Was Jesus Ever Hangry?
By John Backman
Did Jesus ever lose his cool? Did he doubt his mission? Really, how human was Jesus—and what does the answer mean for us?
Lately, while studying the Gospel of Matthew, I've felt drawn to read between the lines, make unexpected connections, and wonder about cause and effect. The resulting picture shows a Jesus who had emotions and reactions we don't usually associate with God the Son. If that picture is accurate, it may have profound implications for the way we live.
Take his response to the gruesome end of John the Baptist. As the story goes, Herod's niece had danced so beautifully for the ruler that he promised her anything she wanted. Prompted by her scheming mother, she asked for the Baptist's head on a platter. So:
[Herod] sent and had John beheaded in the prison. The head was brought on a platter and given to the girl, who brought it to her mother. His disciples came and took the body and buried it; then they went and told Jesus. Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. (Matthew 14:10-13a)
By this point in the narrative, Jesus had already seen opposition. He'd alienated the citizens of his hometown. He'd crossed swords repeatedly with the scribes and Pharisees. But none of that had prevented him from teaching and healing.
Then his own relative—his partner in mission, if you will—loses his head for speaking out. Maybe for the first time, Jesus gets a visceral sense of what he's up against: the ruthless power systems and authorities of his world.
I think it shook him to his core. You know how when you get horrible news, you need time "to gather yourself"? What if Jesus was taking that time by paddling off to a deserted place?
And while his ministry continues after he returns, some things change. He starts to imagine his own execution, and tells the disciples about it. He loses patience with their slowness to understand. And he wonders out loud who he is.
Yes, we read that passage in Matthew 16—"who do you say that I am?"—as a test of the disciples' faith. But maybe it's not about that. The reflections of author and editor Cullen Murphy in The Atlantic have always haunted me:
This is one of the most resonant questions in the whole of the New Testament. It is the question, it seems, of a man who wishes to disturb but who is also himself disturbed; of a man who has somehow found himself in deeper waters than anticipated; of a man at once baffled and intrigued by a destiny that he may have begun to glimpse but of which he is not fully aware. And thus, seeking guidance, seeking perhaps to ken the range of possibilities, Jesus put the question to his followers. It is an affecting and very human moment.
So when Peter responded by confessing him as the Messiah, is Jesus' response—"Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah!"—a declaration that Peter passed the test, or Jesus' sigh of relief that his close friend has validated him? Who among us hasn't desperately needed, and welcomed, that kind of validation?
It's possible that John's execution rattled Jesus badly, that Jesus needed validation, that Jesus' mission came into focus over time. And yes, it's possible Jesus was, at times, hangry.
In the morning, when he returned to the city, he was hungry. And seeing a fig tree by the side of the road, he went to it and found nothing at all on it but leaves. Then he said to it, "May no fruit ever come from you again!" And the fig tree withered at once. (Matthew 21:18-19)
Most of us have heard the interpretation that this too was a test, or rather an object lesson. That's true to an extent; Jesus certainly turned it into an object lesson. But somehow the idea of Love Incarnate killing a tree to make a point seems, well, odd. Even considering that the ancients' attitudes toward the lives of trees may have been different from ours. In contrast, I can totally get that Jesus was hangry, because I get hangry, too.
And that's the point.
Too often, I think, we look at our insecurities and fears and hangry moments and call them sin—in ourselves and in others—because God doesn't act this way, and God is perfect. Labeling these reactions and emotions "bad" leads to the crippling self-doubt and judgment stereotypical of "religion."
Labeling these reactions and emotions "bad" leads to the crippling self-doubt and judgment stereotypical of "religion."
But if the Son of God acted in these ways, perhaps they're not sinful; they're human. As we embrace and explore this idea, our vision of what is truly and naturally human expands, and the more of ourselves we can call "human," too. The self-doubt and judgment recede. We can be real, accept ourselves as we are, hold our quirks and shortcomings lightly. And we can do the same for others, seeing in them the humanness we have in common.
This is huge in an age that conspires to divide us.
None of this dismisses the existence of sin. We are all too capable of hatred, slander, exploitation, and everything else noted as sin in the scriptures. But this also points us back to a deeper view of Jesus the human: we look ever more closely at what he did and what he condemned, and we imitate him, embracing the one while avoiding the other.
And just as Jesus the human extended love and grace, a more human view of Jesus empowers us to do the same—to ourselves and to others. Lord knows we need more grace in the world.
John Backman is a spiritual director, contributor to Huffington Post Religion, and associate of an Episcopal monastery. He writes about contemplative spirituality and its surprising relevance for today's deepest issues, and is the author of Why Can't We Talk? Christian Wisdom on Dialogue as a Habit of the Heart.