By Derek C. Hatch
Once the liturgical calendar rolls around to Palm Sunday and then to the celebration of Christ’s resurrection, we hear constant reminders that first-century Jews expected Jesus to be the Messiah, but were not anticipating a Messiah like Jesus. Fueled by the memory of a brief period of Jewish independence about 150 years prior to Jesus’ birth, Jews eagerly waited for the Messiah, the King who would lead an uprising and free them from Roman oppression, using all means if necessary.
Indeed, even on Palm Sunday, the occasion of the triumphal royal entry, the crowds that chanted “Hosanna” were more than willing to look past the previous dissonances between Jesus’ ministry and their expectations (e.g., forgiving sins and blessing the poor and marginalized).
We know their ultimate problem with Jesus — the Messiah was not supposed to die, and Jesus seemed intent on doing so. To suffer violence rather than inflict it on others would not work for a Messiah. Of course, the great irony in the grand liturgical drama of Holy Week is that those hosannas turned to “Crucify him” in a matter of days when the crowd realized that Jesus would not fit the prevailing mold. His resurrection then served not only to vindicate his existence as the Son of God and Messiah, but also to reinforce the shape of his nonviolent way of life.
Like those first-century Jews, this difficulty of wrestling with our expectations of Jesus in comparison with the Gospel portrait still haunts us. For instance, there has been some recent clamor by several pastors and church leaders for a Jesus that is not a peacemaker. As one pastor stated, to view Jesus in this way misses the real Jesus: “The European, long-haired, dress-wearing, hippie Jesus is a bad myth from a bad artist who mistook Jesus for a community college humanities professor.” In other words, he may be called the Prince of Peace, but the real Jesus is the one coming back on a cloud with a sword to seek vengeance.
While the stated aim here is to get the “biblical Jesus” correct, this is not the whole picture. Rather, the subtle yet significant point of emphasis in these arguments involves Jesus as a prototypical male. Seen in this light, a nonviolent or “pansy” Jesus (as he is sometimes described) places the question of manliness at the heart of this issue. A weak Jesus does not exhibit the machismo necessary to lead (though a Jesus with thick biceps does). A weak Jesus does not get results (but an aggressive Jesus does). Jesus, as someone not to be messed with, is a man’s man.
As a father of three boys, I often think about how to form them to live in a manner most faithful to the gospel. However, to engage in these reflections is a maddening endeavor. For instance, I and my family live in a Christian environment that spends a great deal of time and energy lamenting the evils of media-saturated Hollywood culture (mainly sex and drugs) while turning a blind eye to (or extolling the virtues of) bullying, gun violence and war/militarism. Such a dichotomy takes a toll on children as well as their parents.
Both directly and indirectly, young boys are often counseled to be tough, rugged and proud (in contrast to their female siblings or friends who are instructed to be sensitive, docile and receptive). Among the results of this formation are men who desire power and authority and take things by force. And this is not what it means to follow Jesus.
I wholeheartedly disagree with the portrait of Jesus (and manhood) that has been elevated. This “cage fighter” image of Jesus does not display the Jesus of Christianity nor does it serve as a counter to the prevailing winds of our context. Even those who would look to the Bible’s final book for a “tough Jesus” instead find someone who has a sword coming out of his mouth (Rev. 19:15), a clear sign that this “weapon” is anything but death-dealing in a literal sense.
Rather than looking for Jesus to reify male gender identity, perhaps Jesus, when viewed in light of the drama of Holy Week, is showing us a different Messiah, one who is more willing to be killed than to kill, one who finds aggression at others’ expense to be a result of sin, one who does not divorce love and peace from justice.
May we and our families receive, embrace and follow him as we move toward the season of Easter.