The Imagination of Jesus: From December 20, 1975

Editors note: Gerald OCollins , S.J. has been writing for America since the early 1970s. He has authored dozens of articles for the magazine, which is not surprising since he has also written 47 books! An expert on Christology who has taught both in Rome and his native Australia, OCollins evaluates the Vaticans notification to Jon Sobrino, S.J. in the September 17 issue. In the December 20, 1975 issue, OCollins reflected on the formation of Jesus imagination.

Christmas leads off a series of feast days that refer us to Jesus infancy, childhood and growth to manhood: the feasts of the Holy Innocents, the Holy Family, the Epiphany and the Presentation. Yet we know so very little about Jesus origins and first 30 years. Matthew and Luke offer us the so-called infancy narratives, two chapters at the start of their Gospels. No other New Testament authors bother to say anything at all about the life of Jesus as a baby and a boy.

This lack of information can seem depressing, irritating and even unfair. It prodded some early Christians into inventing details to fill up the gaps. What became known as the Apocryphal Gospels let fantasy run free in fashioning stories. In one account, Jesus is seven and playing with other children of His own age. They are all making mud pies in the shape of donkeys, cows and birds. Each child boasts about how good his mud bird is. Suddenly the little clay figures fly out of Jesus hand, circle overhead and then settle back on His hand to everyones amazement.


In another such story, robbers capture Mary and Joseph when they are fleeing from Herod into Egypt. One of the robbers turns out to be none other than Dismas, which is the name given to the Good Thief in this Apocryphal Gospel. When Dismas sees the baby Jesus, he recognizes that this is no ordinary child and says: 0 most blessed of children, if ever there comes a time for having mercy on me, then remember me and forget not this hour. Then Dismas pays the ransom price for the holy family. The church saw these Apocryphal Gospels for what they were--the spurious exercises of curious minds. It excluded these products of free fantasy from the New Testament.

Do we, then, simply have to put up with our lack of knowledge about the boyhood and formative years of Jesus life? At this point, some Christians take refuge in what must have been the case. Being like us in all things but sin, He must have gone through all the normal stages of social and psychological growth to manhood. Being the sinless child of a sinless mother, He must have enjoyed utterly untroubled relations with her. Theologians and others have pushed this line of argument. They have built up a set of conclusions about things which must have held true of Jesus.

This approach, however, crashes into two perennial difficulties. First, its results remain peculiarly empty. What did Jesus untroubled relationship with His mother look like in practice? How can we possibly press beyond vague generalities and make our argument yield some concrete details about family life at Nazareth? Second, not everyone agrees about what must have been the case. It all depends on what one considers appropriate in giving an account of the early life of Jesus. Some have argued that He must have enjoyed all possible forms of human knowledge. Others vigorously deny this. Such an endowment would make His human existence suspect and unreal. Some maintain that Jesus must have passed through the normal sexual crises of puberty. Others reject this conclusion as downright distasteful.

Neither the free fancy of the Apocryphal Gospels nor efforts to deduce what must have been the case take us very far. It can be discouraging that the first 30 years of Jesus life remain so shadowy and elusive.

Some information, however, can be drawn from a monotonously neglected source--the language used by Jesus in the first three Gospels. Let me make my presuppositions here perfectly clear. I am not maintaining that all the language attributed to Jesus by Matthew, Mark and Luke necessarily goes back to the actual ministry. (Some of the language may come from the Gospel writers themselves, from the early church or from the risen Christ.) Nor am I alleging that the Gospel writers necessarily present an exact transcript of the words Jesus employed in His preaching. But I am agreeing with many scholars that Matthew, Mark and Luke preserve the flow and flavor of the language chosen by Jesus. I wish to appeal to passages that plausibly seem to derive from His preaching.

My case is this. The imagery and language used by Jesus suggest some things about the way His imagination worked and the way His sensibility had formed during the hidden life at Nazareth. Let me single out two features of His preaching. They indicate lines along which His imagination had grown and revealed itself.

First, Jesus shows Himself aware of, and responsive to, many forms of human activity, suffering and happiness. He observes what happens when farmers sow crops, sees how they may build extra barns to house the proceeds of a bumper harvest and recalls their methods for forecasting the weather. When you see a cloud rising in the west, you say at once, A shower is coming; and so it happens. And when you see a south wind blowing, you say, There will be scorching heat; and so it happens (Lk. 12: 54f.). Jesus has also noticed how people put patches on torn cloaks and use fresh wineskins for new wine. He speaks of taxation, loans of money, of the role of stewards in administering large households, of the work of fishermen, of shepherds guarding their flocks, of the soft clothing of the wealthy, of dogs waiting for scraps from the table, of travelers turning up late at night and looking for food, of the workings of the law, of the current price of sparrows and of much else besides. Jesus eye sweeps across a very wide range of human activity. If we put together all His images, we would have a fairly adequate picture of daily life in ancient Galilee.

His imagination does not flinch from facing human suffering. One of His most memorable stories features the traveler who is robbed, beaten up and left half-dead on a country road. Jesus points to the greed of the rich men who ever indulge, even though sick men lie starving at their door. He recalls the calculations made by princes before leading their armies into war. Human happiness does not pass Jesus by. He speaks of the joy of a father when his runaway son returns, of celebrations at weddings, of a housewife delighted to have recovered some missing money. All in all, Jesus preaching reveals an imagination that has grown to be sensitively aware of all that is going on in His world.

Second, we throwaway any right to comment on the way Jesus perceives reality, if we ignore the earthy particularity of His language. Characteristically, He answers general questions like Who is my neighbor? by telling a story (Lk. 10:29-37). Of course, other rabbis have done this both before and after Jesus. But the fact that they also display this habit does not make it any less His. He thinks from below, not by way of deduction from above. He offers cases from which His audience can draw general principles, if they want to. Even His generalizing remarks stay close to the earth. No one after drinking old wine desires new (Lk. 5:39). There is a common touch in the proverbial sayings He cites. In the synagogue at Nazareth He tells the congregation: Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, Physician, heal yourself. (Lk. 4:23). He invites His hearers to perceive the particular things around them. His imagination is attuned to the earthy wisdom of ordinary folk. All of this makes Him the supreme preacher with the common touch. He speaks with us and to us, not merely at us.

The language that Jesus employed in His preaching suggests some things about the way His imagination and perception of the world worked. At the same time, these insights into His adult imagination will give us clues to the way His sensibility formed during His boyhood. In short, the preaching of Jesus is our richest source of information about His so-called hidden life at Nazareth.

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11 years 1 month ago
I appreciated Fr. Gerald O'Collins way of addressing the realistic hope of knowing the mind of Christ. It reminds me of Luke Timothy Johnson's remark in one of his works that, we can never retrieve the Jesus of history - he lays in the past, but the Christ of faith is knowable by the reports we have about him in Scripture - like knowing a famous author or singer through his/her works and the media reports and coverages, though never having met him/her before.


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