Why Jesus? Part 3: Jesus the Magician

The Rev. Dr. William H. Willimon, UMC

Duke Divinity School, Durham, NC

October 17, 2010

"Lazarus, whom you love is ill, come quickly," entreated Jesus' good friends, Mary and Martha, who were Lazarus' sisters. Oddly, Jesus lingered where he was for three more days. What was he doing that was so important? He just hung out where he was for "three more days."

Of course, when Jesus finally shows up three days later, it was all over but the weeping; Lazarus has been entombed for three days. Martha gave Jesus a piece of her mind for his malingering. If Jesus loved Lazarus so much, why did it take him so long to get there?

He must have loved something else even more.

Upon hearing that Lazarus was dead, John says, "Jesus wept." And then Jesus said something strange: "I am the resurrection and the life." He didn't say that he had come to tell grieving Martha about the resurrection. He didn't say, "Martha, take heart, one day, someday, your brother will be resurrected, and then you'll get to see him again in heaven." Rather, Jesus says, "I am the resurrection and the life." Wherever I am, even here at this time and place of death, there is resurrection, and there is life, here, now. With that, Jesus acts out his compassion; he goes out to the cemetery and, in a voice loud enough to wake the dead, shouts, "Lazarus, arise!" Lazarus comes forth like a mummy. Next thing you know, there's Jesus with Lazarus and his sisters, having a party in Bethany; and Jesus' critics (ever the guardians of the status quo) were planning now to kill him.

Why would you want to kill Jesus for resuscitating a dead man?

This story, I think, is a parable. The church always reads this story on a Sunday in Lent, the season of the cross. Even though it's not yet Easter, whenever Jesus, Mr. Resurrection and the Life, shows up, the dead walk, things are cut loose, and clergy get nervous.

Still, the thing I can't get out of my head is that Jesus refused to rush right over and heal Lazarus, whom he loved. Why, Jesus? Could Jesus have been doing something more important than serving as a member of the healthcare delivery team?

What does it mean to be sick? In Jesus' first-century world, they didn't have our modern systems of immortality management, er, well, I mean "healthcare system." They had the temple, the priesthood, and Scripture.

So what did you do when you fell ill? Well, you went to the first-century equivalent of the officially certified, governmentally sanctioned healthcare professional, that is, the priest. And the priest told you what to do with your pain: "Take two doves, have them properly sacrificed at the temple's high altar, and call me in the morning. Follow my prescription and you'll be all fixed up." Like today, this system was fine for those who had the resources to pay for all this expert attention. But what if you were poor (illness and inability to work usually go hand-in-hand) and what if you couldn't afford the doves, much less a trip to the specialists at the Jerusalem altar?

Well, too bad for you. No life-giving, liberating medicine for you. Your only hope was to contact one of those half-baked wandering magicians who, shunned by all respectable, educated people of means, traveled about taking advantage of the gullibility and the desperation of the suffering poor by offering them their magical healing arts for a small fee.

Would you please note: Jesus was a magician.

For some time now, at least since the birth of science, Jesus' miraculous work has been an embarrassment for us sophisticated, modern, Western people. We can take Jesus as a teacher, but Jesus as a magician is a turnoff. We believe in medicine, the beneficent side of science, not magic or voodoo, which nobody but crackpots practice.

Whether in first-century Palestine or twenty-first-century America, it's medicine when we believe it works and the government certifies it. But it's magic when we affluent, respectable people don't believe in it and only non-credentialed people practice it over in the ghetto. All healing, even that of the most expensive, university-related hospitals, is to a great degree faith healing.

Our exorbitant faith in and vast expenditures for the medical system may be due more to our income and our social class--and maybe to our idolatry?--than to our scientific superiority to first-century Palestinians. That Jesus was what we would dismiss as a magician says something about him and much about us.

Even Jesus' most severe critics, who had no intention of following him anywhere, agreed that Jesus performed many signs and wonders.[i] Jesus met a blind man who implored him to restore his sight.[ii] So Jesus spit in the dust, made a mud paste, put it on the man's eyes, and the man saw.

When John the Baptizer sent emissaries to Jesus, asking, "Are you the Messiah, or should we be looking for somebody else?"[iii] Jesus lists some of his wonders as evidence for who he is: the blind, the lame, and the deaf restored to health, the dead raised. And then Jesus says something odd: "...and blessed is he who takes no offense in me."

Why would people be offended that Jesus miraculously healed? 

Note that none of the gospels calls any of Jesus' healing works a "miracle." "Miracle" is our word for the inexplicable phenomena that appear to arise from sources other than ourselves. It's always the crowd that is astonished by Jesus' miraculous moments, never Jesus, as if his wondrous work is the most natural thing in the world. What we label as "miracle," odd, out of this world, is what the gospels regard as normal now that Jesus is here. Jesus does these things naturally, giving us a privileged glimpse of the way the world is intended to be. Thus, Jesus challenges our notions of "natural" and "supernatural." "Supernatural" is that weird, pre-scientific, unverifiable, inexplicable realm to which we relegate everything we don't know how to think about. Maybe what we call "natural" is a perversion of what God intended and what we call "supernatural" is the way the world really is?

