Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Faith of Jesus

Jesus practised deep faith throughout his life and shared his faith with his disciples with the duty to guard, develop, and share it from generation to generation.
To speak of the faith of Jesus might strike some Christians as strange or surprising. How can we speak of Jesus’ faith if, as the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, he knows the Father fully?

According to some medieval theologians, Jesus was enjoying the beatific vision, the happy and heavenly vision of God, already from the first moment of his conception. In this case, throughout his public ministry and during his trial and execution, were his physical and psychological struggles real or were they only instances of play-acting?

Let us take a look at the testimony of the New Testament. We begin with the story of the healing of the boy with a deaf-mute spirit in Mark 9:16-29. For John Meier ("A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus," vol. 2, 1994), this particular exorcism most probably goes back to the Jesus of history, for there are some remarkable differences between this story and the other exorcism stories.

First, this is the only exorcism in Mark's gospel which refers to the failure of the disciples to perform the requested exorcism. Earlier in this gospel, Jesus already gave the Twelve authority over unclean spirits, and then they themselves performed exorcisms (Mk 6:7,13). Jesus wagered on his disciples, and empowered them to partially actualize God’s Rule even before they seemed ready for it.

The second remarkable aspect is the almost clinical nature of the detailed description of the boy’s affliction. According to Meier, it seems that the boy suffered some form of epilepsy. The third remarkable aspect is the absence of christological titles in the story. Jesus is referred to as “teacher.”

Fourth, the story makes reference to the faith of Jesus. In this story, the one who believes, the one who has faith is no other than Jesus himself. His powerful deed is based on faith, his faith. The boy was healed through his prayer. The story implies that Jesus acts and heals with the power that comes from faith. Jesus is the True Man of Great Faith.
(An interesting insight from the story concerns the unclean spirit that hindered speech. It was a spirit so painful that it was causing the boy to throw himself into fire. According to some psychologists, being unable to express adequately raw emotions is a major cause of violence to oneself or to others. As William Blake [1757-1827] put it:

“I was angry with my friend: I told my wrath, my wrath did end. I was angry with my foe: I told it not, my wrath did grow.” Thus, to prevent people from expressing their feelings is to push them closer to acts of violence. Pastoral agents ought to help plain folks especially the poor to express themselves and assert their rights.)
Another New Testament reference to the faith of Jesus is in the Letter to the Hebrews 12:2, which calls Jesus “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” This letter presents Jesus as the first-born in our faith, the first to have lived fully in seeking the will of God. Jesus cannot be described as the pioneer of our faith if he himself did not practise great faith. Now, what is faith?
According to Heb 11:1, “faith is the substance of what we hope for, and the admission of what we do not see.” Now, if Jesus were the pioneer of our faith, and if he were the best model of a man of faith, this implies that there were at least some stages in his life in which he made a personal decision to believe in some things that he himself did not fully see.
We read in Heb 5:7-8: “During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered.” Jesus learned to trust, to believe, and to obey God. The faith of Jesus was a process of learning to trust. Just as Jesus developed physically, his faith also went through a process of development. As Luke puts it in 2:52, “Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and people.”
The development process that Jesus underwent could have included experiences of conversion, a radical change in his expectations or outlook. For example, why did Jesus submit to John’s baptism “for the forgiveness of sins” (Mk 2:4)? Perhaps it was the example and preaching of John which helped Jesus to recognize the sinfulness of their society, the sinfulness of the guardians of the tradition, and the inability already of the temple system to be a medium for the forgiveness of sins.
John turned his back on his filial duty to become a priest, and he turned his back on the temple system itself, for he did not require those who came to be baptized for forgiveness to go to the temple afterwards to offer the traditional sin-offering of an unblemished female goat or lamb to be sacrificed (Leviticus 4:27-35). Furthermore, John called the Pharisees and Sadducees a “brood of vipers” (Matthew 3:7).
John’s preaching sensitized Jesus to feel the reality of repressed public guilt, which was an effect of sinful social structures. Jesus felt the weight of the public guilt even though, in the Christian view, he himself had no share in the blame for it. His distressing experience of collective guilt might have prompted him to submit to John’s baptism.

John converted Jesus to the belief that God’s Kindom was near and that their society was sinful. Later, Jesus experienced perhaps a second conversion when he decided to pursue his own prophetic ministry in which he, unlike John, emphasized the joy of salvation in a Kindom that was already partially present. Also, Jesus did not reproduce the ascetic life-style of John (see Luke 7:33-34).

The faith of Jesus developed through a process of interaction with various persons from whom he would learn new things. For example, read the story of Jairus’ daughter, who was twelve years old, and the unnamed woman who had a twelve-year hemorrhage in Mk 5:21-43. A feminist christologist, Rita Nakashima Brock ("Journeys by Heart: A Christology of Erotic Power" [1992] pp.83-84), writes:

"Both females are afflicted with crises associated with the status of women in Greco-Roman and Hebraic society. The adult woman is sick with one of the most polluting signs of female adulthood [see Lev 15:19-30]. The adolescent is on the threshold of a similar curse, puberty. The woman has suffered with bleeding for exactly the same period of time it has taken Jairus’ daughter to reach the official age of puberty and marriageability--twelve years. The woman’s hemorrhage is the affliction of adult women in magnified form; she bleeds endlessly and is perpetually polluting. The authorities, the physicians, have left her poor and sick. They cannot help her disease because the ordinary social structures cannot help her. They are part of her problem....She suffers from her very femaleness. The social structures also interfere with Jesus’ ability to help her because he is a Jewish man. He is not even able to see her. She is invisible to him, lost in the protective maze of his disciples.
"The woman is, nonetheless, determined to be whole. She is able to acknowledge, from the depths of herself, her heart, her desperate need to be healed, to be restored to right relationships. Her heart opens the space for erotic power to surface. She summons the courage to violate a patriarchal social taboo. Though an unclean woman, she touches Jesus in public....In the touching, she is, literally, saved, not just cured in a medical sense, but saved. Her courage in violating a taboo has made her whole."

After Jesus kept looking for the one who touched him, the healed woman, despite her fear, showed herself and acknowledged what she did. Thus, she reaffirmed that she believed that her action, her violation of a patriarchal taboo, was the right thing to do. Jesus responded: “Daughter, your faith has healed you.” He disregarded the fact that he was rendered “unclean” by the touch of an “unclean” woman.
The encounter with the courageous woman taught Jesus a lesson. Afterwards, he could fully appreciate what ails Jairus’ daughter: she was dying because she had begun menstruating and she could not accept the following consequences: she was considered “unclean” and should not be touched, and she knew that her childhood had ended and she could soon be given in marriage perhaps to somebody she did not even know. She was dying, as she was losing respect for her body and her very self. Perhaps she became catatonic in her trauma. Jesus brought her back to life when he touched her (“he took her by the hand”) and helped her to stand up, to be free from shame and self-rejection, and to feel at home with her body.

The deep faith of Jesus developed through a process that not only involved close interaction with the unwashed and the “unclean” but also involved struggles against temptation. According to Heb 4:15: “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are--yet was without sin.” Again, Heb 2:18 says: “Because Jesus himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.”
The deep faith of Jesus was formed in the midst of struggle, the struggle against temptation, and the struggle to respond to the challenges of his times. Thus, when we are tempted, when we are struggling, when we are suffering, Christ can truly help us for he understands fully what it means to struggle, to suffer, and to be tempted.

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