Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Miracles Part 4 - The Kingdom

I have suggested that Jesus' miracles are not so much displays of power as teaching events coded to the worldview of first century Palestine.  If this is the case, what is Jesus teaching through them?

In one sense it is not really possible to answer this question, at least not in a blog post although perhaps in a hefty tome.  Each incident has its own meaning, its own message.  Jesus spoke on many subjects and responded to many different people.  Yet much of his message is organised around the central theme of the Kingdom of God or as Matthew calls it the Kingdom of Heaven. Right from the the beginning Matthew has him saying "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near".  Jesus is not a systematic theologian, and he never defines or describes in an orderly way what he means by this term.  Instead he illustrates it in multiple parables, and enacts it in various deeds miraculous and otherwise.

So here are some key things I think Jesus' deeds show us about the Kingdom of God.

1. Abundant
For poor farmers, labourers and fisherman in Galilee, hunger was never far away.  Yet Jesus shows them a kingdom where they will never go short.  He helps them catch so many fish they nearly sink the boats.  He feeds 5,000 people from a little boy's lunch.  This seems to encode a promise that in the Kingdom they will never have to go hungry.

Yet these incidents also have a deeper meaning, in tune with the harvest metaphor Jesus uses to describe the kingdom.  As with fish and bread, so with people.  After he fills their nets with fish Jesus asks his disciples to to come and catch people.  Following tales in which he successively feeds 5,000 and 4,000 people in Matthew, he makes it clear to his disciples that he is interested in more than bread.  The Kingdom will overflow with people, they will flock in.  Which brings me to the next thing.

2. Inclusive
The Gospels show Jesus performing a large number of healings.  What distinguishes them is that so many of them are healings of people whose suffering also excluded them from the mainstream of Jewish faith.  He healed people suffering from leprosy, paralysis, blindness, physical deformity and continual haemorrhage - people who the Pharisaic law saw as "unclean".  His healings invite them into the community just as surely as his preference for an immoral woman over a Pharisee in Luke 7.  While it is much harder for the religious leaders and wealthy Israelites to enter the kingdom, Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea and the rich women who supply the disciples with food are evidence that they too can enter if they choose.

Yet it is not enough for them to be included - they are also healed.  The distinctions between people are not simply ignored, they are eliminated.  The Kingdom is a place where their sufferings and their exclusion will both be over, and the people of God will be truly whole in both senses of the world.  And so...

3. Safe
For first century Jews, as for us today, the world was a dangerous place.  Sickness, madness, the weather all presented risks.  They saw these things in terms of the action of malevolent spirits, for us they are "forces of nature", but the message is the same - you can get ill, be washed away in a flood, be wrecked at sea (or crippled in a car crash), succumb to a mental illness.

Jesus shows that in the Kingdom we need not fear these forces.  The demons which drive people mad or make them ill are driven out.  Those which animate the storm are commanded to stop.  Even the Roman centurion recognises his command over the spirits of illness and suffering.

There is much more that could be said about the Kingdom, but this is enough to give you the flavour.  Of course these things are contrary to our everyday experience. We live in a dangerous world, a world defined by scarcity where the rich prosper and the poor suffer.  Jesus presents us with an alternative. 

It's hard to believe in the miracles.  In many cases, it's virtually impossible.  But as per Crossan and Reed, I don't think that's the question.  The question is, what do we think of this kingdom?  Is it something we would like to help build?

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