Son of Man by Dennis Potter

Son of ManIn this controversial play, Son of Man, Jesus is portrayed as a hearty, fiery, well-meaning carpenter who believes that people should try to love their enemies rather than fight all the time, but who is afraid of the consequences of his ministry.

It was broadcast by the BBC in 1969 starring Colin Blakely as Jesus, Robert Hardy as Pontius Pilate, Bernard Hepton as Caiaphas, and Brian Blessed as Peter.

We see a Jesus as Son of Man not seen before: someone with a sense of humour with a ready laughter at the social incongruity of his position and a sense of the ludicrous foolishness around him. Also graphically displayed is his uncertainty, anger, and fear.

At the start, we see Roman soldiers putting to the sword those Jews who proclaim ‘the son of the blessed one’, a religious leader they call the Messiah, coming to overturn Roman rule.

Then the scene switches to Jesus alone in the desert, in a state of anguish asking

‘Is it me’? Is it me? The devil speaks and I shall not listen’.

And some might assume Jesus as Son of Man is asking whether it is he who is to lead an uprising and consequently himself suffer from Roman brutality. Later on, before his procession into Jerusalem, he shouts out loud, “I am the Messiah”.

But we might wonder about what being a Messiah meant to him? Perhaps instead of leading an uprising he is asking whether it is he who is being sent by God to preach a radical message about loving one’s enemy; to gain a following of disciples; and by subverting the status of the ruling religious class to suffer cruel punishment. He is later told “They’ll nail you up upon a cross if you put a foot wrong.”

When in a crowd we find Jesus asking “What is so extraordinary about holding the hand of your brother and sister,” and the people laugh as he remarks that even the tax collector has learned how to love his own brother. But the joke quickly turns to a challenge.

“Do you want me to congratulate you — for loving only those who love you?”

We hear indignant voices as, in the words of the playwright, Jesus proclaims,

“Love your enemy, love those who hate you, love those who would destroy you, love the man who would tick you and spit at you, love the soldier who drives his sword in your belly.”

“You cannot love God and hate your fellow man.”

And when Pilate’s wife asks,

“Love your enemies — what does that mean?”

We hear the centurion say, amid derision,

“It simply means the man’s a lunatic!”

Said by some to be a non-Christian portrayal of the Christian story, the play Son of Man is ambivalent as to who Jesus actually was. We hear him say, “Who am I?” and we wonder exactly what was his relationship with God?

I find the traditional Christian explanations of Father and Son as two divine individuals (who along with the Holy Spirit are somehow one God) as irrational and unappealing.

Instead, I would like to suggest that Jesus was both man and God: as the Bible says he was Son of Man and Son of God. He was man as to his conscious thought, and bodily desires, needs and sensations: and being a man he was vulnerable to all human weakness and frailty to which we are all inclined. But, according to this view, also being inwardly God, his soul was divine and this meant he had the divine goodness, wisdom and power of his inner self to resist all selfish desires and impure thoughts.

The play works wonderfully well for me because it brings out what might be called the natural side of God. Jesus’ life’s mission was a struggle, with real pain and anguish.  I would argue that while being tempted to save himself he did not feel himself to be divine. He prayed often to God as a being apart from himself for strength and courage. But each time the battle was over and the selfish and cowardly voices resisted, a little of the mortal side of him died — the mortal side inherited from Mary — and he felt once again that the Father and he were one.

This is why I like the notion of a virgin birth. I can’t explain it biologically, but it makes sense for me to think that Jesus’ father was God whereas his mother was Mary of Nazareth. Jesus was to grow up as a normal human being. As he grew spiritually, was God not replacing, bit by bit, all that was finite and imperfect in him, which he derived from his mother? If so this would mean an eventual changeover to all that was infinite and perfect so by the time of his death he was entirely divine.

Brian Kingslake illustrates this in terms of the building of a house.

“Scaffold poles are first erected. Sometimes these rough poles are set up all around the site, and passers-by might even mistake them for the intended building! But when all is completed, the scaffolding poles are removed, and there stands a beautiful stone edifice. In the case of Jesus, the parts of his nature which he inherited from Mary were like the scaffold poles, whereas the parts he inherited from his Father were the stones. The scaffold poles ensure that the stones are placed in the right position, they are afterwards removed. So, the parts from Mary enabled God to form his Divine-Human, but they were eventually discarded.”

Copyright 2012 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems

If you like this, you may also like:

Spiritual questions & answers about the arts

Jesus Christ – Who was he?

The humanity of God

Son of God — How to make sense of Christ’s claim?


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