Debate has been raging about the new Gillette ad and its revised – some say “effeminate” – vision of manhood. This week, I’m pausing my series on Jesus’s prayer to look at his masculinity.
Christians believe that Jesus is literally “the best a man can get.” The early church and orthodox Christians ever since have affirmed that Jesus was the “perfect Man.” Of course, Jesus came for everyone, including women. But Jesus was a man in a highly patriarchal society whose ministry unfolded in the prime of his manhood.
So what kind of man was Jesus, and what example does Jesus set for Christian masculinity today?
First, Jesus certainly wasn’t weak.
He spent a portion of his childhood as a political refugee in Egypt (Matthew 2:12-23) and was raised by a carpenter in a rural village in northern Palestine (Matthew 13:55).
He had incredible endurance and fasted forty days in the desert while being tempted by satan (Matthew 4:1-11).
He defiantly launched his ministry with the same words that got his cousin John arrested soon before and, not long after, beheaded (Matthew 3:1-2; 4:12-17). He quickly became famous for preaching with counter-cultural “authority” (Matthew 7:28-29). Jesus embodied courage.
He made the most brutal tool of execution – the cross – the symbol of the cost of joining his movement (Matthew 16:24-26). He told people to abandon their families and money to follow him (Luke 14:26; 18:22). Personal sacrifice was fundamental to Jesus.
Jesus performed miracles. He drove out demons, healed the sick, and raised the dead (Matthew11:4-6). He said that he saw satan fall like a star from the sky (Luke 10:18).
He fiercely critiqued the religious leaders of his day, calling them snakes, whitewashed tombs, and sons of satan (Matthew 23:1-36; John 8:44). He called King Herod – the ruler of his region – a dirty predator (Luke 13:32). Jesus was fearless in speaking truth to power (John 18:33-37).
He braided a whip, turned over tables, and drove the exploitative moneychangers out of the temple – perhaps twice (Matthew 21:12-17; John 2:13-22). Jesus refused to be a passive bystander when people used God for business.
Jesus endured torture, but he wasn’t a doormat. He confronted his tormentors and boldly cross-examined their violence: “If I spoke the truth, why did you hit me?” (John 18:23). Moments before his murder, he unflinchingly argued with Pilate about the nature of true authority without a hint of penitence or pleading (John 18:33-37). Jesus was resolute.
Jesus refused to abandon his mission to the point of horrific public execution (Matthew 27:45-50). He made the ultimate sacrifice of his own life. In the end, God raised Jesus from the dead, because “it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him” (Acts 2:24).
Jesus was a very strong and courageous man.
But Jesus embodied a counter-cultural masculinity without a hint of macho.
The Gospels say nothing about Jesus’s physical build, and he used no humiliating “rite of passage” to “initiate” disciples into his circle. He simply prayed (Luke 6:12-16).
He launched his first major teaching by proclaiming God’s special favor on people some might consider “effeminate” – the meek, the mourners, the peacemakers (Matthew 5:3-12; Luke 6:20-23). In the conflict zone that Israel was, Jesus’s “blessings” must have seemed “unmanly” or even unpatriotic to some of his listeners.
He condemned responding to violence with violence (a traditional proof of being a “real man”) and commanded love for enemies (perennially mocked as weakness) as a condition for salvation (Matthew 5:38-48; Luke 6:27-36). When his disciples wanted to burn down a Samaritan village for insulting him, Jesus told them to walk away (Luke 9:51-56). The next parable he told was about a good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37)!
Jesus rejected flashy spirituality (Matthew 6:1-4) and refused to “work the crowd” (Matthew 12:39). He compared the kingdom of God to a tiny mustard seed (Matthew 13:31) and moved on whenever a cult of personality started forming around him (Luke 4:42-44). Jesus’s authority was free of ego (Luke 22:27).
Jesus had fierce words for hypocritical religious leaders and power-hungry politicians, but he never insulted or threatened anyone in positions of vulnerability or weakness. In fact, Jesus’s harshest words were reserved for those who neglect or abuse “the little ones” (Luke 17:1-3). There isn’t any trace of aggression in Jesus’s ministry, aside from his act in the Temple against people using God for personal profit.
