recourse to this parable to make visible the Reign of God, but changing the ones sitting at table, It is easily understandable that those who do not want to attend a banquet will make up excuses.

In real fact the justifications could be valid. The possibility of a good business deal is a reasonable excuse not to attend a banquet, then and today. To have just married was a reasonable excuse since in the world of Jesus, banquets were not for women but only for men. And he who is in the middle of a honeymoon, it is understandable that he cannot renounce it...

In this parable (as in many others)2 Jesus denounces the occurrence of many morally plausible conducts that usually end up Justifying or concealing a lack of solidarity with the weak and excluded while those who do not adopt those conducts are more open to heeding the call for solidarity.

We begin to find here how the announcement of the Kingdom is at one and the same time, subjugating and subversive.

The announcement of Jesus in respect of the Kingdom of God can be re-phrased today as: "the Revolution of God is here. Believe this good news and change your mentality" (cf. Mk 1:15). The God that this announcement reveals has the same subversive and subjugating character. The paternity of God is no joke: not only because it is about a paternity of adult men but also because it is a paternity of all.3

A Strange Freedom

The society in which Jesus moved was a notably closed society. In the matter of customs, it had over the centuries not moved an inch. Jesus did not appear to have had any contact with the Judaism of the Diaspora which was more critical and illustrated by Greek influence. It is surprising for this reason that from the beginning, without renouncing His practices of a practising Jew, He went about acting with a disconcerting freedom in matters so serious as keeping the Sabbath, the social ways of dealing with women, the norms of purity or the contact with pagans and Samaritans, or that He should manifest Himself against what He considered permissiveness of the Law of Moses in questions such as the repudiation of a wife, alleging that Moses had made concessions to the hard-heartedness of men but that this was not the original plan of God regarding the human couple.13

Freedom gives authority

The gospels describe this freedom of Jesus with the word eksousia. It is a word that means both authority (or power) and freedom. And it appears with both meanings in the New Testament. It is for this that I have translated it before as "the power of His freedom". It is the only power that Jesus claimed to have. And this is how we are to understand the surprised and often repeated comments of the people regarding His words: "From where does this authority come since He has not studied with a teacher?..." A characteristic that also confirms the fourth gospel: "nobody has ever spoken like this man" (7,48).

Freedom in favor of the needy

Regarding all this freedom, there is place here only for one example. We will choose that of the Sabbath, on account of its importance in the Jewish world, and the abundance of testimonies regarding this in the gospels. Jesus on several occasions broke the Sabbath, especially when it was a question of healing someone on that day, disobeying the prudent counsel of waiting another day of the week and alleging that to do good on the Sabbath could in no way be banned since the sacred day was made for man and not the other way round.

Curiously enough, we can guess today that this transgressing practice has given back to the Sabbath its true theological meaning. In its origins the Sabbath was a social institution, not one of cult: its aim was the rest of the hired laborer and the slave, and the basis was sought (as was frequent in many prescriptions of the old world) in the "sacredness" of the holiday: in which God rested from His creation" (Gen 2:2). It can be deduced from this that God's rest is precisely the relief of the needy. And this is why Jesus understood that by giving relief to the sick person He was in no way breaking the Sabbath, on the contrary, He was fulfilling its deeper intention: this is what is meant by the Sabbath being made for man.

And this is how the fourth gospel understands it when it makes Jesus say, against the literal interpretation of the Bible: "My Father keeps working" (Jn 5:17)... as long as there is a sick man to be cured.

The objection that it would have been better to wait for another day of the week, since it was not a question of urgent cures, was not a valid argument for Jesus, although it meant throwing stones on to His own roof, since it discredited His cures precisely because they were done transgressing the Law ("this man does not come from God because He does not keep the Sabbath"). By rejecting this way of arguing, Jesus seems to make clear that the importance of His healings lay not in the working of miracles but in the person of the sick man.

Finally, by attributing the cure to the faith of the sick person, and not to His own powers, Jesus removes the binomial "sickness-cure" from the field of the supernatural and the magical and returns it to the field of creation, that is in the hands of man. Hence the commentary of the Fathers of the Church: Jesus healed not for us to see how much power He had, but for us to know that we too can cure.

