Art and the Church
Christ in the Suburbs by Georges Rouault
Word and Image Bible Study: Matthew 8:18-27 and Christ in the Suburbs by Rouault
Target Group For small groups or individual study
Christ in the Suburbs is an oil painting created between 1920 and 1924 by Georges Rouault. Rouault was a Parisian who lived from 1871-1958 and was educated at the École des Arts Décoratifs and then the École des Beaux-Arts. In this painting Rouault demonstrates his identification with the plight of the poor. Rouault found poverty to be inherently lonely and felt that the poor lived in a hostile and deserted environment. In this image Christ is present with two individuals on a dark street in the suburbs. It may be argued that for Rouault the poor individual is a victim of the sin that infects all strata of society, openly displaying the emptiness and loneliness that all humans feel that calls out for the presence of God. This image displays a central element of Rouault’s work: he always senses the weakness of man and the promises of God.
Aim The aim of this study is to use Christ in the Suburbs to help us understand Matthew 8:18-27. Using this image in our study can assist us in seeing new dimensions in the life of Christ and his call to his followers.
Scripture reading Matthew 8:18-27
Today’s New International Version 18 When Jesus saw the crowd around him, he gave orders to cross to the other side of the lake. 19 Then a teacher of the law came to him and said, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.” 20 Jesus replied, “Foxes have holes and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” 21 Another disciple said to him, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” 22 But Jesus told him, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.” 23 Then he got into the boat and his disciples followed him. 24 Suddenly a furious storm came up on the lake, so that the waves swept over the boast. But Jesus was sleeping. 25 The disciples went and woke him, saying, “Lord, save us! We’re going to drown!” 26 He replied, “You of little faith, why are you so afraid?” Then he got up and rebuked the wind and the waves, and it was completely calm. 27 The men were amazed and asked, “What kind of man is this? Even the winds and the waves obey him!”
The Message 18-19 When Jesus saw that a curious crowd was growing by the minute, he told his disciples to get him out of there to the other side of the lake. As they left, a religion scholar asked if he could go along. “I’ll go with you, wherever,” he said. 20 Jesus was curt: “Are you ready to rough it? We’re not staying in the best inns, you know.” 21 Another follower said, “Master, excuse me for a couple of days, please. I have my father’s funeral to take care of.” 22 Jesus refused. “First things first. Your business is life, not death. Follow me. Pursue life.” 23-25 Then he got in the boat, his disciples with him. The next thing they knew, they were in a severe storm. Waves were crashing into the boat—and he was sound asleep! They roused him, pleading, “Master, save us! We’re going to drown!” 26 Jesus reprimanded them. “Why are you such cowards, such faint-hearts?” Then he stood up and told the wind to be silent, the sea to quiet down: “Silence!” The sea became smooth as glass. 27 The men rubbed their eyes, astonished. “What’s going on here? Wind and sea come to heel at his command!”
Questions 1. Who approaches Jesus in this passage?
2. What does Jesus say to each person (or group of people)?
3. How does Jesus interact with his surroundings?
4. What might be a good title for this section?
5. What does this passage teach us about Jesus’ vision of discipleship? What does it mean to follow Jesus?
A good title for this section could be: ‘Jesus Is Lord’ or ‘The Challenge of Following Jesus.’ To love Jesus is to follow him. His true disciples simply ‘followed him’ (v. 23) after two other would-be followers made statements or asked questions about following him, but in the end did not. Jesus requires ultimate allegiance to him alone—exceptions will not be made for creature comforts or for family obligations that get in the way of following him. Following Jesus builds our faith—we see him as Lord (as his disciples called him in the boat), acknowledge his authority over everything and follow his steps onto a path that may involve a lack of predictability and comfort (The Son of Man has no place to lay his head, v. 20).
Does reading the passage in The Message version bring about new understandings for you in the passage?
Jesus has clear boundaries. He has a clear idea of what it means to follow him. The way The Message has Jesus replying ‘curtly’ and ‘refusing’ the disciple whose father had died highlights the clear ‘yes’ and ‘no’s’ that are entailed in following Jesus. The cost of discipleship is high. The use of the word faint-hearts for the frightened disciples emphasizes not just the professional and cultural consequences of following Jesus, but also the emotional implications. Followers of Christ have no need to be faint-hearts—to have any sort of anxiety—because Jesus is Lord and he is with them.
Image We are working on permission for the use of an image of Christ in the Suburbs, 1920-1924. For now, click here for the image.
Christ in the Suburbs Look at the painting for several minutes in silence. What was your first impression when you looked at this painting? What do you see? Who is in the image? What are the colors like? What is the tone or mood of the painting? What makes you come to that conclusion? How do you see the words of our Bible passage interacting with the image?
The painting is essentially lonely in nature. The colors used include light gray, dark gray, black, terra cotta, gold, cream, brown, and purple. The street recedes into the distance with an interminable end. A large full moon hangs close to the ground and lights the street. Three large buildings stare at the viewer with windows that approximate eyes and a mouth. There are no signs of life in the buildings—no lights on and no human figures in the windows or coming out of the doors. There is a very tall dark brown rectangular shape rising to the right of the moon. Perhaps this is a smoke stack? There are a lot of shadows, especially at the bottom of the painting and around the doorways of the buildings.
Next, we will look at the people. Who do you see? What are the differences between the larger figure and the smaller figures?
