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The Emotions and Affections of Jesus: An analysis of the Synoptic Gospels

Vincenzo Anselmo, SJ - La Civiltà Cattolica - Sun, Jul 18th 2021

1In Umberto Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose, the blind monk Jorge of Burgos, quoting John Chrysostom, argues that “Christ never laughed.” Such a strong statement seems not only to categorically exclude the possibility that Jesus of Nazareth could laugh, but also questions his humanity, a humanity that implies an ability to participate in the totality of experience, including the possibility of experiencing the full range of affections and emotions. On the contrary, as the Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes (GS) states, “the Son of God […] worked with human hands, thought with a human mind, acted by human choice, and loved with a human heart. Born of the Virgin Mary, He has truly become one of us, like us in all things except sin” (GS 22).

In fact, the Gospels present us with a very human portrait of a Jesus who is capable of rejoicing and crying, of being moved and angry, of being indignant and loving, of feeling anguish and marveling. He calls himself “meek and humble of heart” (Matt 11:29), but he is also ardent with zeal when he vigorously drives the merchants out of the temple.

In this article we will try to open a window onto the interiority of Jesus as transmitted to us in the Synoptic Gospels.[1] The most vivid and nuanced description of Jesus’ emotions and affections is found in the Gospel of Mark. Matthew and Luke are more sober but no less significant in portraying the interiority of the Son of God.[2]

In psychology “emotion” may be defined as a rapid process, an intense response to a stimulus or a situation, while “affections” refer to a spectrum of feelings and passions that are more prolonged and constant over time, in some cases taking the form of stable traits that mark someone’s personality in a defined and peculiar way.[3] We will see that in some episodes Jesus’ affectivity emerges as a reaction to a specific situation, while at other times it is characterized as a more constant trait of his humanity.


The compassion of Jesus

A verb that recurs with a certain frequency in the Gospel of Mark and has Jesus as its subject is splanchnizomai, which translates as “to have compassion,” “to be moved with compassion.” The image this verb conveys is very strong: in fact, it indicates the movement of one’s innards being shaken by something or someone. In the Semitic world the innards of the human being, the bowels and uterus, are considered the seat of the deepest, visceral feelings such as compassion and mercy.[4]

The first occurrence of this verb is at the beginning of the Gospel, in the encounter between Jesus and the leper. In response to his pleas, “[Jesus] took pity”[5] on the leper, reached out his hand, touched him and said: ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’” (Mark 1:41). The movement that starts from the innards leads Jesus not only to heal through his word, but also to touch the leper, overcoming the social distancing prescribed by the book of Leviticus (cf. Lev 13-14), which imposed a clear separation between the community and the sick, to avoid being contaminated by impurity. Yet this time it is the sanctity of Jesus that proves to be contagious, healing the leper.[6]

What happens immediately afterward between Jesus and the leper reveals how the world of emotions is complex in the Gospels: “After sternly warning him he sent him away at once” (Mark 1:43). Why does Jesus’ attitude change so suddenly? What drives the Lord to such an abrupt reaction that clashes with the compassion he just manifested? The verb being used takes on the negative connotation of “to threaten, to reject, to treat harshly.”[7] Perhaps the behavior of Jesus should be understood in relation to the command not to say anything to anyone, giving it a nuance of authoritative abruptness and (cf. Mark 1:44). Jesus wants his instructions to be respected, but the healed leper disregards them. This has serious consequences for Jesus, who can no longer publicly enter a city after the news has spread of his works of healing (cf. Mark 1:45).

In the Gospel of Mark the verb “to have compassion” occurs again in the context of the two episodes of the multiplication of the loaves, but in two different ways. In the first account it is the narrator who presents Jesus’ reaction to the sight of the crowd that had gathered to meet him: “As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things” (Mark 6:34). The innards of Jesus are moved because of the crowd, which to his eyes appears disoriented and lost, without guides to take care of them (cf. Ezek 34). Compassion urges Jesus to speak, teaching many things and spending time and energy at the service of the crowd. This attitude stands out even more, because it is counterbalanced by that of the disciples, who would like to get rid of the inconvenience of having people dependent on them and say to Jesus: “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now very late; send them away so that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy something for themselves to eat” (Mark 6:35-36). Jesus responds to this request with the first multiplication of the loaves reported by the Gospel of Mark.

In the second episode it is Jesus himself who expresses his inner feelings, saying to the disciples: “I have compassion for the crowd, because they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat” (Mark 8:2). This time it is the tiredness and hunger of the people that touches the innards of Jesus, together with the concern that without food they will not survive the journey back (cf. Mark 8:3). The result of this inner movement in Jesus is the second multiplication of the loaves.

