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Jesus' Limitations

Jesus' Limitations

Jesus Christ’s vision has been crucial in shaping the religious convictions of what is now one fourth of humankind. What he did as the Incarnate Son of God has had lasting consequences for all human beings.

However, I must start by pointing out a frequent misconception. Some people have a very naive idea of the mystery of the Incarnation. If Jesus was God’s Son, they think, he knew from the start everything there was to know. Therefore, he must have expressed in the Gospel a detailed master plan for all time to come. All we need to do is to read the Gospels attentively and execute what Jesus tells us to do.

This is not the way the Incarnation happened. When ‘the Word was made flesh’ (John 1,14) we received a high priest who was like us in every respect, except sin (Hebrews 4,15). Note: in every respect. That means: he thought and spoke in a human language. He had to learn and discover new things as we have to do. He shared the knowledge and the ignorance of his contemporaries. Only in that way did he become truly like us.

The Gospels confirm this. Jesus was no walking divine encyclopedia. As a child he grew in wisdom and charm (Luke 2,52). Jesus could be amazed when something happened which he had not expected (Matthew 8,10; Mark 6,6). The Gospel episodes show that he responded to events and to people as he encountered them. Jesus was terribly upset when he realised that his opponents were planning to kill him (Matthew 16,21 - 17,8). It helped him grow in a fuller understanding of his mission.

Jesus’ vision of the world as ‘the kingdom of his Father’, contained the seeds of dramatic revolutionary change. But it is not correct to say that he foresaw all its implications or future developments. Jesus’ human limitations did not permit him to.

Neither was it necessary for him to know or spell out in detail what needed to come. As a good, enabling teacher, he left the working out of his vision to future generations.

This means that we should not expect to find in the Gospels a clear expression of those social and religious principles that are now part of our Christian heritage. Among them: democracy, the abolition of slavery, the freedom of speech, racial equality, a nation’s right to self determination, the emancipation of women, and a just division of the world’s resources, and so on.

Nothing human was foreign to him

Jesus’ role in history was far more radical than spelling out the details of a future society or a future Church. By being ‘God among us’ (Matthew 1,23) he brought about in his very person the start of a new reality. For the presence of God was not presented in the image of a powerful, rich, political leader. It was seen in the face of Jesus, a peasant with a Galilean accent. ‘Who sees me, sees the Father’, Jesus said (John 14,9).

The Gospels stress that, from the first moment of his life, Jesus identified fully with those considered the least and the lowest. Luke narrates on purpose how the infant Jesus was born in a stable built for animals and how he was laid in a manger, the way poor people take care of babies. To welcome him, God did not choose a delegation of the political or religious elite, but a group of shepherds — a despised and impoverished social class of people (Luke 2,1-20).

Jesus lived most of his life in Nazareth, an incredibly small hamlet. He was ‘the builder’, that is: the local handyman who took on all jobs that were going: sharpening a tool, repairing a tottering wall, fixing a leaky roof or replacing a wooden door (Mark 6,3; Matthew 13,55). As a travelling preacher, he walked barefoot, with no clothes except for what he was wearing, with no purse for money nor a bag for provisions (Matthew 10,9-10).

Jesus died the death which the Romans had reserved for rebellious slaves. That is why Paul says (Philippians 2,7-8):

He emptied himself
to assume the condition of a slave
and became like (other) human beings.
And as a human being, he humbled himself
and became obedient unto death,
yes, death on a cross.

The moment of Jesus’ final surrender to the love of his Father was also the moment of his fullest identification with human beings in their rejection and suffering. For God loves human beings and has empathy with their suffering. That is, no doubt, the meaning of his exclamation:

‘When I am lifted from the earth,
I will draw all human beings to myself’.

John 12,32

Jesus, the peasant from Galilee, the handyman, the barefoot preacher, died on a cross as the scum of the earth. In his hours of agony he descended into the depths of human loneliness and rejection, and became one with slaves, losers and underdogs. But he rose again to life and glory, and rising he took all human beings with him.

When we were baptised in Christ Jesus, we entered the tomb and joined him in death.
This happened in order that, as Christ was raised from the dead by the Father’s glory, we too in like manner might walk in the newness of life.

Romans 6,4

Notice that no one is excluded, whatever their race, class, sex or social status. Christ, the champion of the underdog, liberated women too by making them share as much as men in his universal priesthood. Denying women the fruits of the liberation Christ won for them by appealing to the fact that he did not include women in his team of apostles is a grave mistake, indeed.

John Wijngaards

Wijngaards Institute for Catholic ResearchThis website is maintained by the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research.

The Institute is known for issuing academic reports and statements on relevant issues in the Church. These have included scholars' declarations on the need of collegiality in the exercise of church authority, on the ethics of using contraceptives in marriage and the urgency of re-instating the sacramental diaconate of women.

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