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On the Road with Jesus
Teaching and Healing
By Ben Witherington III
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2012 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
JESUS THE SEER, THE SAVIOR, THE SAGE
The parables were dark sayings meant to tease the mind into active thought about the Kingdom. —C. H. Dodd
O YOUNG AND FEARLESS PROPHET
One of the main reasons John the Baptizer surprised people is that some Jews of his time thought there were no more prophets in the land, and that there had not been for some time. John caused people to reassess, so that when Jesus came on the scene, the buzz was that perhaps he was a prophet as well, a prophet like John. And after John died, somebody even suggested he was John back from the dead (see Mark 8:28)! But there were prophets and then there were prophets—one size did not fit all. In fact there was a northern style of prophet, and there was a southern style of prophet, and if one came from Galilee, the natural assumption would be that a prophet would be like Elijah, who along with Elisha, ministered to the northern tribes, to Israel rather than to Judah. If we analyze the chronicles of the ministries of Elijah and Elisha what we mainly find are two action prophets—prophets noted for miracles for the people and for sticking their noses in the political business of royalty. At least in regard to the former, Jesus appeared to be like Elijah. Elijah, after all, had also brought back someone from the dead. And Jesus had called the ruler of Galilee, Herod Antipas, "that fox" and was critical of his marriage and his treatment of John the Baptizer, and rightly so.
Judaean prophets in the classical mode were oracular prophets. They would hear a late word from God, and then quote it verbatim, often using the "thus says Yahweh ..." formula. They were mouthpieces who had a good earpiece tuned into God's frequency. This was clearly not Jesus' modus operandi. Not once does he speak as a mere mouthpiece for the Father. And because of this, some have suggested Jesus was not a prophet. The problem with that conclusion is that Jesus even calls himself a prophet more than once (for example, in Mark 6).
We need to expand our horizons and realize that there were classical prophets and there were action prophets, there were parable-telling prophets (see Nathan and his confrontation with David), and there were apocalyptic seers. If we have to characterize Jesus, he was like all of these sorts of prophets, except the classical prophets. He told parables, he confronted authorities, he performed miracles, and yes, he had visions. We have already discussed the latter when we investigated his baptism and his early temptations in the wilderness. Jesus was a man who fit no one single prophetic formula or stereotype, but a prophet and a seer he was.
But of course Jesus was both more and other than a prophet. John, so far as we know, performed no miracles, but Jesus performed miracles no one had seen before in Judaism, specifically the healing of a man born blind (we have no such story in the Old Testament or intertestamental Judaism) and many, many exorcisms, another miracle nowhere recorded in the Old Testament. Furthermore, no one had heard of someone being raised from the dead after they had lain in the grave for four days and had started to decompose. Jesus even did that in the case of Lazarus, and what was so astonishing about that is that Jewish tradition said that the spirit of a person departed into the after-life after three days. They weren't coming back after that. There was, however, another side to who Jesus was. He was not just a seer, he was also a sage, a teacher of wisdom, and we need to talk about this side of his ministry as well. Jesus' miracles were performed in the context of working as a messianic prophet and a messianic sage. He was indeed a man who could not be pigeonholed.
THE MIGHTY WORKS OF A MIGHTY MAN
There are two traditions about Jesus' miracles, a northern tradition and a southern tradition. In Judaea, Jesus was primarily noted for performing "sign miracles," that is miracles that had high symbolic content that pointed away from themselves to the one performing the sign. They were signs that the king had come. In Galilee, Jesus performed "mighty works," which were indicators that the Kingdom, or Dominion, had arrived. The former included dramatic healings and raisings from the dead and even judging miracles (for example, the cursing of the fig tree) but no exorcisms. The latter included every kind of miracle imaginable: healings, raisings, nature miracles, exorcisms; you name it, Jesus could do it. It is interesting that in the Synoptic Gospels the miracles are called "mighty works" (dunameis, from which we get the word dynamite!) whereas in John they are called semeion, emphasizing not so much their power as their symbolic character.
