The Compassionate Humanity of Jesus


Although since the Vatican Council II abundant sources have developed through modern, both Catholic and non-Catholic scholarship, it is still not an easy task trying to get a handle on the  environment which hatched the mindset of a Galilean peasant born two thousand years ago in an obscure corner of the immense and diverse Roman Empire. Jesus’ heavenly Father seems to have chosen a time and place in history where men would have to wait for modern scholarly methods and techniques to access a fuller and more authentic knowledge of Jesus. We need to make the most of this opportunity.

The estimated 25 to 70 years of early Church history between the death of Jesus and a written emergent celebration of him as divine occurring in the first century of our era have veiled God’s human Word in a mysterious puzzle whose pieces and contours Vat II has charged us to study and make our own with all the resources dug up in the last couple hundred years by historians, historical sociologists, linguistic detectives, archeologists, and literary spelunkers.

According to Vat II the oaths demanded of the clergy and the Index of Forbidden Books reminiscent of mind control methods of the Inquisition were no longer compatible with the surge of man’s modern quest for knowledge, referred to by the Church up to that time as the heresy of modernism. It was a surprise to me to read in a highly recommended study on Vatican II by Massimo Faggioli Vatican II: the Battle for Meaning that the Council effectively was opening up historical knowledge to become a “locus theologicus.” Curiously the person who early on in the Council made this astute observation was Cardinal Lefebvre, later declared a heretic (the only officially recognized heretic from the Council) for his rejection of the Council’s position on history and other matters. Without being a professional theologian, I would interpret history as a “locus theologicus” to mean that historical and biblical specialists can still discover reliable information about the religiously significant interactions between Jesus, God, and man. All such information can contribute to the way we believe and relate to God and one another.

Even in the last 50 years since Vatican II research into the interaction of Jesus with the social, economic, political and even geographical environment of minuscule Galilean settlements such as Nazareth and the somewhat larger Capharnaum have made it possible to identify and clarify many of the historical texts of the gospels. It was a surprise to me to find conservative and so-called liberal exegits in agreement as to the probable fact that Jesus had never gone up to one of the larger cities, and much less Jerusalem where he traveled once only to die.

And more significantly in that same environment scholars have been able to make fairly probable reconstructions of the themes from the Jewish Scriptures that would have strongly influenced a latter day prophet  like Jesus. A window on the religious conversation of Jesus’ and the persons he was communicating with becomes invaluable for interpreting the intent of his words and through them the meanings of his message.

The Jesus of history, for centuries beyond the grasp of the Church, enriches the Christ of the Gospels and St. Paul revealing another face of God previously invisible to many of those who seek him. A more recent translation of the famous quote, contained in the scholars’ attempt to record Jesus’ own  words,  from the gospel of Matthew written in Greek, “…be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect.” has been translated to read “compassionate” instead of perfect.

The new rendition of the phrase does more than simply exhort us to be perfect, it takes the emphasis off of us who can never be perfect anyway, and teaches us a basic quality of God’s fatherhood. We presume without really knowing that God doesn’t experience the feelings of  emotions as human beings do. Still the creator of emotions, God through being “com–passionate”  in some way puts himself in human shoes. Jesus as many theologians and biblical experts opine probably did not realize that he was divine, but he had an intense relationship with God whom he characterized as a father. Jesus wanted us to know that God, his father, not only understood the sufferings of his created children on earth God identified itself with them; this was borne out  in his son, especially on the cross. The sufferings were not so much the result of sin, a prevailing belief among Catholic theologians until Vatican II ,   as much as limitations humankind has to overcome by living out Jesus’ message of compassion.  A pervasive compassion among mankind will bring the full (nothing material-related can ever be considered complete on earth) harmony of his Father’s kingdom on earth so that all will have the operational freedom to imitate Jesus’ intimacy with his father and “hallow” his name. That is Jesus’ message. (See The Our Father)