Jesus lived a very vulnerable life and was not immune to or protected from the challenges that the people of his time confronted every day, especially those persons at the bottom of the embedded social and religious structures of Palestine. First-century Palestine was a volatile place within the Roman Empire, and those on the fringes of that society who were oppressed by injustice and violence were the most vulnerable to the pains and struggles of life.
But the idea that Jesus embraced human vulnerability raises a crucial theological question. For what reason did Jesus live as a human susceptible to the struggles of life? Did he become incarnate and face human vulnerability just so he could be a sacrifice for our sin? While many Christians answer this question with a resounding yes, it seems to me that there must be more to Jesus being human than just God’s plan for him to become a sacrifice.
When I read the Gospel narratives, I come away with the impression that although Jesus may at times imply that his death will be sacrificial, being a sacrifice for human sin seems not to be at the forefront of Jesus’ mind until that event arrives. Even when he predicts his death to his disciples, he only speaks a small number of times about his crucifixion being a sacrifice for human sin.
I am not saying that this traditional interpretation is not found in the Gospels or on the lips of Jesus. What I am suggesting is that we need to take a careful look at what may be the utmost reason for why Jesus faced human vulnerability. Jesus did not simply put on the skin of human existence and wear that skin until his crucifixion, after which he was resurrected, making everything okay. Jesus’ choice to take on human vulnerability was based on something more concrete that had a more intimate effect on those vulnerable persons around him.
His free choice to be vulnerable to everyday existence was not for the sole reason of being some sort of worthy sacrifice. His choice to take on human existence was a choice to unite with the most vulnerable of society.
To get at what I am suggesting, let’s consider one of the stories of Jesus’ encounter with one of those persons forgotten by society. For me, one of the most powerful stories that relates to the question of why Jesus chose human vulnerability is the story of the woman who had been bleeding for 12 years. Mark tells this story in such a way as to picture Jesus not only as a powerful healer, but also as a person who was tuned into the needs of those vulnerable people around him.
There are a number of details that help us hear the story as one of human vulnerability. First, the character is a woman, and being a Jewish woman of the first century, she was not worthy to be in the presence of a male, much less approach that male.
Second, the woman is not named. Mark could have easily given her a name, but he leaves her unnamed to demonstrate her existence as an insignificant person to those around her.
Third, this woman has been bleeding for 12 years, which makes her ritually unclean according to the cultic code of Judaism. She is an unnamed, impure woman, who is marginalized from her community.
But perhaps most important for the point I am seeking to make about Jesus is that though the crowds press in upon him, Jesus feels this woman touch his cloak. Even his disciples, who were close to him in the crowd, were unaware of the woman’s presence, much less her touching Jesus. But Jesus feels her touch.
An easy explanation to Jesus’ sensitivity would be to say that because he was God in human form, he would have felt this woman touch him, for he had divine senses. But it seems to me that Mark’s theology leans more toward portraying Jesus as the human who is keenly aware of the vulnerability of human existence, mainly because he has experienced that human vulnerability himself. He is sensitive to the needs of those on the very bottom of the social and religious rung of first-century Palestine, not because he is divine, but because he has embraced human vulnerability for the purpose of associating with those most vulnerable in his world.
This understanding of Jesus’ mission as the Human One must have a life-altering impact on our living as humans. If Jesus embraced human vulnerability for the purpose of associating with those who were exposed to the pains of life, how much more are we called to sacrificial living that causes us to renounce our comfort and to identify with the most vulnerable of our world?
Assistant Director of the Honors College at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Arkansas.