If we examine closely the miracle traditions in the four Gospels, there are a variety of things that stand out. In Mark's Gospel, particularly in its first half, exorcisms seem to be the most prevalent miracle along with healings, whereas in the Fourth Gospel and in Judaea, it's a different story. The second thing to note is that Jesus does not perform miracles using magic or sacred formulae or recipes, unlike others who claimed to do miracles in his era. Jesus does not do miracles on the basis of someone else's authority or power, but on the basis of his own. Right from the start in Galilee when he heals the man with the "unclean spirit" (that is, a spirit that made the man unclean) the crowds in the synagogue in Capernaum are amazed and note that Jesus seems to have independent, or personal authority, not derived power and authority. In a culture where it was assumed that only God had inherent power and authority, this was shocking. The third thing to notice about Jesus' miracles is they are largely effortless. Jesus doesn't have to wrestle with demons in a cage match or go through a prolonged process of healing; however, at least once he chooses to heal a man in stages. Several times he has the one being healed participate in his or her own curative process ("Go wash," he says to the blind man. "Go see the priest," he says to the man he has made clean). Jesus can even heal at a distance and does so even for foreigners like a Syrophoenician woman or a centurion near Cana.
A further point worth emphasizing strongly is that Jesus does not see miracle-working as his main task. Early in Mark's Gospel, he tells his disciples he needs to get away from Capernaum for a while; and so he tells them, "Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do" (Mark 1:38). Jesus went out to proclaim his Dominion message about salvation, and he stayed to heal. He did not set out to do a bunch of healings; he was merely responding to great human need. This is an important point in regard to Jesus' priorities. If someone is saved and has the divine saving rule of God in his or her life, that person has an everlasting benefit from Jesus. But even the man raised from the dead is still a mortal man and will go on to die again. Jesus knew what his priorities needed to be, and the emphasis was on the message, the good news of salvation, and its reception by faith. The miracles were part of the salvation package to be sure, but not the main thing. The miracles were acts of compassion, but they were not Jesus' main passion, which was to rescue the lost.
One of the more interesting subjects to study in the Gospels is the relationship of faith to miracles. There seems to be a positive correlation between faith in the miracle worker and the possibility of healing. We see this for instance in the famous story of the woman with the perpetual flow of blood. Jesus tells her quite clearly at the end of the story —"your faith has healed you" (Mark 5:34). And on the opposite end of the spectrum Mark 6:5 says of Nazareth, "And he could do no mighty works there except that he laid hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief." The problem in Nazareth like the problem with Thomas in John's Gospel is unbelief, not doubting.
There seem to be certain kinds of miracles that got Jesus into real hot water: exorcisms, which led to the charge that he was in league with Satan (see Mark 3), and "unnecessary" healings on the Sabbath. The rule about the Sabbath was no nonemergency work on that day, so if a healing could wait until after sundown on Saturday, then it should wait. Jesus, to the contrary, saw the Sabbath, the day of rest, as the perfect day to give a person rest from what ailed him or her, and in all the differing layers of the Gospel tradition, Jesus is portrayed as healing various people with various maladies, including non-life-threatening ones, on the Sabbath. Jesus did quite a few things that would have been seen as not merely bending the Mosaic rules but breaking them.
Besides these healings on the Sabbath, there was Jesus' willingness to say that "nothing that enters a person can make them unclean, but rather it is what comes out of a person's heart that makes them unclean" (Mark 7:5). The more you study the Jesus stories, the more you realize Jesus is not just a reformer of early Judaism, he really believes the end times have begun and with it the new covenant, which eclipses the various forms of the old covenant.
JESUS THE SAGE
One of the keys to understanding Jesus is recognizing that his main public form of discourse in Galilee—and also in Judaea, albeit in a different form—was wisdom speech. The Jesus of Mark's Gospel, in fact, tells us that Jesus determined that he would teach all things to those outside the circle of discipleship in paraboloi. But what in the world were "parables"?
While we are accustomed to think of parables as "an earthly story with a heavenly meaning," the Hebrew term mashal, like the Greek term parabolos, covers a lot more ground than just short fictional stories. Notice how, for example, the saying "physician heal thyself" is called a "parable" in Luke 4:23. This is just a metaphorical saying, not a story at all. Its best definition is that a mashal/parabolos is a metaphorical form of speech, which often involves analogy meant to tease the mind into active thought. A proverb, an aphorism, a riddle ("It is easier for a camel to crawl through the eye of a needle ..."), a narrative parable, and even an allegory can be called a "parable." The term is shorthand for wise speech in metaphorical form, of whatever sort. Jesus' wisdom speech differed from many other Jewish teachers. His was about the inbreaking of God's final acts of redemption and judgment so that one day, "Thy Dominion come, thy will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven." It will be helpful to explore a small sampling of Jesus' wisdom speech at this juncture and speak briefly about his narrative thought world.
