By Anita Cleverly
Vulnerability is something of a buzz word in our time, topical in describing the alarming number of women who have been vulnerable to sexual harassment and bullying as a bargaining chip for jobs or promotion or roles in the entertainment industry. Since the now long-ago revelations about how Jimmy Savile fixed a lot of other things besides the dreams of children, mostly the well-being of dozens of young girls and women, into a coffin of trauma and or mental ill health (until or unless raised to life…) the domino effect has continued, peaking and troughing but ploughing steadily onwards as emboldened by one another, woman after woman has opened up about her experience of harassment, or abuse. With Harvey Weinstein came another seminal moment as the hashtagMeToo campaign was born and then baptised by Oprah Winfrey in her speech at the Golden Globes Ceremony in January of this year.
‘To be vulnerable’ stems from the Latin vulnerare, to wound, and vulnus, a wound. It can have two quite different meanings: to be capable of being physically or emotionally wounded or hurt, or to be open to persuasion, temptation or censure. To be vulnerable in the second sense is not a sin, is not displeasing to God. What matters is where our vulnerability leads us, and how we react to it.
Every human being is susceptible to the first meaning, in that although some people don’t appear to be woundable (President Trump? Vladimir Putin? Others you and I know) there is a disconnect between what we are allowed to see and what actually is. Indeed, some of the most cruel and abusive of humans are those who have succumbed to persuading, tempting or censuring those under their control, or weaker than them - in other words to the second meaning - because of experiencing the first meaning of vulnerability. Pain always produces a reaction of some kind, and we are all always at risk of pain in some form. Thus we can be sure that a Harvey Weinstein exterior conceals a wounded and painful place deep down in the soul’s history.
So where does Jesus fit into this question of vulnerability? Was he vulnerable? Is he vulnerable? Yes. Right from the beginning of salvation’s story, he, being in very nature God, became a helpless, utterly dependent baby:
‘Immensity cloistered in thy dear womb
Now leaves his well-belov’d imprisonment…
Weak enough, now into the world to come.’
(Nativity by John Donne)
The beginning and the end of Jesus’ life on earth, the incarnation and the crucifixion, are surely the very apogee of vulnerability. And his whole life and walk among men is characterised by it.
The beginning and the end of Jesus’ life on earth, the incarnation and the crucifixion, are the very apogee of vulnerability.
Early on we see him vulnerable to temptation, when he is led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil (Matthew 4:1). Fasting certainly exposes a person to temptation because the flesh cries out to be satisfied. We all know about comfort eating, that lurking restlessness and sense of unease that takes us fridge-wards. I recently had a text from a friend who had just completed a partial fast: ‘Finished our 21-day fast and feel good for sticking to it even in such turbulent times when to be honest we just wanted a comforting meal’. She had her husband to keep her on track, and he had her. But Jesus was alone, and the tempter targeted the moment of greatest vulnerability to suggest Jesus provide food for himself with the stones at his feet. Which, as the devil very well knew, he could have done. He could have rationalised, as we do when we want to appease our flesh. ‘I’ve done 40 days—one bread-stone would be fine…’ But just one ‘bread-stone’ would have placed Jesus under the control of Satan, just as sleeping with the director - or something more degrading - to satisfy the flesh with a role or a job, has placed many women and also some men under the control of various men. Succumbing to temptation also censures us. Many of the women now emboldened by the sisterhood have been silent for years, some for decades. Jesus retained his voice because he was able to say to the devil, ‘Man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’
Similarly, the devil showed Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour, offering them to him if he, Jesus would bow down and worship him. Fame and celebrity beckon with their glittering seductiveness; and then so often break the person who falls for the empty promises.
Jesus simply replied quoting Deuteronomy 6:13; ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’ You may say, ‘But it was easy for Jesus because he knew that all the kingdoms of the world were his anyway in the long run.’ Did he, at that moment? He ‘did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing…’ (Philippians 2:6,7), and ‘because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted’ (Hebrews 2:18).
It’s one thing to think about the world of entertainment as showcased by Hollywood, but what about us in our preaching? Aren’t we tempted by the siren call of fame, the invitations to deliver our thoughts to the crowds (and the bigger the crowds the better!) and then doesn’t our flesh cry out for the acclamation and affirmation? But ‘Man does not live on bread alone (of any sort including the bread of praise) but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’
So Jesus was vulnerable to temptation, and ‘we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way just as we are - yet was without sin.’ (Hebrews 4:15)
It’s one thing to think about the world of entertainment as showcased by Hollywood, but what about us in our preaching? Aren’t we tempted by the siren call of fame?