Jesus' healing wonders serve as parables pointing to the truth of who Jesus really is and the direction the world is really headed now that Jesus is on the move. Not proofs--they are pointers, glimpses of who God is and what God wants. Of course, signs and wonders don't tell us modern people much, because we like to believe that we live in an orderly, cause-and-effect world governed by natural laws, where miracles are not permitted. Jesus' miracles disrupted the perceived world and indicated that there was more going on with Jesus and with us than we first imagined. Something is afoot.

So John's Gospel presents Jesus as going head-to-head with some of the most popular gods of the classical world, principally through his magical works of power. Jesus turns water into wine[iv] (an affront to the god Dionysus, who had the wine monopoly), Jesus miraculously produces bread[v] (Demeter thought she was in charge of grain), and Jesus heals[vi] (cutting into the practice of Dr. Asclepius, god of medicine).

Though Jesus healed many, he didn't heal everybody. He walked by all the sufferers laid out on pallets by the magical pool and unceremoniously healed only one crippled man who had been lying there for years.[vii] Jesus was downright annoyed when huge crowds dogged him and interfered with his teaching.[viii] As important as health and wholeness were to Jesus, something else was even more significant. Jesus never once told his disciples that, if they loved and obeyed him, he would free them from all pain and misery. In fact, just the opposite, he told them that there would be a cross for every one of them.

Jesus regarded his miracles as ambiguous at best, often charging people to keep quiet about them.[ix] When he healed people, he seemed to do it simply as overflowing compassion for those who suffered and as a sign that the kingdom of God was breaking out among them. In other words, when Jesus healed someone, or when he produced an overflow of bread to feed the hungry people in the wilderness, it was a sign, a sign, that God's kingdom had come close, that God's intentions for the world had surged forth.

Jesus sent out the Twelve "to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal."[x] Even as a healer, Jesus did not work alone. Thus the church founded the first hospital. He declared that all shall be judged on the basis of "I was sick and you visited me."[xi]

Hey, let's admit, that as modern, Western, scientifically-minded people, we are at a keen disadvantage when it comes to thinking about Jesus' "signs and wonders." But the people with whom Jesus first worked assumed that reality is open, porous to the periodic interventions and intrusions of the divine.

 

But as for us, we value predictability, order, and control more than we love surprise, mystery, and wonder. We tend to think of our world as closed, rigidly following certain "natural laws," so that the line between "natural" and "supernatural" is obvious and unassailable. So if you start out with the assumption that miracles don't happen, well, then, don't be surprised when you conclude that the miracles of Jesus didn't happen.

But, what if, just for the sake of argument, there is no "natural"--that is, no world that somehow functions and is immune from God? What if what we've been led to call "natural" is, in truth, "creation," the result of God's loving, constant, though often subtle and undetected interaction with the world?

Some find the healing miracles of Jesus to be a revealing and comforting help to their faith in Jesus. Others--and perhaps I place myself in this category--others see his signs and wonders and think not, "Only God could do something like this," but rather, "I wonder how he did that?" To be honest, whether or not I find the miracles of Jesus revealing and compelling for faith may be related to the expansiveness of my imagination. Many modern people have contented ourselves with a fairly flat and confined worldview.

But what if we're wrong? What if there is more going on in us and in the world than we have been led to believe by the modern worldview? What if the "modern worldview" is itself a fiction, just another in the long line of futile human attempts to play God? What if Matthew, Mark, and Luke are right--something's afoot that can never be fully contained or described by our human modes of coping with the unknown? In the miracles, it is as if Jesus pulls back the veil that separates the real from the unreal and shows us what is really going on behind the curtain of our limited notions of what's what. In miracles, God reserves God's right to work in ways that disrupt our settled opinions of just what God can and cannot do.

What if the scripture is right?  "God was in this wonder working, miracle performing, Jesus, reconciling the world to himself"?

Let us pray. 

Lord Jesus, blow our minds, open us up to the possibility that something's afoot. Open us up to the possibility that there is more going on than we can explain and that the most interesting thing going on is your active love for us. Amen.

 


[i] signs and wonders. Matthew 12:24-32.

[ii] restore his sight. John 9:6.

[iii] for somebody else? Luke 7:20-22, paraphrased.

[iv] water into wine. John 3:1-10.

[v] produces bread. John 6:1-15.

[vi] and he heals. John 4:47.

[vii] there for years. John 9:1-7.

[viii] with his teaching. Matthew 4:25.

[ix] quiet about them. Mark 5:43; 7:36.

[x] and to heal. Luke 9:2.

[xi] you took care of me. Matthew 25:36.

 


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