The Sufferings of Jesus

Christ Reproving the Pharisees, by James Tissot (1885-1894).

When we see loved ones living a lifestyle that we know will only lead to misery and tragedy, not only for themselves, but also for all those whom their life touches, we are filled with sadness, and a certain helplessness. No amount of advice or support, or confrontation of the problem, can change the minds of some people who have an attitude that is fixed on a destructive lifestyle—either one that is overt, like drug taking and criminal activity, or covert and “respectable,” such as an attitude of entitlement and arrogance. The pain and anguish of parents who are forced to sit by and watch their son or daughter descend into a lifestyle which they know, through their own life experiences, is only going to bring heartache and pain, is a common torment in the world. The feeling of absolute helplessness in being able to change the mind of the loved one is an agony that our Savior knows only too well.

In this situation, we come face-to-face with the power of the human will to make free choices. The only persons who can change their attitude and, therefore, direction in their life are the persons themselves. Support, encouragement, and structured intervention can always be offered to provide the necessary assistance. But if the person is not ready to change, or exhibits an entrenched attitude that is completely resistant to change, then all the external help is rendered useless. We have complete reign over our will to make free choices. No one else can take this away from us. Just as we have the will to choose a particular lifestyle or attitude, so we have the choice to accept or reject God’s grace.

Compare the agony of many parents watching their loved ones descend into the abyss to what Jesus must have experienced. To get a better understanding, look closely at Jesus who is a divine person, the second person of the Blessed Trinity. Jesus is begotten of the Father from all eternity, and has the same divine nature as his Father and so, therefore, possesses the fullness of the divinity. In assuming our human nature in the incarnation, he still possessed the fullness of his divine nature. He was true God and true man and, as a result, he remained intimately in union with his Father in heaven during his earthly mission. This hypostatic union is unique to the God-man where the divine and human natures are in perfect harmony and unity.

This is the strongest and most intimate union possible, after the union of the Blessed Trinity. In the Blessed Trinity, the three persons are necessarily one and the same divine nature. In Jesus, it is a fact that the two natures belong to the same person. This personal or hypostatic union, which constitutes the God-man, is incomparably more intimate that that of our soul with our body. Whereas the body and soul are separated at death, the Word is never separated either from the soul or from the body which he has assumed. The union is immutable and indissoluble for all eternity.1

As a result of the hypostatic union, the human soul of Jesus possessed the fullness of God’s graces and gifts. Because he possessed the fullness of grace, he did not increase in grace as we do in our journey towards union with God. While Mary, his mother, was full of grace, she still increased in grace throughout her lifetime by performing meritorious works. She was God’s most perfect creature, endowed with the graces and gifts to be able to fulfill her mission as the mother of God. She was born without sin, and her perpetual virginity enabled her soul to be pure, holy, and spotless. Her holiness is second only to her son. But the distance between her and our Lord in holiness and purity is beyond what we can conceive. This is because Jesus is a divine person, while our mother Mary was not divine, but shared in the divine life more than any other creature.

As previously described, parents see, through their own life experiences—perhaps their own personal experience of addiction, crime, or an earlier attitude in a life of selfishness and ungratefulness—that this gets you nowhere in life. The knowledge and conviction that this is the case adds to their agony. In comparing this experience with that of Jesus, it is possible to gain insight into the inner torture he must have suffered in his heart at the sight of mankind’s rejection of his love. Jesus was able to read the hearts of all the people he encountered during his mission on earth: “… but Jesus knew all people and did not trust himself to them; he never needed evidence about anyone; he could tell what someone had within” (Jn 2: 24-25). In reading people’s hearts, he was able to see their secret thoughts and intentions. Like some of the saints who have received this gift from the Holy Spirit, he possessed it as a consequence of having the fullness of the gifts and graces in his human soul. In reading the hearts of men, he saw the horror of sin, and the corruption of the soul as a result. To contrast this experience, the uniqueness of Jesus in being pure, holy, and divine, and in intimate union with his Father, meant that he had the constant vision of heaven set before his mind’s eye.

… “No man hath ascended into heaven but he that descended from heaven, the Son of man who is in heaven.” Thus Jesus was already in heaven, not only as the Son of God, by reason of his divinity, but as the Son of man, by reason of his human intelligence. Not only was he to be in heaven after his death, resurrection, and ascension, but he was there already at that moment. This was the same as saying that, as of that instant, through his human intelligence, he already saw God face to face, without any intermediary whatever. For, what is heaven if not the spiritual homeland where the blessed enjoy the immediate vision of God, or of eternal life, which consists in seeing God as he sees himself and in loving him as he loves himself.2

In beholding the beatific vision, he saw and experienced the dramatic contrast of man’s supreme destiny open to him if he would repent and believe in the good news, alongside the horror of sin and its full effects on the soul in being led towards the underworld. Jesus, in effect, beheld the vision of hell in the hearts of men alongside the glory of his Father’s house.