From the Margins

Together with "eksousia," the other word that the gospels use most to describe Jesus is that of the "bowels moved with compassion." Before the sick, before the thousands of-suffering humans, before personal situations, before the multitudes, the gospels repeat a well-known Greek word which means that "his bowels were moved."5

So with "Abba," the Kingdom, the authority of His freedom and the bowels moved with compassion, one can conjure up a quick impressionist picture that could be validated by historical criticism.

Social marginalization...

The term "bowels moved with compassion" denotes in a clear way that Jesus' life did not move in the center or from the center, but from the margins, from all those nuclei of people that the drive for individual affirmation keeps casting along the roadsides. Very reliable is the text in which Jesus declares that He feels being sent only for the "lost sheep of the house of Israel" (Mt. 15,24). And, probably, we should not look for in Him an ambition of universal mission right from the start. This in no way is contrary to the attitude Jesus adopted later as a result of the explicit exclusion that the Jewish religion made of the non-Jewish by which He made a thousand gestures of welcome to the pagans, in who the primitive church would find the basis for going out to the whole world. His bowels moved with compassion placed a long-range bomb in the heart of Jewish individualism.

And perhaps it is of use to us in these times when so much is spoken of universalism and of "globalization": the empires of this earth should know that globalization does not consist in closing one's own doors and imposing their own products and own culture. There cannot be true globalization, if one does not begin by "globalizing one's own house", and by integrating all the lost sheep, before trying to conquer other worlds and markets.

"Bowels moved with compassion" enables Mathew to overcome the problem of the relation between the Old and New Testament with a sentence from the prophet Hosea which shows how the former survives all ruptures: what God wants is "mercy and not cult" (Mt 9:13 and 12:7). And, given that this is what God wants, in the Last Judgment of man before God what will matter really is not what one has wanted to do directly to God but what one has done directly to the hungry brother or the sick person.6 In this way, the sentence quoted earlier of James on true religion, is reformulated by Mathew with a sentence of Jesus: "if when you go to present your offering at the altar, you remember that your brother has something against you, leave the altar and go to reconcile yourself with your brother" (5:22-24). It would have little meaning to discuss if these are the literal words of Jesus or proceed from the evangelist, since in this second case, it would be even more serious for us because we would not then be able to discredit it saying that it refers to the cult of the Old Testament. And given that when the evangelists modify the words of Jesus, they usually make them softer, one is staggered by the intensity of the experience of Jesus that Mathew put in those words to which not even in twenty centuries have we Christians been able to explore their full meaning.

.... grounded on a religious basis

This law of gravity towards marginalized people can be symbolized in a graph that consists of two crossed arrows (vertical and horizontal), the ends of which point out four dynamics of exclusion and marginalization: upwards, downwards and sidewards in both directions: the sick, the poor, women and foreigners. In a society that one confesses is founded by God and declares that it has God in its center, these centrifugal lines will appear as coming from God and sanctioned by Him. And so it occurred in the world of Jesus.

- Sinners were the sick and this often justified their social exclusion closing a vicious cycle that made healing them a difficult task; "impure" were the lepers and on this account it was necessary to stand apart from them; and before the person born blind the apostles asked Jesus who had sinned, he or his parents, that he should be in this condition. Jesus, on the other hand, healed people not to show His divinity but the strength of the Kingdom in the human being ("your faith has saved you"). Traditional apologetics was quite blind on this point.

- Sinners were also the poor -"that mass that did not know the Law and were under a curse" (John 7,49)because all they could do was get themselves deeper in debt until their very debt ended up forcing them to hand themselves over as slaves, or flee to the mountains, or make them part of the zealot movement.7 If in the words of Jesus there appear banquets and debts, it is not by coincidence but is a reflection of the condition of His society. The only peculiarity is that Jesus inverts the terms: in the banquet of the Kingdom, the lead actors are those who have never attended any of those big Sadducee feasts. And all are for-given their debts except those who do not forgive their own debtors.

- Sinners were the foreigners and the pagans, about who we have already spoken in the previous chapter. But that pious Jew did not hesitate to call at the 7 house of a pagan who was suffering.8 And He, who valued faith so much and who so often reproached His own for their "little faith", publicly praised the faith of someone only in two passages. And on both occasions the recipients of His praise were pagans (the Roman centurion and the Syro-Phoenician woman).

