Matthew 3:13-4:2 – Jesus, Beloved and Hungry
A Reflection by Dan Spragg
In 1940, Warner Sallman, a commercial artist from Chicago, who worked in advertising painted an image of Jesus called, ‘The Head of Christ’ and through his affiliation with both the Protestant and Catholic churches successfully marketed this image to become one of the most well-known portrayals of Christ ever.
It cemented what had been a long transformation of Jesus from a brown-eyed, brown-skinned Middle Eastern Jewish person into a much more ‘European Jesus’. In contrast, in April 2020 the New York Times ran an article titled, Searching for a Jesus who looks more like me, in an attempt to find a more multi-ethnic Jesus. This undoubtedly was an attempt to not only be a little more historically accurate but also because Jesus as a white man is truly becoming increasingly irrelevant as societies grow more and more diverse. One of the images referenced in the article is Ngāti Porou (Gisborne & East Cape) artist Sofia Minson who has recreated Sallman’s ‘The Head of Christ’ as ‘Māori Jesus’. Her depiction of Jesus features a full-face Moku (traditional tattoo) which speaks of mana – the wisdom, authority, power, and charisma that a person holds.
Rev Dr Wayne Te Kaawa, Presbyterian Minister, past Moderator of Te Aka Puaho (Māori Synod of PCANZ), and now Lecturer in Theology at Otago University has a presentation in which he introduces Sallman’s ‘White Man Jesus’ to ‘Ihu Karaiti’ – (Jesus’ name in te reo Māori). He does this using various examples of Christ depicted in Māori artwork throughout New Zealand. Minson’s work is one he uses. Another he makes use of is special to us in the PCANZ – Te Maungarongo Ōhope Marae, which sits close to the beach in Ōhope, six kilometres east of Whakatāne. It was the first Marae in the country to be built in partnership with a church. It is our national church Marae and is home of our Māori Synod Te Aka Puaho – the people of which have a long and positive history with the Presbyterian Church here in NZ.
Another striking image he uses is of Jesus cloaked in a Korowai (Māori Cloak) which is gifted to and worn by leaders. The image is located in St Faith Anglican Church, Ohinemutu Village, Rotorua and it depicts Jesus walking on the waters of Lake Rotorua.
The strength of all of these is in the contextualisation of Jesus – the placing of Jesus into a local context. Relating theology to local contexts is important work that seeks to relate the Jesus in our gospel stories to that of the listener and helps break down cultural barriers and misunderstandings that get lost in translation. As a Pākehā New Zealander, I can’t really comment on the effectiveness of depicting Jesus as Māori, but in the work of Sofia Minson and Wayne Te Kaawa, I sense that this has been important work; work that has taken Jesus to Māori in new, fresh and more accessible ways. I love how Minson’s work embodies the strength of Māori tradition and culture – truly its mana is felt. Perhaps the incarnation – God come among us – is made more real in this image – Jesus is no longer a white man or a man brought to Māori by the white men; Jesus has gone local and God is shown as deeply ‘with’ a wider range of people.
Pondering different images of Jesus should make us wonder, who is Jesus to me? Who is Jesus to us in 21st Century Aotearoa New Zealand? How does Jesus come to us? When you think of Jesus, what image comes to mind? And, is that image relevant; does that image help you?
Our gospel reading today tells us who Jesus is from God’s perspective, and as far as the author is concerned, that’s what matters. After some back and forth between cousins, John baptises Jesus and a message is heard, loud and clear. “This is my son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Jesus is God’s son, loved and liked by God – with this Jesus is affirmed in his place and in his work. From there, however, we could say things take a turn for the worst. He ends up wandering in the wilderness for 40 days and unsurprisingly gets hungry! We could ask, what on earth is Jesus doing there, how did that happen? This is no place for the son of God! But no, Jesus is both beloved and hungry. Actually, more accurately, Jesus ends up in the wilderness, loved and liked by God, yet hungry – and we’ve heard the rest of the story before. There he is tried and tested – tempted with what some have called the three temptations we are all tempted with: 1. appetite – the need for more, 2. approval – the need to be recognised, and 3. power – the need to be in control. What I really like about this little passage is that above anything else it says to us that Jesus really did make the journey of being human. Which is, discovering identity and struggling along the way. Jesus goes through this knowing his identity – loved and liked by God and accompanied on the way. This is what we all need for ourselves, we are loved and liked by God and are accompanied on the way.
Our journeys contain so much. The Season of Creation theme for this week is ‘Wilderness’. Jesus goes on a journey through the wilderness – a mini version of all that we experience as humans. Wilderness is often portrayed as a barren, dry, and hard place. Sometimes it is. Certainly, the biblical use of the word leans into this meaning. One thing I’ve learned living in Aotearoa is that our wilderness spaces contain quite a range of things. Some of our wilderness spaces are outstandingly breathtaking, beautiful, and rich places. Metaphorically while wilderness places can describe hard and dry times of struggle I believe they actually show us a depth of beauty that we can understand as literally beautiful and also, fragile, demanding respect, rugged, and inspiring. The wilderness can give us a sense of adventure and exploration as well as a fair amount of worry. I suspect though if we do the journey well while heading through wilderness times in our lives we do discover the depth of meaning and depth of growth that these experiences can offer. As Jesus journeys through the wilderness he knows he is loved and liked by The Creative One, the Spirit is with him – he is accompanied on the way. This is what we need to know too – we are loved and liked by God and are accompanied on the way through whatever it is we are journeying through.
Depicting Jesus as Māori shows Jesus as the son of God, being with and being concerned for journeying with Māori people – and in a sense showing Jesus as concerned for and journeying with all those who find themselves with past and present struggles against systems that typically ignore or belittle their particular situations. As a human race, this is important, and at individual levels this is important. Important for all of us actually, that we know Jesus identifies with our humanity – Jesus’ humanity puts God in the campsite next to all of us – especially those at the bottom of the societal heap, and also when the rest of us find ourselves struggling along the way. As I said a few weeks ago we are human, we are good and beautiful and we’re on a journey towards God – Goodness, and fullness of life – and in this, God hasn’t come to condemn or patronise or be the absent parent – God knows us and walks beside us.
So, what does Jesus look like to you? Does Jesus know your story? Does Jesus know where you’ve come from, and what you’ve been through? Does Jesus know who you are? Can you say, like that other famous image and poem says – that Jesus is the footsteps in the sand beside you? Do you know yourself to be loved and liked by God and accompanied on the journey – whatever struggle and beauty the wilderness brings?
As I come to a close today. I’d like you to think about your initial reactions to Māori Jesus. We resonate with the idea that Jesus fully embodied our humanity, it is important to us. How comfortable are we that Jesus also came for and embodied all other expressions of humanity too? Perhaps this is part of the journey that we as a country really need to confront and properly seek a way forward. That everyone is loved and liked, found in Christ, and accompanied on the journey. Not just those of us who look more like Sallman’s 1940’s depiction of Christ than Sofia Minson’s Māori Jesus.
 Image sourced from here – https://hail.to/tui-motu-interislands-magazine/article/dke3SY1