Jesus is repeatedly described as being “filled with compassion,” a trait perhaps more commonly associated with women (Matthew 9:36; 11:28-30; 14:14; 15:32; 20:34; Mark 6:34; Luke 7:13). His most famous story was about a compassionate father who broke with “biblical” masculinity and refused to punish his rebellious son (Luke 15:11-32; see Deuteronomy 21:18-21). In fact, the father does something a “real man” would never do in a patriarchal culture: he runs to his son the moment he sees him coming back home and throws a party for him (Luke 15:20).
Jesus upended gender roles and welcomed women to sit at his feet, the place of learning traditionally reserved for men (Luke 10:38-42). Jesus’s ministry was funded by women (Luke 8:3). When Mary asked Jesus to do something he considered untimely, Jesus “caved” and conceded to Mary when she asked a second time (John 2:3-10).
Jesus refused to prove his manhood by sexualizing his charisma. In fact, Jesus had special compassion for women on the margins – those traditionally used, abused, and then shamed by men (Matthew 21:31; John 8:1-11). He broke taboos and associated with stigmatized women in public (John 4:1-42).
He embraced and blessed children when his disciples brushed them off as a waste of time (Matthew 19:13-15). Jesus repeatedly talked about children and their preciousness to God (Matthew 18:1-9; Mark 9:36-50; 10:13-16; Luke 9:43-50; 10:21; 17:1-15; 18:15-17). Jesus’s vision of God was extraordinarily tender and even motherly, insisting that God cares about us so much that God counts the hairs on our head (Matthew 10:30; Luke 12:7).
Jesus wept over the death of his best friend Lazarus; the astonished crowds exclaimed, “See how he loved him!” (John 11:33-36). Jesus wept as he entered Jerusalem because of its blindness to peace (Matthew 23:37-39; Luke 19:41-44). He sweated drops of blood with anguish in the garden as he wrestled with his impending death (Luke 22:44). Jesus had a deep emotional life, expressed his feelings openly, and had no hang-up with crying in public.
Jesus challenged the Zealots in his circle for wanting positions of privilege and power (Mark 10:35-40). He told Peter to put away his sword (Matthew 26:52; John 18:11). He accepted arrest and refused to insult his torturers and killers (Luke 22:47-53). His dying breaths were a cry of grief – “My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46) – and a request for God to forgive his killers (Luke 23:34). Jesus uttered no epic curses.
After he rose again, Jesus never asked his disciples to revenge his death. As the prophetic “Son of David,” this is noteworthy, because David’s last words to his son Solomon were a brutal charge to “act like a man” and bash the heads of his persecutors (1 Kings 2:1-9). Jesus broke that “manly” tradition, among others.
After Peter’s threefold denial, the resurrected Jesus didn’t humiliate him or “put him in his place.” He asked Peter three times, “Do you love me?” and told him to prepare for the sacrifice of discipleship (John 21:15-22). Imagine what you would do if your number one betrayed you three times in your moment of greatest pain.
Overall, Jesus wasn’t obsessed with winning. In fact, he emphatically rejected the philosophy of winning and turned it on its head:
“Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.” Matthew 10:39
“Whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than [the greatest].” Matthew 11:11
“Whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.” Matthew 16:25
“The last will be first, and the first will be last.” Matthew 20:15
“Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.” Mark 10:44
Jesus insisted that real authority doesn’t stand “over” others but goes low to serve them (Matthew 20:25-28; Mark 10:42-45; Luke 22:24-27; John 13:1-17). He told stories in which losers win and winners lose (Luke 16:19-31). In fact, Jesus had only words of woe for “winners” – the rich, the well-fed, the laughing and famous (Luke 6:24-26). In the end, Jesus himself got killed for his counter-cultural words and deeds. According to Paul, Jesus was the ultimate loser (“made himself nothing”), and that’s why God raised him up as the true King (Philippians 2:5-11).
God only knows the agenda behind Gillette’s ad. Like the moneychangers in the Temple, businesses often try to turn a profit any way they can. But the ad’s vision of masculinity marked with kindness and concern for others is certainly closer to Jesus’s example in the Gospels than our standard macho ideals today.
We need a new masculinity, a Jesus-like vision of manhood – strong but nonviolent, tender toward children, welcoming to women, bold in the truth but free of cursing, uninhibited to weep over death and violence, unrepressed by hollow religion, passionately self-sacrificial and ultimately driven by the healing love of God.
For passionate followers of Jesus, that’s “the best a man can get.” As Pilate said soon before Jesus’s execution, “Behold the man!” (John 19:5).