In the shadows at the bottom of the painting there are three figures: Christ and two individuals who are significantly shorter than him. None of the figures have identifiable mouths, which adds to the silence and loneliness of the image. All three figures appear to be barefoot and cast a shadow on the ground. Jesus appears to be gesturing or pointing ahead. He is wearing white. The smaller figures, especially the one on the right, almost seem to be consumed by the shadows that surround them. They seem anonymous and almost fade into obscurity. The figure on the right, with his dark brown attire, is almost invisible. Paradoxically Christ seems to be pointing them into the very shadows that they are being consumed by. Christ also has a large swath of dark black shadow across his heart and mid-section.
Let’s imagine that the two smaller figures represent Jesus’ disciples. In Matthew 8:18-27 various people express a desire to follow Jesus. How did Jesus describe what it would look like to walk with him and how is that reflected in this image? What is Jesus’ role in this image?
The figures are being directed where to go, even though the way is almost completely obscured by shadows. They most likely have a sense of security in that Jesus is so much bigger than them—he can protect them from the ills of the shadowy world they are about to enter. The disciples in the boat in Matthew 8 likewise had great fear but found Jesus to be Lord over their stormy circumstances. His rebuke of the wind and waves highlights his role as Creator God, because only the one who has created something has power over it to change it.
Jesus also explained that following him would involve unpredictable circumstances as walking with him entails going where he goes and sleeping where he sleeps, and he himself ‘has no place to lay his head.’ In the painting the figures are moving on an unpredictable path. Turning around into the better-lit path seems to be the more sensible thing to do (perhaps akin to the disciple’s request to go and bury his father before following Jesus), but that is not where they are being led. In Matthew 8 the teacher of law (or scribe) who professes undying devotion to following Jesus, calls him ‘Teacher.’ In Matthew ‘Teacher’ is a term used only by outsiders. He sees Jesus more in academic terms. As Jesus’ disciple he is willing to learn from him. However, following Jesus is not just an intellectual exercise. Jesus is not a typical rabbi and following him is not a light matter. His chosen style of life was a matter of choice, not of necessity, as Jesus’ family was probably a comfortable, if not affluent, ‘middle-class’ one. In Rouault’s painting the figures are also at a moment of choice. They must decide where their ultimate allegiance lies, as did the disciple whose father required burial.
It’s interesting that there are two figures. In the midst of their seeming anonymity and loneliness, the figures are not completely alone—they have each other. The Christian life is not one of solitary faith. We are called to be in community through the vicissitudes of life’s questions and joys. In the midst of the storm in the boat the disciples are together in their fear and go as a unit to wake up Jesus. Together they are amazed at Jesus’ power over the winds and waves. In Rouault’s painting the two figures are together as they are moving in the direction Jesus points out to them.
This image highlights the challenge to Christians to proclaim that Jesus is Lord over all of their circumstances and to give him their ultimate allegiance. We are to place him at the center of our world. His authoritative work in our lives should cause us to serve him (8:15), to follow him and him alone (8:18-23) and always to turn to him in the moment of our deepest fears (8:26), because he has authority over the ravages of nature (8:26). In the desolation of the road they walk on, the figures in the painting have a choice to either recognize Jesus’ presence and the lonely direction he is calling them to or turn around and follow a more comfortable route, but without Jesus’ presence.
In conclusion At the beginning of the study it was noted that Rouault’s work often displays human emptiness and loneliness that calls out for the presence of God. After reading Matthew 8:18-27, however, it may be noted that God himself, in the person of Jesus, walked around in the loneliness of a human living out his ultimate calling and even beckoned others to join him in that loneliness. Christ empathizes with our loneliness as the Son of Man who had nowhere to lay his head, who was scorned by his family at times (Mark 3:21) and deserted by his disciples on the night of his grisly death (Mark 14:50). Yet he also calls us to follow him without reservation on a road that may be lonely at times.
However, the promises of God will be visible to us: the Creator who made the winds and waves is also our Savior, able to rebuke the same winds and waves and answer our plea of ‘Lord, save us!’ (v. 25). The gospel writer may have had Psalm 107:23-32 in mind when he wrote about Jesus calming the storm: ‘In their peril their courage melted away… Then they cried out to the LORD in their trouble, and he brought them out of their distress. He stilled the storm to a whisper; the waves of the sea were hushed. They were glad when it grew calm, and he guided them to their desired haven’ (vv. 26-30). In Matthew 8 Jesus is in the same boat with the disciples, in the midst of them in their terror. Christ in the Suburbs powerfully demonstrates that same close presence of Jesus in a modern setting.
Smack-dab in the middle of the hostile and deserted environment that Rouault felt the poor inhabited he also depicted Christ, who was poor in spirit in his loneliness. Christ in the Suburbs shows that Christ comes alongside us in our loneliness, but also calls us to true discipleship which will entail loneliness. We are called to image him by walking through the storms and shadows. At the end of this potentially difficult journey, however, is the country called life. True allegiance brings true life.
1. Do you share anything in common with the two smaller figures in the painting?
2. Has your understanding of Jesus changed as a result of looking at this painting alongside reading this Bible passage?
3. Are you experiencing loneliness in any area of your life right now – relational, spiritual or geographical? How does Jesus impact this loneliness?
This study is prepared by Hannah Coyne. Hannah is a graduate of Georgetown University and Regent College. She works in the events and hospitality industry in Washington D.C. and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.