His rebuking of the scribes and Pharisees was to awaken them to the consequences of their sinful lifestyle. The continual rejecting of his grace communicated through his miracles, which evidenced his goodness, love, and divine power, was the reason for him rebuking their sinfulness. As Jesus described, if they did not believe him to be the Son of God, they should at least believe in the goodness of his works. “Yet to someone whom the Father has consecrated and sent into the world, you say, ‘You are blaspheming,’ because I said, ‘I am the Son of God.’ If I am not doing my Father’s work, there is no need to believe me, but if I am doing it, then even if you refuse to believe in me, at least believe in the works I do; then you will know for certain that the Father is in me and I am in the Father” (Jn 10: 36-38).

Some of the rebukes from Jesus seem excessively harsh. However, in a similar manner we can sometimes experience an escalation in the challenges from our neighbor, if we do not respond by changing our attitude. The more challenges and rebukes we reject, the “louder” they often become. Consider repeat criminals who appear in court, having failed to amend their lives through repeat offending and breaches of community sentences. The judge will sternly warn them of the impending danger of imprisonment, and the consequences if they do not change their lifestyle. If we look at manipulative bosses who have trampled over many people to gain more power, wealth, and honor, a similar process occurs. While they may rule with fear, they would have had countless instances of their behavior being challenged verbally and non-verbally, throughout their life.

The true measure of holiness is what our neighbors observe in us; our family who lives with us, and our colleagues who work with us. They are the true judges of virtue and holiness in our lives. They see us as we really are. It is also our neighbors who inadvertently guide us towards salvation through the many ways they hold the mirror up to us, reflecting back to us our unjust and selfish behavior.

No one likes the mirror held up to him or her. The mirror was certainly held up to the scribes and Pharisees! Jesus certainly said it as it was, and did not mince his words. “Alas for you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs that look handsome on the outside, but inside are full of the bones of the dead and every kind of corruption. In just the same way, from the outside you look upright, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (Mt: 23: 27-28). His rebukes were severe as the scribes and Pharisees responded negatively to the objective goodness evidenced by his many miracles and acts of mercy. In all likelihood, they rejected throughout their lives the many “minor” rebukes that we often receive if we have our ears open to hear, and eyes open to see what we are being shown. So, in failing to want to see their injustice and cruelty being reflected back to them by their neighbor, they were also unwilling to see the love and mercy of Jesus. Jesus experienced the agony of seeing the hearts of the scribes and Pharisees who were “rotten to the core.” Because of this, they judged virtue to be hypocritical, and in their false judgment, they judged good as evil, and evil as good.

This is the false judgment, venomous with envy and pride, with which they calumniated and unjustly judged my Son’s works when they said: “He does these things by the power of Beelzebub.” (Mt. 12:24)

These wicked people are set in their way of selfishness, indecency, pride, and avarice, envy that is grounded in their perverse lack of discernment, their impatience, and many other sins. Yet, they are forever taking scandal at me and my servants, judging virtue to be hypocritical. Because they are rotten to the core, and have spoiled their sense of taste, good things seem evil to them and evil (that is, disordered living) seems good.3

They were being repeatedly called by Jesus, as we are all called each day to reflect, repent, and convert. Just as we are called to reflect on the Scriptures, we are also called to reflect on our behavior. Reflecting on our behavior is a powerful means where God’s grace can work his mysterious wonders. If we do this, intending to approach the truth about ourselves, we will be assisted by his grace to accept the truth, admit our fault, and move towards a full repentance and conversion of heart. This whole journey can take many years. A key part of this journey is its beginning: how we respond to the many opportunities, provided by our neighbors, to reflect on our behavior, and begin to see ourselves as others see us.

Jesus performed miracles to evidence his divinity and the merciful love of his Father in heaven. This was rejected. He preached with wisdom and power the message of God’s kingdom, and his love for mankind. This also was rejected. He rebuked the scribes and Pharisees, reflecting back to them the truth about their inner corruption. This, too, failed. He then laid down his life for them, and prayed the most powerful prayer from his cross to win for them, and for all of us, the grace to repent of whatever sin we have committed through our lifetime. “Father, forgive them; they do not know what they are doing” (Lk 23:34). Jesus embraced the terror and horror of the cross to save us from the terror and horror of hell. The excruciating sorrow he experienced in his heart from knowing the souls who would reject his merciful love, is a suffering we will never be able to comprehend.

  1. Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P., Our Savior and His Love for Us. Trans. A. Bouchard (Charlotte, NC: Tan Books and Publishers, Inc., 1998), p. 90.
  2. Ibid, p. 163.
  3. Catherine of Siena. The Dialogue: The Classics of Western Spirituality. Trans. Suzanne Noffke, O.P. (New York: Paulist Press, 1980), p. 76.
Brent Withers About Brent Withers

Brent Withers is originally from New Zealand. He is now living in Farnborough, England, with his wife and three young children. He returned to the Catholic Church about ten years ago after being away for about twenty or so years. He has previously published essays with the Homiletic & Pastoral Review. Presently, he is employed as a commissioning manager for mental health services in an inner London City borough.