This week’s assigned readings are something of a potpourri of miracle stories: healings, exorcisms, nature miracles, and two resuscitations, that of the son of the widow of Nain and the daughter of Jarius. Since this is one of the first lessons to take significant material from the Second Gospel, I begin there. The first reading is from Mark 1:14-15
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
This is the foundation of Jesus’ message across the Synoptics. The first point that might be made is that God is the source of salvation and Jesus is the herald of his gracious offer. This offer is needed because all is not well in the human sphere. The miracle stories that follow demonstrate that the kingdom is indeed near, although still hidden, and they validate Jesus and his message. But they also indicate that humans need help, that is, they are falling prey to the devil, whose power may be seen in unruly natural events, human illness, death, and especially demonic possession. The dangers of this last may be illustrated in the story of Mark 1:23-27:
Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”
But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him.
They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching– with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”
Note here that the demon knows precisely who Jesus is, as does the reader (v.1) and God (v. 11). The human characters in Mark, however, fail to adequately recognize Jesus as the messiah who must suffer and die until the centurion does so at the foot of the cross. Thus, the demon’s identification of Jesus, before Jesus has demonstrated what it really means to be the Holy One of God by his obedience unto death, threatens Jesus’ mission. Jesus therefore orders him to silence and commands him to leave the man. Thus, through Jesus God shows his hand: the time has come near to intervene and set things right.
God’s reordering of human affairs under his rule is the content of the gracious offer of salvation announced by Jesus. To respond properly to God’s offer entails believing that Jesus is the One through whom God will effect this renewal of his rule—those who do are the community that gathers around Jesus. Their willingness to leave all is evidence of their repentance and their commitment to God. Thus, Jesus will make two portentous announcements regarding the link between himself and the good news he brings:
For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. (8:35 NRSV)
Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age– houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions– and in the age to come eternal life. (10:29-30 NRS)
In addition to validating the identity of Jesus as the Spirit-filled messiah beloved by God, and the agent to whom God has entrusted the promulgation of coming decisive intervention in human affairs, the miracle stories tend to function as example of the moral behavior to which those who gather around Jesus are called. In the Synoptics these stories can be fruitfully analyzed according to this pattern:
1) Analyze the words and actions of Jesus for imitation: pay particular attention to Jesus’ examples of compassion and the infinite worth of an individual in God’s sight.
2) Analyze the words of Jesus for indications of the weightier matters of the law, as well as the correct way to understand the law.
3) Analyze human characters for positive or negative examples of discipleship; the three most significant indications of right discipleship are the virtues of humility, sincerity, and faithfulness.
4) Analyze human characters for their adherence to, or deviance from, the various love commands associated with Jesus:
a. Love one’s enemies
b. Love God and one’s neighbor
c. Do unto others as you would have them do to you
Jesus as an example for imitation by disciples is well illustrated by the story of the widow of Nain. This unfortunate woman is following the bier of her last remaining close male relative out the gate of the city just as Jesus and his sizable entourage are entering. The proper dimensions of human compassion are demonstrated as Jesus intuitively sizes up the situation and reverses the misfortune without being asked to do so. The worth of individuals is displayed through the social gap between the status of Jesus, who has attracted a large crowd through his insight and power, and the women who likewise has a sizable following, but only through her misfortune. The reality of the situation is that she is alone with God, but that means she has precisely the company she really needs.
And that’s probably enough for this week…the pattern of Jesus’ power and compassion are the decisive evidence of God’s immanent re-ordering of human affairs.