Secondly Jesus was vulnerable to emotional pain. Typically there are four or five scenes where Jesus displays raw emotion, right through the spectrum from anger to grief. We see his anger as he overturns the tables in the temple, following hard on his pain and despair at the unbelief of his people as he weeps over Jerusalem looking down upon the city from the Mount of Olives, saying ‘if you…had only known on this day what would bring you peace…’ (Luke 19). But now, he says, it’s not going to happen, and it’s going to be terrible…
He unveils his yearning to have brought peace to Jerusalem as he teaches the disciples and the crowd: O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.’ (Matthew 23:37) Jesus knew and expressed the deep pain of longing for the peace of a person who ignores or closes their ears to it.
Do we know this? And if we do, do we make ourselves vulnerable in the expression of it as Jesus did?
In the John 11 story of Lazarus, Mary and Martha, we know already that he is really good friends with this family; Mary it was who had poured perfume on the feet of Jesus and wiped them with her hair—an act of trust and intimacy if ever there was one. And now they send word for him, saying ‘The one you love is sick.’ We’re told that Jesus was deeply moved by Mary’s outpouring of grief (v33) and fell to weeping himself (v35).
Jesus’ life story is full of his compassion towards individuals, illustrating that he was a man of emotion. Luke 7 recounts him coming upon a funeral procession as he arrives at the gates of Nain. Upon seeing the widow whose son has died, ‘his heart went out to her,’ and he says ‘Don’t cry.’ There are so many ways of saying don’t cry; here I can almost hear his tender voice, and picture him putting his arm round this broken-hearted mother.
Jesus’ life story is full of his compassion towards individuals, illustrating that he was a man of emotion.
There are other instances where his emotion is implicit rather than explicit, for example:
the faith of the Syro-Phoenician woman (Matthew 15 and Mark 7); the rich young man Mark 10 - Jesus looked at him and loved him; the healing of Jairus’ daughter and the woman with an issue of bleeding; the conversation with the woman at the well; his gentle and respectful approach to the woman taken in adultery.
That Jesus is vulnerable to fear and anguish is also writ large in the synoptic gospels, at the Garden of Gethsemane as Jesus awaits arrest: ‘My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me’. He needed them and said so. Matthew 26:36ff; Mark describes him as distressed and troubled (14:33,34); Luke as anguished (22:46): interestingly it is at this apex of submitting his will to the Father for the sake of the world that we learn that prayer will help us not to give in to temptation ‘Pray so that you will not fall into temptation’.
It is one thing to keep the universal vulnerability to which we are all subject hidden, which is the default reflex of so many of us, because we find it hard to walk on the water of believing that people respect vulnerability, and appreciate the admission of weakness and struggle. It’s quite another to get out of the boat and risk sinking. Yet the sheep of our pastures as preachers are so relieved to find that we also fear inadequacy, struggle with our tasks and suffer in our personal lives, family or otherwise.
Jesus modelled vulnerability for us so perfectly. He showed his emotion and his need. Hebrews 5:7 tells us that ‘during the days of (his) life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death…’
Thirdly, that Jesus was vulnerable to physical wounding is the very heart of the gospel we preach. We all know that crucifixion was the most painful and drawn out death that a person could suffer. And Jesus suffered this terrible torture exposed to public scrutiny. In this ultimate act of becoming vulnerable and ‘done to’ to this degree, Jesus takes on every violation and vulnerability that humanity has ever or will ever suffer. ‘By his wounds we are healed’ prophesies Isaiah; Jesus took upon himself our sin, but also all the sorrow, violation and pain in our lives - so we do not have to remain stuck in these painful places because he carries them for us.
Vulnerable in eternity
Finally, the book of Revelation reveals (yes!) that the sufferings of Jesus are not airbrushed out in the perfection of heaven. The Apostle John sees a ‘door standing open in heaven,’ and is invited to approach and see what happens. Revelation 4 and 5 describe scenes of such splendour, grandeur and celebration that they are hard for us to imagine, although this helps:
‘Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand…In a loud voice they sang…’
Perhaps the solemnity of the Queen’s Coronation or the marriage of Harry and Meghan help us grasp the element of splendour and majesty, while the roar of the crowd in a sports stadium or the spectacular displays at the 2012 Olympics might help us imagine the celebration; though all these are utterly dwarfed by the size of the heavenly crowds. And this heavenly vision is about winning too. But who has won?
‘Then I saw a lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing in the centre of the throne.’
This is Jesus the saviour of the world, demonstrating the power of weakness; the saviour who shows the wounds of his resurrected body to the gathered disciples and to doubting Thomas (John 20). This is Jesus the saviour of the world, the image of the invisible God, by whom and for whom all things were created, who is before all things and in whom all things hold together (Colossians 1). And it is the Jesus who clearly embraces vulnerability; who searched out and welcomes the wounded healers. Including you and me. Jesus made himself vulnerable by loving and walking with the vulnerable of his time, opening himself constantly to disapproval and misunderstanding… and he lovingly calls us to emulate him.
It is Jesus who clearly embraces vulnerability… who welcomes the wounded healers. Including you and me.
About Anita Cleverly
Anita helps lead St Aldates, Oxford.
She is a spiritual director, bereavement counsellor and international speaker, and is on the board of the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies