A great cast of characters in literature groan. Romeo groans in his love for fair Juliet. Huck Finn’s pap, with enough whiskey for “two drinks and one delirium tremens,” groans and moans and thrashes about. Jack London’s tyrannical Sea Wolf groans in his horrible suffering. Euripides has the King of Thebes shriek and groan as his end approaches.
Everyone, I suppose, groans, but not everyone groans about the same thing. What causes a person to groan says a lot about the person. To groan from aches and pains, which I sometimes do, is a world away from groaning like Romeo or Huck Finn’s pap or, for that matter, like Jesus.
Jesus groaned? Yes, Jesus groaned on a number of occasions. The Bible tells us that he “groaned in spirit” after his friend Lazarus died and the mourners had gathered. This, however, is not the usual word translated as “groan,” but another that carries a hint of anger. Jesus was angry at death, at the devastation it causes, and the grief.
In the Gospel according to Mark, Jesus groaned – some versions translate, “sighed deeply” – when he was about to heal a man who could not hear and could barely speak. We are not told the exact reason he groaned. Was it the man’s disability? Was it the behavior of the people who brought him for healing?
In this case, Jesus looked to heaven – an onlooker might have thought he was rolling his eyes – and groaned. It almost seems that he looked to heaven for sympathy. Was it the pains of earth and the helplessness of its residents that drew this groan out of him?
On the other hand, Jesus would moments later command the people who brought the man not to tell anyone how he was healed, and he knew that some of them would not heed his command. Is that why he groaned? The crowds that now regularly surrounded him made going out in public problematic. Teaching, which Jesus said was one of the reasons for his coming, was treated by some as a mere preliminary of the real business of healing.
In the very next section of Mark’s Gospel, we find Jesus groaning again. This time, the word that Mark uses is intensified by a perfective prefix. Translations try to bring this out by adding an adverb: “He groaned deeply.” Whatever its cause, this groan came, as one Bible scholar put it, “from the bottom of his heart.”
The circumstances here are instructive. Jesus had just performed an outstanding miracle, the feeding of 4,000 people. St. John calls miracles like this “signs” because they point to Jesus’s divine origin and relate important truths about God. Yet, the leftovers weren’t even gone before some religious leaders approached him asking for a sign from heaven.
Jesus had just given people a sign. Was he frustrated that they were not reading it? The wording of the sentence could mean that the religious leaders were asking for a sign that would emanate from heaven. The Old Testament prophets had spoken of signs in heaven, and it is possible that these leaders thought that Jesus, if he were truly the Messiah, should be able to provide one.
However, “from heaven” could also mean, “from God,” for Jews often used a circumlocution to avoid impious talk about God. Either way, on the tails of a major miraculous sign, here were people asking for a sign.
But I don’t think that is what made Jesus groan. I suspect he groaned because he knew that no number of signs would be sufficient to convince people who would rather not be convinced. If a thousand signs would help, a thousand signs would be given. But if they would not help, would never help, no sign would be given.
Jesus went on to warn his disciples against the hypocrisy of these leaders. That, I believe, is what made Jesus groan. He groans when people hide themselves from themselves and from others behind a veil of pious-sounding talk. A sign from heaven was never any problem for Jesus, but the soul-numbing hypocrisy of people was.