In Mark, a recurrence of the verb “to have compassion” is found in another instance of direct speech. This time it is not Jesus who takes the initiative, but the father of a boy possessed by a mute spirit who appeals to the Lord’s compassion to get help, after the attempt made by the disciples has failed: “but if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us” (Mark 9:22).

In the other Synoptic Gospels the verb splanchnizomai with Jesus as its subject appears in some significant contexts.[8] In Matthew, as well as in the accounts of the multiplication of the loaves, it is ascribed to the Lord at a crucial moment of his mission: “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.’ Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness” (Matt 9:36-10:1). Jesus’ compassion for the suffering and bewildered crowds led him, on the one hand, to ask his disciples to pray to God to send workers for his harvest and, on the other hand, to commission the Twelve himself, giving them the authority to do his own works.

Later, the innards of Jesus were shaken by the request of two blind people to be healed: “Moved with compassion, Jesus touched their eyes. Immediately they regained their sight and followed him” (Matt 20:34). Once again healing implies contact between Jesus and those who ask him for help.

In Luke, however, on only one occasion is it said that Jesus has compassion. It is when he meets the widow who accompanies her only son to the tomb: “When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, ‘Do not weep’” (Luke 7:13). From this inner upheaval comes the miracle of the resurrection of the son.

According to one New Testament lexicon, “these texts do not describe an emotional movement, but characterize the messianic figure of Jesus.”[9] This statement, however, risks being reductive, because, if on the one hand it is true that in the Gospels the subject of the verb “to have compassion” is almost always Jesus the Messiah, on the other hand the characterization of this person does not exclude his being fully human, his being capable of feeling what every person feels, and his way of being is “upset internally,” revealing his inner feelings. From the occurrences considered above we can see that Jesus’ compassion is not a momentary emotion, but a stable trait, which characterizes his affectivity and his way of approaching and interacting with people.

Does Jesus love?

Another very important verb, which only once occurs in reference to Jesus, is agapa?, “to love”: “Then Jesus fixed his gaze on him, loved him and said to him: ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me’” (Mark 10:21). Among the Synoptics, only Mark highlights this emotive reaction, giving the reader access to the most intimate gaze of Jesus.

To the one who wants to know from Jesus what he must do to have eternal life, because it seems to him that dedication to the law cultivated since his youth is not enough, Jesus offers a new perspective. However, no matter how demanding, his words are dictated by a gaze of affection. His command, therefore, should not be interpreted according to the category of duty, but rather from the perspective of love. He invites this man to the radical course of following, because he loves him deeply and in a certain sense wants to free him from the anxieties that grip him and from the chains that tie him to material possessions. The reader is given the privilege of knowing the feelings of Jesus that are hidden behind his words, although we do not know if the one to whom Jesus addressed this look of love perceived that he was loved. However, he did not respond to what was asked of him and preferred to depart sad and downcast rather than abandon his riches.

Some negative emotions

In the Gospels the person of Jesus is also characterized by some emotional reactions which, perhaps wrongly, we might consider excessive. The Gospel of Mark offers us some examples that contribute to giving depth to the complex portrait of Jesus of Nazareth. Faced with the silence of those who would like to catch him out and accuse him of having healed a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath day, Jesus’ reaction is vigorous and complex at the same time: “He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out, and his hand was restored” (Mark 3:5). In this attitude of Jesus, anger at and sadness toward the Pharisees are united because of their hardness and silence, behind which is hidden their aversion to him. It is interesting to note how Jesus enters into conflict with his opponents not only by being angry with them, but also by being saddened by their implacable stubbornness. 

Thereafter, in the Gospel of Mark, the verb thaumaz?, “to marvel” also appears. In Nazareth Jesus is the object of conflicting emotions: at first his fellow citizens are astonished by his teaching in the synagogue (cf. Mark 6:2), then they are scandalized by him; and Jesus, as the evangelist affirms, “marveled at their unbelief” (Mark 6:6). Because of their lack of faith he cannot perform miracles in his own community, and his actions are limited (cf. Mark 6:5). His being the Son of God who knows what others think (cf. Mark 2:8) does not prevent him from marveling at those who oppose his mission.[10]

The verb “to sigh” (stenaz?) deserves separate treatment. Depending on the context in which it appears, we can understand it in different ways: “[Jesus] looking then toward the sky, emitted a sigh (stenaz?) and said to him: ‘Ephphatha,’ that is, ‘Be opened’” (Mark 7:34). “But [Jesus] sighed deeply (anastenaz?) and said: ‘Why does this generation ask for a sign? Truly I say to you, this generation will not be given any sign’” (Mark 8:12). In the first case, Jesus’ sigh is linked to the prayer that leads to the healing of the deaf-mute; in the second case, Jesus sighs because he is annoyed by the disbelief of the Pharisees, who, testing him, ask him for a sign.