Without question, Jesus is one of the great sages of all time and that includes being a great storyteller. Whether we consider his original parables or his creative handling of Old Testament stories, he is quite the improviser. He lived out of and spoke into a rich storied world, and he told his own and others' tales in light of the dawning end-time realities. Not surprisingly, his storied world is populated chiefly by Old Testament figures and events, alluded to, retold, and recycled in various ways, but also his storied world involves the spinning out of new tales, often in the form of parables or visionary remarks (for example, "I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven," Luke 10:18). The function of Jesus' discourse was not merely to inform but also to transform, and that transformation was to involve not merely the audience's symbolic universe but also its behavior, in relationship to God as well as in relationship to one another. In other words, there was both a theological and an ethical thrust to Jesus' teaching. The stories were meant to transform not only the religious imagination of the audience but also their way of living, giving them samples and examples of how to believe and behave in the light of the in-breaking dominion of God.
If there is an essential difference in the way Jesus articulated his end-time worldview from that of his predecessor John the Baptizer, it is that Jesus, even in his more apocalyptic sayings, tended to emphasize the good news about the coming of the Dominion on earth. "The object of winnowing is not to collect enough chaff to have a glorious bonfire; it is to gather the wheat into the granary; the bonfire is purely incidental." Thus, Jesus set about to rescue the perishing and to free Israel from its various forms of bondage. In this, Jesus is not trying to be Israel any more than the Twelve were set up initially to be Israel. All of them were trying to free Israel through a mission of preaching, teaching, and healing. There was, however, urgency and corporate focus to what they did. "The disciples were not evangelistic preachers sent out to save individual souls for some unearthly paradise. They were couriers proclaiming a national emergency and conducting a referendum on a question of national survival." The storm of judgment was looming on the horizon for the Jewish faith centered on temple, territory, and Torah. God was intervening in Jesus and his followers before this disaster happened, just as he had already intervened through John the Baptizer. It is this context of social unrest and sense of impending doom that we must keep in view when considering the way Jesus articulates his thought world and the urgency with which he stresses certain things.
This line of discussion raises the issue of the relationship of Jesus to Israel. I suggest that Jesus presents himself not as Israel but rather as the Son of Man, and as the Son of Man, he is Adam gone right. That is, the scope of his messianic ministry is much broader than fulfilling the promise of being the ultimate Son of David, restoring Israel and its reign in the Holy Land. That is a part of what Jesus is about, but only a part. The temptation scenes make clear that something more wide-ranging and more cosmic is at stake, for Jesus is tempted as Son of God, not as Israel or Son of David. The issue is, what sort of Son of God was Jesus to be? Was it one that comported with his being the true Son of Man of Danielic prophecy or not?
Of course, Jesus spoke to a different audience than did his later Christian followers. Every single one of the New Testament documents is written for Christians, even if in some cases written for Christians to use in some form with outsiders. Jesus, on the other hand, was addressing Jews, even when he was addressing his disciples, and so he was able to presuppose the storied world of the Old Testament as something that he and his audience shared. This perhaps explains why Jesus is able to simply allude to figures such as the queen of the South (Matthew 12:41-42 and the parallels in Mark and Luke), or Noah (Matthew 24:36-41), or a widow in Zarephath (Luke 4:26) and expect the audience to know who he meant.
It is no surprise that many of the figures from the past of whom Jesus speaks are associated with judgments past and future, including both the queen of the South and Noah. According to Matthew 12:38-40 (cf. Matthew 16:1-4; Luke 11:29-32), the only "sign" that a wicked generation would get out of Jesus was the sign of Jonah, that reluctant crisis intervention specialist called upon to warn the people of Nineveh of impending disaster if they did not repent. Jonah 3:4 says that the Ninevites were warned that if they did not repent, destruction would fall upon them within forty days. Jesus offers a similar warning in Mark 13, except that the clock is set to forty years. Luke, in his relating of this sort of teaching, makes it all the more explicit that Jesus means the destruction of Jerusalem by human armies, namely, Roman armies (Luke 19:41-44; 21:20-24; 23:27-31).
It is interesting, however, that most of the stories that Jesus told were of his own making, stories about contemporaries and contemporary things, such as the coming of God's end-time saving activity. As we read through even just the narrative parables, we find anonymous human figures providing examples of various sorts. Only the parable of the rich man and Lazarus presents a story about a named individual (Luke16:19-31). Even more interesting is the fact that God is portrayed as an actor in various of these parables; he is the owner of the vineyard in the parable of the wicked tenants (Mark 12:1-11), and the forgiving Father in the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). Most important, we discover that Jesus provides an example of how to do theology and ethics in story form, for these stories are about both divine activity and human responses of various sorts.
Excerpted from On the Road with Jesus by Ben Witherington III. Copyright © 2012 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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