There’s story about the Spanish Baroque painter Bartolome Esteban Murillo, who grew up the youngest son in a family of fourteen. His father was a barber and wanted his son to pursue a career in banking or law. But young Bartolome was too playful and too creative for that kind of work. He wanted to be a painter like his uncle. He was also inclined to goof off and get into trouble.
In the Estebans’ family home hung an austere painting of Jesus as a shepherd boy. Depicted in the darkened tones that were popular in religious art at the time, the shepherd boy stood straight and tall, his crook planted firmly in the ground like a sentinel’s bayonet, his head crowned in a glowing halo, his eyes staring vacantly out from the canvas.
Young Bartolome detested the spooky image. So one day, while his parents were out of the home, the precocious child took the picture down from the wall and set to work with his paint set. His youthful brilliance already evident, he was able to renovate the painting into a new picture of Christ.
When they returned home, the Estebans were aghast to see their Lord had been completely transformed. The stern unflinching face now bore a lively grin. The eyes had been made alive with mischief. The halo had become a battered straw hat, and the plastered-down hair had been made tousled and unruly. The shepherd boy’s crook was now a gnarled walking stick, and the limp, sad-looking lamb at his feet was now a troublesome puppy.
The serious shepherd had become an energetic hiker in search of adventure. That was the kind of Jesus young Bartolome would want to hang out with.
Gaspar and Maria Esteban were outraged. To them, the picture like an icon, which made Bartolome’s vandalism tantamount to an act of desecration. Gaspar beat his boy for such sacrilege.
By the time Bartolome was 11, both his parents had died and he was made a ward of his sister’s husband. As he grew to adulthood, he rejected his father’s name, instead taking his surname from his maternal grandmother, Elvira Murillo. He would go on to commence art studies in Seville under Juan del Castillo, who was a relative of his mother’s.
In 1660, when firmly established as a grandmaster, Murillo decided recreate his portrait of Jesus the shepherd boy. The adult Murillo’s picture isn’t quite as cheeky as his childhood version, but that petulant face and that extended left leg hint at the way the artist still saw Jesus — the kind of guy you’d like to hang around with.
I love this story because it speaks to my own desire to vandalize those austere, unfriendly, inaccurate pictures of Jesus people carry around in their imaginations. Whether it’s the treacle-toned hair or the blue eyes, the thousand-mile stare or the intense gaze, traditional pictures of Jesus just don’t make him seem, well, real.
And yet Jesus’ contemporaries recorded stories about him in very earthy terms. In fact, Jesus was so unlike what the religious elite thought a holy man should look like that they rejected him out of hand. He ate and drank with common people, he fraternized with lepers, tax collectors, a Roman soldier, a bleeding women — all of whom were considered unclean according to Jewish custom. More than once, the Pharisees questioned him as to why he spent time with those they euphemistically called “sinners.”
He turned water into wine at a raucous Galilean banquet; he allowed a woman to wash his feet with perfume and dry them with her hair; he allowed his disciples to eat the grain from the heads of wheat in a field on the Sabbath; he sat alone with a scorned Samaritan woman at a well in the midday sun; he was routinely in conflict with the religious authorities.
He was trouble.
He stirred up a lot of what the late John Lewis called good trouble (“Get in good trouble, necessary trouble”).
And then he called his disciples to follow him.
Theologian Harvey Cox once spoke at a conference on the Christian ministry of healing. The audience was full of pastors, chaplains, therapists, and healthcare professionals. He retold the story from Luke 8:40-56 of the raising of Jairus’ daughter from the dead, and the healing of the hemorrhaging woman. They are both profound stories of grief, trauma, suffering and sickness. In one, a desperate woman reaches out and touches the hem of Jesus’ cloak and is immediately healed. In the other, Jesus sits beside the body of a dead child and tells her to awaken from her “slumber”.
Having recounted the stories, Dr Cox then asked the audience to consider which character in the story they most related to. Was it the desperate, bleeding woman, throwing herself at Jesus for help? Was it Jairus, the proud synagogue leader, who humbled himself to ask the travelling faith healer for help? Was it his daughter? Or was it the disciples and the amazed onlookers?
Or, Cox asked, was it Jesus they related most to in that story?
Out of a crowd of six hundred people, about one hundred related to the bleeding woman. Several hundred related to Jairus, while the majority related to the perplexed onlookers. But only six — yes, six — felt they could identify with Jesus.
Cox pointed out that it was intriguing that at a conference for Christian healers, only one in every hundred people could relate to Jesus the healer. Shouldn’t hundreds of healers, having heard a story of Jesus the healer, say to themselves, “Oh boy, I want to be more like that”? Have we made Jesus so otherworldly in our imaginations that we cannot relate to him, or identify with him? Can we only imagine a Jesus who demands our adoration, but whom we could never follow?
Says Cox, “That is exactly what we’re supposed to do. we’re supposed to identify with Jesus, act like Jesus, be more and more like Jesus. That’s what Christianity is supposed to be about — the emulation of Christ.”
As little Bartolome Murillo knew, we need our pictures of Jesus adjusted to correct the over-emphasis on Jesus’ divinity. He was also human, and exquisitely human at that. And, as human, he is a great source of inspiration and encouragement to us. Jesus is, in fact, very much worth emulating.
One of my favorite images is that of the alive-again Jesus, having endured unspeakable suffering at the hands of the Jewish religious leaders and the Romans, frying fish for breakfast for his disciples. The story appears in John 21. It happened this way:
Peter, James, John, Thomas, Nathanael and two other disciples went night fishing. It was Peter’s idea. Maybe just being on the sea comforted him after all they’d been through and seen. But it was a fruitless evening on the water. They caught nothing and were returning to shore empty-handed when a figure who resembled Jesus motioned from the beach, calling on them to throw their net on the right side of the boat. When they did, they hauled in a catch of 153 fish.
When they finally put into shore, they realised the figure was in fact Jesus, and while they had been fishing he had been building a fire on the beach and had fried fish and bread for their breakfast.
This is the risen, conquering Christ! This is the king of the universe, the redeemer of humankind, the one who defeats sin and death and the devil. And he’s whipping up a hot brekkie for his mates.
I love this story because it weaves together the tenderness and thoughtfulness of Jesus with his miraculous power and messianic credentials. As those fishermen gobbled down charred bread topped with soft, greasy fish, they knew they were feasting with a king. And with a friend.
I also love how only fishermen would think to count the exact number of fish (153) and record it for posterity!
I also love this story because even though I can’t miraculously magic up 153 fish, I can do what Jesus did. I can encourage others. I can believe in them. I can forgive others (as Jesus does to Peter immediately after breakfast). I can serve them. I can feed them. I can teach them.
The stories of the gospels weren’t only written so we adore Jesus, but that we imitate him, the True One who shows us a whole new way to be human. The image of Jesus as a sacrificial lamb doesn’t only tell me that Jesus sacrificed his life for my sins, but also inspires me to live sacrificially in the service of others.
None of those creepy, otherworldly stained-glassed images of Jesus ever do that.