Years ago, I was amazed to discover that employees of Disneyland and Disney World were prohibited from having facial hair — especially since Walter Disney sported a mustache!

Students of the history of religion probably wouldn’t have been so surprised. They often remind us that it doesn’t take long for disciples of the founders of religious movements to deliberately remove or simply forget aspects of their mentors’ habits and personality which are embarrassing to them. We catch a glimpse of the historical Jesus’ "mustache" in Sunday’s Gospel (Mk 7: 31-37).

When we think of Jesus’ healing miracles, we picture just two "elements:" Jesus and the person to be healed. But notice that Mark, the earliest evangelist, has three elements. "Jesus took [the deaf man] off by himself away from the crowd. He put His finger into the man’s ear and, spitting, touched his tongue; then He looked up to heaven and groaned, and said to him, ‘Ephphata!’ — that is, ‘Be opened!’"

This third (embarrassing) element is spit.


Scholars believe the historical Jesus frequently used objects like spit and mud in His healing ministry. But as the miracle stories made the rounds of the early Christian communities, people started zeroing in on the essential elements — Jesus and the healed person — and eliminated the non-essential. The more people stressed Jesus’ divinity, the more they ignored the natural elements He employed in His ministry.

Familiar with passages from the Hebrew Scriptures like the first reading (Is 35: 4-7) about Yahweh’s expected visit to the Chosen People, Jesus’ first followers identified His actions with Yahweh’s actions: "The eyes of the blind will be opened, the ears of the deaf be cleared; then will the lame leap like a stag, then the tongues of the mute will sing."

Christians couldn’t hear those words without thinking of Jesus. And, more and more, it was the Yahweh/Jesus they thought of, not the human/Jesus.

We also notice this "de-mustaching" process at work in the second reading (James 2: 1-5). Even the most liberal Scripture scholars — those who believe the Gospels contain almost nothing from the actual historical Jesus’ ministry — will concede one point about their portrayal of Him: He regularly associated with people who were off the bottom rung of the social ladder.

Rich and poor

Yet, when James writes, two or three generations after Jesus’ death and Resurrection, he must warn his community about a situation that could never have happened during Jesus’ ministry: "For if someone with gold rings and fine clothes comes into your assembly, and a poor person in shabby clothes also comes in, pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes and say, ‘Sit here, please,’ while you say to the poor one, ‘Stand there,’ or ‘Sit at my feet!’"

Rev. John McKenzie once wrote that it only took a few years for Jesus’ followers to stop being criticized for the things for which Jesus had been criticized. The criticism didn’t end because society had accepted Christian behavior and made it the norm. Christians had simply stopped doing what Jesus had done.

Although we follow the risen Jesus, not the historical Jesus, it’s still important to learn as much as we can about the historical Jesus. He didn’t arrive in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago and instantly morph into a resurrected state. His human personality was based on the unique ways He related to people and used God’s creation. And it was that personality which initially set Him apart from others.

Rev. Ed Hays always reminds his audiences, "Jesus’ first followers imitated Him long before they worshiped Him." It seems they didn’t mind the mustache.