In another episode Jesus is irritated with his disciples because they impede those who want to present him with children for his touch: “But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, ‘Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs’” (Mark 10:14).

On other occasions there is no explicit indication of the emotion that characterizes the action of Jesus, but it is easily intuited from the context. One example concerns the purification of the temple. Mark writes: “Then they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves” (Mark 11:15). Jesus chased away the sellers with vehemence and ardor, outrage and anger, overthrowing the tables of the money changers. His state of mind shines through in the vigorous actions he performs in the temple of Jerusalem, so much so that in the Gospel of John this prophetic action will remind the disciples of Psalm 69:10: “The zeal for your house will consume me” (John 2:17).

At other times it is the severe words pronounced by Jesus that make one think that behind them there is a very strong emotional feeling: “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea” (Mark 9:42).

Jesus knows how to be hard not only on the scribes and Pharisees, but also on people in general and his own disciples, when they seem not to fully understand the mission of their master. These emotional reactions help to give us a realistic image of Jesus.

In Gethsemane

In the Synoptic Gospels (Matt 26:36-46; Mark 14:32-42; Luke 22:40-46) there is an episode that offers the reader privileged access to the interiority of Jesus, to his intimate communication with the Father at a dramatic and crucial moment of his passion. It is the episode at Gethsemane: “He took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be distressed and agitated. And he said to them, ‘I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake.’ And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. He said, ‘Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want’” (Mark 14:33-36).

At first Jesus desires the company of Peter, James and John; then he is alone, and the reader is made to share in the inner drama that consumes him.[11] First, the evangelist communicates that Jesus feels fear and anguish. In the eyes of the reader, the Master appears terrified and disturbed.[12] This double observation makes the situation heavy and gloomy; and, in a certain sense, the darkness that Jesus feels casts a shadow even beyond him, on the reader. Jesus, however, is not afraid to express his emotions in front of his disciples through a strong expression: sadness to the point of death, which indicates the intensity of his affliction.[13]

Then the story introduces us to Jesus who is alone while he turns to God. Falling to the ground is a visible sign of the state of psychological prostration in which he finds himself. The request addressed to God is sincere, as is the confidential and intimate use of “Abba, Father”. Jesus asks to be freed from the anguish of the passion and death that await him, and yet he goes beyond his own emotions and declares himself willing to accept what the Father wants of him. Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi explains it thus: “It is interesting to note in this invocation the dialectic between the anguish that leads to bitter sadness and the will that dominates the emotion, with the decision to follow the painful path that will climb to the summit of Calvary.”[14]

While Peter, John and James are sleeping – not only do they not accept the request to keep vigil, but they do not even perceive the emotional charge of that invitation addressed to them by the master who confesses his weakness – Jesus’ prayer continues into the night and the reader has the privilege of participating in the experience and observing it closely, as if admitted to his bedchamber. Luke enriches the description of Jesus’ pain with considerable detail: the suffering of that night leads him to hematidrosis, that is, to sweating blood (cf. Luke 22:44).

The tears and the joy of Jesus

The Jesus of Luke is not afraid to express his emotions before Peter and his disciples, whether it is anguish in the perspective of the completion of the baptism of the cross (cf. Luke 12:50) or the strong and intense desire to share Passover with them (cf. Luke 22:15).

Among the Synoptics, only Luke introduces us to Jesus who bursts into tears when he sees Jerusalem[15]: “As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it” (Luke 19:41). Jesus laments the fate that awaits the holy city, which will be besieged and destroyed. His pain contrasts with the joyful welcome reserved for him (cf. Luke 19:35-40), but it is a prelude to the controversial sign of the purification of the temple and the rejection of the leaders of the people, who will lead him to the cross.

And as Jesus wept, could he not also laugh? The question from which we started, remembering Eco’s The Name of the Rose, finds a possible answer in the Gospel of Luke, where exultation and joy resonate from the very first pages. These are promised first of all to Zechariah, and then they are manifested in John the Baptist leaping with joy in his mother’s womb (cf. Luke 1:44) and on Mary’s lips as she sings the Magnificat (cf. Luke 1:47).