- And if not sinners, women were considered inferior beings both in the Greek as well as Jewish society, unauthorized by these societies to be witnesses or to study the Law. This point deserves a further explanation because today it is very difficult for us to perceive the subversiveness of Jesus' conduct.

Apart from some accounts that have already been mentioned, it was strange to see Him walking by the side of women in a society in which even the wife was supposed to walk behind her husband when both were out in the street. The evangelist knew well the Jewish world when he wrote that (even His apostles) "were surprised to see Him talking to a woman" in public (Jn 4:27). This was how the Galilean walked: teaching the Law of God to women too and making it clear that also for them this was "the better part" (Luke 10, 24). He established with many women a deep egalitarian friendship that called people's attention more since this friendship was found in One Who taught that dedication to the Kingdom and the passion for it, could reach the point of "incapacitating" certain human beings from having a normal conjugal relationship adding that "he who is capable of understanding this, let him do so" (Mt 19:12).

Besides women, it would be convenient today to add a word about other "Inferior" beings of that society: children. The words of Jesus about 4&receiving the Kingdom like children," or "converting ourselves into children to be able to enter the Kingdom", should not be understood considering the smiling, charming faces of children that appear so often in so many spaces of our social life, the words would be better understood in the context of Brazilian meninos da rua or working children. "Make yourselves like them" would mean situating ourselves in marginalized society to be able to have access to the Kingdom. Adding another typical trait of infancy: the child knows (and the examples we have quoted know this even better) all they have got is what they have received. Gratuity and marginalization are not contradictory in the mind of Jesus.

There, in the margins of society that marginalized and free Jew found God. This made Him exult with joy and bless God (see Mt 11: 25ss). From the margins of society Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom and from those margins He invited all to prepare His Kingdom. On account of this many were not able to understand Him. And for this reason (as we will see), He died "outside the gates of the city" (Heb 13:12).

A Strange Dialectic vis-à-vis the Human Being

It is a known and lamented fact that the gospels describe very little what took place in Jesus' interior. Because of this the following hard words of the evangelist deserve special attention: "many believed in Him, but Jesus did not trust them... He had no need for them to inform Him about men because He knew what was in men" (Jn 2:23-25). It is surprising then that this distrusting man is precisely the one who has demanded and expected most from human beings. It is probable that the expression "I will make you fishers of men" that is the only program that He presented to His followers when He called them, does not have a numerical meaning of proselytism but a significance of drawing the best human quality from this turbulent sea of inhumanity that we human beings are accustomed to be. To draw "the best possible version" from each person, in line with what the Prophets announced: "to change the heart of stone into a heart of flesh", or to draw out that free human being with his bowels moved with compassion, that one could describe as "the man of the Kingdom", in consonance with the Kingdom of God announced by Jesus.

Jesus was conscious that many morally and religiously correct conducts do not do otherwise than disguise self-complacency, hard-heartedness and lack of solidarity, or the desire to be seen. He believed that men have different yardsticks depending upon whether they are judging others (here they do not allow even a mote to go unnoticed) or themselves (in which case they are incapable of seeing even authentic beams); He knew that frequently the blindest people appoint themselves guides of the blind; He counted on human beings being able to kill "thinking that they are doing a service to God" (Jn 16:3). And He must have quite often used words like "hypocrites or hypocrisy" that in the whole of the New Testament only appear (and quite frequently so) on the lips of Jesus.

But of this whole issue that Machiavello could very well have subscribed to, Jesus did not draw the conclusion of the Florentine (take advantage of human misery to draw profit for Himself), but He asked His own not to be afraid, "because His Father was pleased with them". I believe it is possible to affirm without any sort of apologetics that though He knew, as everybody else, what betrayal and disenchantment was, nobody has drawn out more from men than Jesus. He really seems to have been an authentic "fisher of men". But one must not understand these words in a falsely "supernatural" sense but in the setting of the New Testament that describes Jesus as "presenting Himself as a common man and acting as any common person" (Phil 2,7).

