Sunday, 29 July 2012

Miracles Part 3

In my first post on Jesus' miracles I summarised my reasons for not seeing the miracles as demonstrations of power, and in the second I commented on the way the miracle stories are bound by the culture and world view of their original authors and hearers. 

The starting point for this one is the theory of some New Testament scholars that among the original sources for the gospels were a "sayings gospel" and a "signs gospel".  If they existed (and their existence is merely an hypothesis, no copies exist), then the first was a collection of the sayings or teachings of Jesus, and the second of deeds attributed to him.  Within this framework, Jesus' acts are not defined by whether or not they require supernatural power, but simply by the fact that he did them.

No doubt Jesus did many things - getting dressed, washing his hair, going to the toilet, ordinary everyday things of which we have no record because they were not worth recording.  The deeds we have in the gospels were recorded because they had significance.  But why?  What is it about these collections of deeds which made people want to remember them when so much else was forgotten?  I think people remembered the deeds which illustrated his message.  His signs are teaching incidents, illustrations and enacted examples of his teachings.

A good example of this is the story of the calling of Jesus' first disciples found in Luke 5.

One day as Jesus was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret, the people were crowding around him and listening to the word of God. 2 He saw at the water’s edge two boats, left there by the fishermen, who were washing their nets. 3 He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little from shore. Then he sat down and taught the people from the boat.

4 When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.”

5 Simon answered, “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything.  But because you say so, I will let down the nets.”

6 When they had done so, they caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break. 7 So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them, and they came and filled both boats so full that they began to sink.

8 When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” 9 For he and all his companions were astonished at the catch of fish they had taken, 10 and so were James and John, the sons of Zebedee, Simon’s partners.

Then Jesus said to Simon, “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will fish for people.” 11 So they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him.

It's not entirely clear that this is a miracle in the normal sense of the term.  People catch fish all the time.  Yet Jesus, a carpenter, has succeeded where professional fishermen failed and Simon's response indicates that something remarkable has taken place.  However, the point of the story comes at the end when Jesus says to Simon and his companions, "Don't be afraid, from now on you will fish for people."  That this is the important part of the story is shown by the fact that it is the only part which appears in the much shorter counterpart stories in Matthew and Mark.  This is a story about the calling of the first disciples, their change from fishermen to proclaimers of the Kingdom.  The story of the catch of fish tells what sort of mission they will have - it will be abundant, so much so that they will not be able to contain it and it will endanger their very lives.

You see the same pattern in the story of the cleansing of the temple in Mark 11, which I have written about in some detail in another post.  Here, Jesus' disruption of the market in sacrificial animals is a prelude to a formal lesson in which he first quotes Isaiah 56 to show that all people, not just Jews, have a place in God's coming kingdom, and then quotes Jeremiah 7 to illustrate how the current temple authorities have betrayed this ideal by putting their faith in the temple itself, not in God.  This was not a politically savvy message - it was the temple authorities who were politically savvy, compromising with the Herods and the Romans to preserve the temple worship while jealously guarding the temple for themselves and their inner circle.  Jesus' kingdom will contain no such compromise, even if it requires the destruction of the temple itself.

I could keep piling up examples but I'd just like to talk about one more - the story of the healing of the paralytic told in Mark 2 and abbreviated in Matthew 11.  Here is Matthew's version which retains the most important elements while editing out some of the incidental details.

2 Some men brought to him a paralyzed man, lying on a mat. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the man, “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.”

3 At this, some of the teachers of the law said to themselves, “This fellow is blaspheming!”

4 Knowing their thoughts, Jesus said, “Why do you entertain evil thoughts in your hearts? 5 Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’? 6 But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” So he said to the paralyzed man, “Get up, take your mat and go home.” 7 Then the man got up and went home. 8 When the crowd saw this, they were filled with awe; and they praised God, who had given such authority to man.

The main teaching of this story is found in the central statement of Jesus - "the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins".  This statement is framed and supported by his first and last statements; "your sins are forgiven" and "get up, take your mat and go home", and by the two contrasting responses of his hearers; "this fellow is blaspheming" and "they were filled with awe and they praised God".

To understand how these statements relate to each other, keep in mind what I said in Part 2 about the world view of Jesus' contemporaries.  The man's paralysis was not understood as unlucky, or as a result of the action of bacteria or trauma.  It was understood as a result of sin, as a punishment.  He was inhabited by a spirit of paralysis as result of a wrong committed by himself or a member of his family in this highly collectivist culture. 

Hence, forgiveness and cure are closely related, and Jesus' opening and closing statements thematically mirror one another.  When Jesus opens by telling the man his sins are forgiven, the obvious reaction is that anyone can say that - if they are game - but is it really true?  The closing statement provides the proof - the man is indeed able to walk, the power of the paralytic spirit is broken, he is forgiven.

This story has a wider significance.  A paralytic was excluded from the innermost areas of the temple because he was unclean - only "whole", unblemished men and animals were allowed there.  This man was far from friendless, but he was excluded from the inner circle of God's favoured people.  Jesus changes all that.  The forgiveness of his sins/healing doesn't only relieve him physically, it restores him to the community of the faithful, it makes him a full member of God's people.

In Part 1 I referred to Crossan and Reed's view about how these stories would be seen in the first century.  In that context, the miracles themselves were not necessarily either convincing or surprising.  Miracle stories were told about plenty of public figures.  What was convincing was the message.  This was a kingdom for outsiders.  People who previously had no hope of God's favour, who were on the bottom of the pile, could now be admitted to God's closest counsels, could be brought into the inner circle, could be as important as priests and kings.  Is it any wonder that in 1 Corinthians 1 Paul describes the early church in the following terms?

26 Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28 God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, 29 so that no one may boast before him.

(Final episode in this series is here.)

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