Consider the Lord’s explanation of one part of the Parable of the Sower:
As for the seed that fell among thorns, they are the ones who have heard, but as they go along, they are choked by the anxieties and riches and pleasures of life, and they fail to produce mature fruit. [Luke 8:14]
It’s a leitmotiv in the Bible, as it is in life; it’s why we have eyes but don’t see – why we fall away.
We may be forgiven, because . . . who did see? Is there one person who may be said to have certainly “seen” (understood) the true identity of Jesus Christ while he lived? Well, there are two: Mary and Joseph.
What the shepherds and the Magi knew, what they really understood of what they heard from angels or read in the stars – this is unclear. Still, it’s only too painfully obvious from the Gospels how thoroughly confused was everybody else.
In Biblical Judaism, a messiah (“anointed one”) was a king, high priest, or prophet accorded the aegis of holiness, and by the time of the birth of Jesus there had been many messiahs in Israel. Even the great Persian king, Cyrus the Great, was called messiah – and he wasn’t even a Jew (Isaiah 45:1). Really, anyone was a messiah who had the chrisma – who had been anointed, actually in the Temple or symbolically by Yahweh.
Of course that’s only part of the tradition. There was/is also the hope of an apocalyptic deliverer – one who, like Moses, will lead the Jewish people to freedom, and rule in Earth’s last days, restoring Jews to their place as God’s Chosen, as in this exchange between the abjuring soothsayer, Balaam, and King Balak (Numbers 17:19):
I see him, though not now;I observe him, though not near:A star shall advance from Jacob,
and a scepter shall rise from Israel . . .
Though the messiah was to be anointed by God, the expectation was that he’d be a mighty, earthly leader: conqueror of Israel’s enemies. In the words of Maimonides:
And at that time there will be no hunger or war, no jealousy or rivalry, for good will be plentiful . . . . The entire occupation of the world will be only to know God.
This is what the Jewish people were looking for . . . [and] Jesus clearly does not fit into this mold. Ultimately, however, [Rome] crushed his revolt and killed Bar Kokhba. After his death, all acknowledged that he was not the mashiach.
The Holy Family with the Infant St John the Baptist by Niccolo Frangiapane (1595)
When people passed by Jesus on the streets of Nazareth, Jerusalem, or wherever he walked – and with the exception of angels and demons – did anyone recognize him? At the peak of his fame (i.e., on the eve of his death) even his Apostles saw merely a man, although an extraordinary man, clearly chosen by Yahweh. To a few, he was the messiah, but there was not a Jew in Israel who believed the messiah would be the Creator himself.
Why else would John the Baptist, Christ’s earthly cousin after all, ask from prison: “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” And the examples of doubt and confusion among the Apostles are too numerous to detail, especially in the case of Saint Peter: denying his Lord three times; scolding Jesus for going to Jerusalem to die (prompting the Lord’s “Get thee behind me, Satan!” rebuke); and judging Jesus as equal to Moses and Elijah at the Transfiguration.
We recall the story of “doubting” Thomas, who would not accept the Resurrection on the testimony of his sisters and brothers but only by touching the wounds of the risen Christ. When he did touch them, Thomas exclaimed, “My Lord and my God,” pretty much what Peter said – prompted by God – when Jesus asked, “But who do you say that I am?”
“You are the Messiah,” Matthew reports Peter crying out, “the Son of the living God.”
“You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”
His crown of thorns is a reminder, perhaps, that our world is thick with briars: “anxieties and riches and pleasures . . .”
Thank God for his words to Thomas after the Apostle’s profession of faith: “Have you come to believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.”
That’s us – we few, we faithful – if, that is, we think as God does, which is to say: we have eternal perspective on temporal existence; we seek virtue despite our sins; above all, that we love in this thorny world that stokes enmity in all things trifling and tremendous.