At the same time, this apparently hard man, turned out shockingly understanding when it was a question of, not what He detested as hypocrisy, but of simple human weakness (see Jn 8:1ss). Except the epithet of "fox" addressed to the little tyrant on duty, there never appeared on His lips a negative judgment on specific people. Jesus was brutal with groups or types of human beings that could come under two categories: a) the rich who "as they loved money laughed at Him" (Lk 16:14), and who Jesus naively asked to put all that they had for the service of the poor (see Lk 12: 33); and b) those Pharisees that Jesus accused of having hearts not just hardened but blindly "deadened" (Mk 3:5). In this blindness of heart that always finds reasons only for what is convenient to it, Jesus seems to see the root of that hypocrisy that He so often denounced. Because that acted as a brake on the undeniable "capacity of meeting" that that man appeared to have possessed and which brought about that His welcome of others was for many of His interlocutors a source of being at peace with themselves, of self-esteem, of mental health, of expulsion of devils and a sign of God's forgiveness. To this capacity of meeting Oscar Wilde appears to have been referring to when he writes that for Jesus there were no laws, there only existed exceptions. But again in contrast with the denunciations of this possessive and hypocritical background of the human being, the invitation of Jesus is extended "to have clean eyes" because with clean eyes, the whole body becomes transparent and gets illuminated (see Lk 11:34-36). And this way our dialectic could carry on. But we have still some chapters left.

His Style

The opening text of this Booklet proclaimed Jesus "did not go to university nor wrote any book." Nevertheless, we perceive in the gospels a clear contrast between the beauty of many words placed on Jesus' lips and the rather simple style of the evangelists.

His language proceeded from the observation of details, of southern color and dialectic. His language uses elements such as yeast with which a woman kneads bread, the very small size of some seeds which later grow more than what would seem possible, or the two cents that an insignificant old woman gives in alms and to which Jesus pays more importance than the cheques the lords of this world give because in those cents was placed the whole heart of the old woman whereas with the cheques it was just a way of calming themselves or calling the attention of others (see Mk 12:41ss). His language reflects a graphic way of describing hypocrisy as "straining out the gnat and swallowing the camel." And this double manner of being simple as doves and "cunning" as serpents, or of "doing one thing without forgetting the other."

His deepest sayings were not deep because they were inaccessible to simple people but because they had different levels of reading according to the depth of the hearer. Contrary to Greek wisdom, He preferred to speak more of the things we see than of essences that we do not see; but the hearer felt himself raised to the latter through the former. He resorted much to the narrative category, probably because to God as well as to suffering (al though for different reasons) one gains access not through abstract notions but only through narration.

And His words frequently found the ethical radicalism of the language of the prophets of Israel, with the wise tone of him who knows how to look for what is more convenient to him such that the option for the poor, for non-violence, for hunger of justice, mercy, cleanness of heart, for the work for peace and even persecution, were not for him hard commands from the outside, but unexpected ways of happiness: "blessed are those". This is one of those abrupt games of light that made many of His words produce dizziness. And in the face of this dizziness, He limited Himself to giving men the power of God. One gets the impression that towards the end of His life, His language hardened somewhat. This has some relation to the last point that we are going to present.

The Unexpected Conflictivity

The fact and the intensity of that conflictivity were already mentioned in the previous chapter. But to say a word about their contents, let us add now that the figure and the words of that man posed an unexpected threat for all well-placed people of that society, and perhaps they also brought about the disenchantment of some who at the beginning had got quite enthusiastic about Him the reaction and the decision to finish off with Him were incredibly swift. Perhaps because nothing turns the human being more aggressive nor more ignoble than panic. And those men had a quick insight that the Kingdom of God announced by Jesus would suppose an end to their privileges.

On the other hand, there was something in that "gentle and humble-hearted" man that unleashed His aggressiveness. It was seeing how the Name of God was being falsified, how it was used as a reason not to do good, or making use of the cult of God as a basis for differences of treatment among men (between Jew and Gentile, man and woman, between layman and priest). This seems to have been the reason for the scene He created in the Temple on His first visit to Jerusalem, and after He had cried over the city as any of His followers would do so today over the Vatican. The "expulsion of the Temple merchants" was not just a mere denunciation of (unavoidable?) economic abuses, but the discrediting of a form of cult that had made sacred those differences between people. At that moment in time Jesus literally jumped since to His mind the only differences that really existed for God were rooted in His radical partiality towards marginalized people.