So too, some of the parables of Luke are an invitation to the Pharisees and scribes to rejoice, sharing in the joy of God for every sinner found: “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15:7). And on one occasion it is Jesus himself who rejoices: “At that same hour Jesus rejoiced in the Holy Spirit” (Luke 10:21). If not his laughter, we can certainly imagine his smile full of joy in the Spirit as he praises the Father for revealing himself to the little ones. As Stephen Voorwinde reminds us, this is a Trinitarian joy: “The exultant joy of Jesus in Luke 10:21 is therefore the joy of the Messiah, the only one supremely anointed by the Holy Spirit. But it is also the joy of the Son of the Most High, the one who has a unique relationship with the Father.”[16]

During the Spiritual Exercises (ES), in the fourth week, St. Ignatius of Loyola addresses a pressing invitation to the exercitant to ask God for a particular grace in prayer: “The third prelude consists in asking what I want: to ask for the grace to rejoice intensely for the great glory and joy of Christ our Lord” (ES 221).

Those who pray ask the Lord for the gift of rejoicing at the joy of Christ risen from the dead. Therefore, they are not simply asking to rejoice because Jesus is risen, but to be part of the same feelings as the one who is alive, rejoicing together with him. The one who prays, therefore, can adhere to the emotions and affections of Jesus by learning from his humanity, which we have seen to be multi-faceted and varied, from his being compassionate towards the poor and the sick, but also hard with those who are stubborn and opposed to the mission that the Father has entrusted to him. As Gaudium et Spes recalls, “whoever follows Christ, the perfect man, also becomes more of a man” (GS 41). To follow Christ, true God and true man, means to conform oneself to him, becoming similar to him even in our inner feelings, emotions and affections as we interpret what happens in the world.

DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 4, no. 12 art. 10, 1020: 10.32009/22072446.1220.10

[1].    The Gospel of John merits a separate treatment because of its distinctive features that differentiate it from the Synoptics.

[2].    On this topic, see the following contributions: G. Barbaglio, Emozioni e sentimenti di Gesù, Bologna, EDB, 2009; S. Voorwinde, Jesus’ Emotions in the Gospels, London – New York, Bloomsbury, 2011.

[3].    See P. Bonaiuto – V. Biasi, “Emozione”, in Enciclopedia filosofica, Milan, Bompiani, 2006, vol. IV, 3331.

[4].    See H. Köster, “σπλ?γχνον, σπλαγχν?ζομαι, ε?σπλαγχνος, πολ?σπλαγχνος, ?σπλαγχνος”, in Grande Lessico del Nuovo Testamento, Brescia, Paideia, 1979, vol. XII, 903-934.

[5].    A variant of this text in some manuscripts has “angered” instead of “had compassion.” Although this is the lectio difficilior, it should be noted that the reference to anger could be an insertion aimed at harmonizing the text, giving coherence to the affective tone of Jesus, who would later show himself to be severe toward the leper (cf. Mark 1:43). Cf. G. Perego, Vangelo secondo Marco. Introduzione, traduzione e commento, Cinisello Balsamo (Mi), San Paolo, 2011, 67.

[6].    See ibid.

[7].    See ibid., 68.

[8].    The verb “to have compassion” is also present in some parables: “The master had compassion on that servant, let him go and forgave him the debt” (Matt 18:27); “But a Samaritan who was on a journey, passing by him, saw and took pity on him” (Luke 10:33); “When he was still far away, his father saw him, took pity on him, ran toward him, threw himself around his neck and kissed him” (Luke 15:20).

[9].    H. Köster, “σπλ?γχνον, σπλαγχν?ζομαι…”, op. cit., 922.

[10].   In the other Synoptic Gospels, Jesus also marveled at something as positive as the faith of the centurion: “Listening to him, Jesus marveled and said to those who followed him: ‘Truly I tell you, in Israel I have not found anyone with such great faith!” (Matt 8:10 and Luke 7:9).

[11].   In this regard, see the contribution of the Lacanian psychoanalyst M. Recalcati, La notte del Getsemani, Turin, Einaudi, 2019.

[12].   Only Mark uses a verb that indicates a strong and intense fear (cf. Mark 9:15; 14:33; 16:5; 16:6), while Matthew uses the verb “to be sad, to feel sadness” (Matt 26:37).

[13].   See G. Perego, Vangelo secondo Marco…, op. cit., 294.

[14].   G. Ravasi, Piccolo dizionario dei sentimenti: Amore, nostalgia e altre emozioni, Milan, il Saggiatore, 2019.

[15].   In the Gospel of John Jesus bursts into tears at the death of his friend Lazarus (cf. John 11:35).

[16].   S. Voorwinde, Jesus’ Emotions in the Gospels, op. cit., 132.

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