Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany …Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. John 12:1-3This is one of four biblical accounts of a woman slouching toward Jesus to anoint his head or feet with very expensive oil.
Every time I heard these stories discussed in Sunday church school, they were quickly divided into two categories:
One, how perceptive is the woman (whoever she is) to recognize Jesus as the Son of God; and, two, how shortsighted are the disciples (namely Judas) to look upon the act as a waste of money.
That was the approach I expected the Rev. James Martin, S.J., to take when he referred to the stories during a recent lecture about his book Jesus: A Pilgrimage.
Instead, Martin asked: “Was Jesus turned on?”
Given that Jesus was equal parts God and Human, it’s a fair question. And the answer is unavoidable: yes, no doubt. It’s one of the inescapable realities of Incarnational Theology.
If Jesus the man was tempted in all things – and presuming his human side was straight male – his hormones would have vied fiercely with his God side. As the woman’s shining face presses moistly toward him and he feels her warm breath on his weary feet, the God in him exults, “Bless you, dear child, for your chaste and pious devotion.” The human in him chokes back the words, “Hey, baby, come here often?”
It’s difficult for most of us to think of Jesus as being thoroughly human as well as wholly God. We can see the scriptural evidence that Jesus laughed, cried, hungered, enjoyed wine, and occasionally ate to satiation. Father Martin also points out that Jesus the Human must have suffered headaches, painful sunburn, blisters on his feet, episodes of projectile vomiting and violent diarrhea. He may also – since God is not known to have made a special dispensation for him – had nocturnal emissions. And he probably enjoyed them.
I may be crossing a line in stating my assumptions about just how human Jesus was. Indeed I fear Mrs. Montefiore, my childhood Sunday school teacher, would have been aghast to realize Jesus’ underarm odor carried the same pheromones as Mr. Montefiore. But these are the challenging veracities of Incarnational Theology.
It’s difficult to face these realities and many congregations never acknowledge them. This may be one reason millennials (adults born after 1980) are leaving the church in droves. The Jesus we have tried to present to them is a two-dimensional Barbie Doll replete with pious promises but bereft of the human flesh that makes him credible as God incarnate. If Jesus didn’t battle with his hormones and his headaches the same way we do, how can we be sure that God really understands what it’s like to be us?
It is undeniably difficult for many Christians to understand the union of body and soul. For one thing, it’s usually the body that causes people to sin so we try to keep it as far away from our souls as possible.
This diminution of our physicality crops up in unexpected ways. A lot of us don’t like to think of our pastors, priests, nuns, or bishops as real humans because we expect them to be spiritual creatures.
When a pope gets sick, for example, it’s hard for the faithful to know how to pray. In the 1970s, when Pope Paul VI had his prostate removed, the actual procedure – whether retropubic or perineal – was too horrible to contemplate for a pope. When a reporter suggested to a physician that the pope’s prostate problem could be a teaching moment for millions of other men, the doctor suggested that one way of maintaining prostate health was masturbation. No doubt this was an opportunity Pope Paul overlooked, but it may have been helpful news for others. I remember discussing this revelation with my friend Joe Leonard, a Baptist clergyman, who wondered if the Boy Scouts should create a merit badge for Onan (Genesis 38:8-10).
An awareness of the humanity of Jesus greatly expands our appreciation of the Gospel stories.
The Common Lectionary’s Lenten attention focus on Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well is a good example. (John 4:5-42)
In the story, Jesus is tired and thirsty after a long walk to the Samaritan city of Sychar. There, he sits on the edge of Jacob’s Well and waits.
A Samaritan woman – a member of a tribe the Jews considered despicable and inferior – walks to the well. Unexpectedly, Jesus asks her for a drink.
This violates Jewish human customs on several levels. But Jesus is actually displaying his Godly insights by conversing with a member of a group the Jews hated, and a woman at that, an inferior being in a rigidly patriarchal society. But God-Jesus sees the woman as a beloved and valued creature as precious as all other women and men in God’s family.
God-Jesus also perceives that the woman will be receptive to astonishing news. He announces that he is the conveyor of the living water of eternal life, and he entrusts the woman with the news that he is God’s promised messiah. God-Jesus also demonstrates God’s intimacy with all God’s creatures by unveiling deep secrets of the women’s life only God can know, including a string of past husbands. John’s Gospel leaves no doubt that the Samaritan woman has been chosen by God-Jesus as a suitable apostle to begin the proclamation of his messiahship. Her meeting with Jesus at the well was no accident. It was God-ordained.
Then again, there may also be an element of human-Jesus in the encounter. The Spanish artist Julio Romero de Torres (November 9, 1874 – May 10, 1930) thought he saw something else going on. His painting of Christ and the Samaritan Woman (above) departs from the conventional pieties of religious art. The woman is young and desirable. Jesus presses against her almost seductively, keen to seize her attention and win her trust, eager to reveal a secret that will change history forever, and – could it be – leaning close enough to smell her hair and feel her warmth?
The passage requires a lot of re-reading to see if those elements actually exist. And Romero de Torres’ paintings suggests an obsession with eroticism. Google him if you must, but persons under 14 should be accompanied by an adult.
Father James Martin does us a great service by reminding us that Jesus was human and “tempted in all things,” just as we are tempted. To know this is to know Jesus better, because we come to realize that Jesus knows what we go through every day: our pains and discomforts, our fears, our frustrations, and our perpetual temptations.
But, as theologians have also been reminding us for two millennia, Jesus differs from us in one all-important way: he never succumbed to temptation. He was a human without sin, a human who never strayed from God Creator or rejected God’s will for him.
That makes Jesus unique among all of God’s creation.
Jesus struggled every day with the same temptations that that threaten to drown us.
And in renewing our awareness of his humanness, we may find ourselves more powerfully drawn to his God-ness, and the eternal font of unconditional love.
It also puts our own humanness and fleshly temptations in a clearer perspective.
C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity, “The sins of the flesh are bad, but they are the least bad of all sins.”
Lewis wrote, “All the worst pleasures are purely spiritual: the pleasure of putting other people in the wrong, of bossing and patronizing and spoiling sport, and back-biting, the pleasures of power, of hatred. For there are two things inside me, competing with the human self which I must try to become. They are the Animal self, and the Diabolical self. The Diabolical self is the worse of the two. That is why a cold, self-righteous prig who goes regularly to church may be far nearer to hell than a prostitute.”Of course, Lewis added, it’s better to be neither.
Jesus encouraged us by his own example to enjoy the pleasures of the flesh, if not its sins.
If that helps us become more generously loving and less diabolically priggish, we owe it to a deeper understanding of Jesus’ human side. The side that was more like us than we have dared imagine.