It is a fact that the Gospels are marked by the sharp darts that Jesus hurled at the "ecclesiastics" of His time and these the evangelists tried to conserve later so that the same situation would not be repeated in the Christian Church: "You are breaking the will of God, taking refuge in your traditions… They eat up the resources of widows with the excuse of praying for them and cumin, and you "disregard" what God wants most: justice and mercy… They kill the prophets sent by God and then presume to be His children… They dress religious symbols ("thread" symbols) as though God looks at the exterior… The house of my Father is not a cave of thieves…" (see Mt chapters 15, 23, 6 and 21).

So, with "the mane let loose and tenderness let loose" (P. Casaldáliga), Jesus fought against the false human images of God, deformed by fear and interests. For this reason perhaps the Japanese E. Susaku was right when he affirmed that in Jesus a slight trace of sadness was perceptible. Since in this world, true love cannot help being affected by the weight of certain sadness.

The Gospels seem to testify too that towards the end of His life, the language of the Kingdom diminished and Jesus made use of a category of His time called "apocalyptic" that describes or announces calamities, not so much as a prediction but as a warning, and to proclaim that despite these, God still remains the Lord of history. But this apocalyptic language seems to be prefigured in one of the most serious (and most forgotten) sentences of the gospels which reveal how Jesus (in spite of that confidence in man that we have remarked before) was fully conscious of the conflictivity of His message: the announcement of the Kingdom of God does not fit in with the containing vessels of this world; it would be like putting new wine in old wineskins or putting a patch of new cloth on an old and worn-out fabric (see Mt 9:16ss). Either the taste is altered, or the cloth will tear. Christian churches know well up to what point their history oscillates between these two extremes: the dilution of the legacy with many reforms or the destruction of the structure which they have sprung from.

This is the explosive strength of that image of God that Jesus had announced with another of His strange dialectics that we find difficult to harmonize but which, besides resuming the whole of this chapter, explains both the conflictive and subversive as well as the subjugating and indelible elements of His passage through history.

On the one hand, "one cannot serve God and wealth" (Mt 6:24); it’s just that simple, although our world will deny it. On the other hand it is not possible to love God if one does not love man (Mt 22:34ss). It is not that the both loves are the "same" but it is impossible to separate the two. Although the churches find it difficult to understand.

Conclusion

If our interpretation of the truth is valid, the exactitude of the words of J.B. Metz would perhaps be understood better: "Jesus was neither a mad man nor a revolutionary; but He so palpably resembled the one and the other that He gave people a handle to mistake Him to be both." At the end, Herod treated Him as a fool and His follow-citizens handed Him over to be crucified as a subversive element. Those who wish to follow Him…should count on the possibility of falling a victim to this misunderstanding."9

And if these words are exact, they will lead us by the hand, as it were, to the following chapter of this booklet.
 

NOTES

1. Papyrus found in Egypt in 1897. To judge by other already well-known fragments of that same papyrus, the quoted text could be apocryphal called the Gospel of the Hebrews.

2. The Good Samaritan, the Pharisee and the Publican, the lost sheep, the Prodigal Son…

3. With respect to the topic of God which does not fit in here, I refer the reader to my chapter ("Jesus and God") in the book Ten Words about Jesus of Nazareth, Estella 1999, pg. 189-248.

4. Jesus does not speak about divorce (or separation by common agreement before an intolerable situation which did not exist in His world, given the inferiority of women), but of repudiation or "letter of dismissal" which that male society conceded to men for very small reasons and which left the woman totally unprotected. The verb "apollyomai" (Mt 5:32; 19:3; Mk 10:2ss; Lk 16:18) does not mean reciprocal action (separate themselves) but a unilateral action (let go). Here the matter at stake is the defense of women and not a norm of conjugal morals.

5. Beside describing a normal human reaction, there could be in that verb an illusion to Jer 31:20.

6. Compare Mt 7:22-3 or Lk 13:26-7 with Mt 25:31ss).

7. This, contrary to the usual presentation, was not only a movement against the external pagan empire but also against internal religious injustice. The first action of the zealots when they attacked in the year 66 was to burn all the existing debt files in Jerusalem.

8. The priests and Pharisees did not enter the atrium of the pagan Pilate "so as not to defile themselves" (Jn 18:23). Jesus decides to go to the house of the Roman centurion – knowing well the Jewish mentality – and of this centurion He asks only one favor at a distance.

9. In Concilium no. 110 (1975) pg. 556.

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