Human or Functionary? Jesus meeting people in role.

by John Howard

How do we relate to people when they are in defined roles? My reading of the Gospels leads me to the impression that Jesus saw the person behind the role and was willing to set aside the easy prejudice many roles encourage. It is both a challenge for us as individuals and also a theological statement about the value Jesus placed upon human dignity.

I have recently moved to the West Bank. Often I travel into Israel and therefore go through one or other of the checkpoints on the Separation Barrier. There I meet soldiers, men and women – often seeming more like boys and girls – many of them young enough to be my grandchildren! They respond to me – or rather they don’t respond to me – it’s as if I am not a person, I am an item passing through to be checked but not engaged with. But then I reflect – do I see the eighteen year old female soldier as a person, I certainly struggle to do so. Their weapons threaten me and I see them as a soldier not a human. Sometimes they are talking between themselves or on their mobile phone and wave me through without even looking at me. Without any kind of relationship can we be human to each other? How do I love a soldier when they are in role? How much easier it is to treat a person badly when they are dehumanised by a function.

Jesus in the Gospels comes across soldiers on quite a few occasions. The Holy Family flee from the slaughter of the innocent{1}. The centurion comes to Jesus so that his servant might be healed{2}. During his arrest a soldier is injured and Jesus heals him{3}. It is a soldier who is the first to recognise the nature of the Jesus who dies on the cross{4}. Can we identify the fundamental element in how Jesus and his followers (who write the Gospel stories), relate to others they meet, who are also representatives of an occupying force? Few if any bible commentaries seem to look into this question. Each of the texts I refer to in this essay have more familiar theological themes which are usually the focus of comment. The closest I’ve found is in Matthew Henry’s commentary when he says of the centurion: “Though he was a Roman soldier, and his very dwelling among the Jews was a badge of their subjection to the Roman yoke, yet Christ, who was King of the Jews, favoured him; and therein has taught us to do good to our enemies, and not needlessly to interest ourselves in national enmities. Though he was a Gentile, yet Christ countenanced him.”{5}

Meeting a person in a role, where they act as functionary is of course not limited to soldiers. Amongst many others, shopkeepers, police, teachers, and dare I mention it – ministers of religion all put on roles – and we all encounter them in these roles.  A soldier is perhaps on one end of a spectrum that has many degrees of role taking within it. To meet the individual is to engage as person to person. To relate role to role is to deny the encounter of human to human, but in many situations it is very difficult to pierce the role and meet the person. To even attempt it at a checkpoint puts your life at risk. I compromise and try a friendly wave but get no reaction.

I remember years ago crossing a checkpoint in a coach when two very young soldiers got on the coach and went round checking passports. The oldest person on the coach a lady nearer 90 than 80 suddenly said to the girl soldier “- well – don’t you ever smile then,” and the girl burst out laughing. The whole atmosphere changed the two soldier suddenly became human, and waved goodbye to us as we drove on out of the checkpoint.

The openness of Jesus (and for that matter the Gospel writers) towards soldiers seemingly seeing beyond the role to the person is reflected in Jesus’ attitude to other groups, Tax Collectors, and even the Pharisees as well as soldiers. Jesus’ encounters with the Pharisees seem usually to be hostile but when one comes to him in secret he responds openly to him as a person{5}. Here perhaps we begin to gain an answer to the question I asked about Jesus’ fundamental element in his relating to others outside the group of disciples. It is an openness to the other coupled with a refusal to accept the role individuals were playing. He sought the person.

  1. Matthew 2: 14
  2. Matthew 8: 8.
  3. Luke 22: 51.
  4. Luke 23: 47.
  5. Matthew Henry’s comment on Matthew 8: 8 as recorded in bible
  6. John 3: 1ff.

One thought on “Human or Functionary? Jesus meeting people in role.”

  1. “… coupled with a refusal to accept the role individuals were playing.” The readiness to see and respond to the ‘person in role’ does not require or mean a denial of the role. In none of the examples John gives does Jesus deny the role the soldier has. It is the capacity to value the person in the role and to engage with behaviour, even where that means challenge, which permits choice and change.


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