So he leaves backwater Nazareth and sets up his kingdom-dream shop in a more cosmopolitan location, in Capernaum, a central stop for the trade route from Damascus to Jerusalem or to the Mediterranean and even down to Alexandria. In Capernaum and in the religious center of the Jews, a synagogue, Jesus’ own God-oriented, Spirit-directed authority manifests itself and a demonized man, someone tormented by evil spirits, recognizes the threat of the spiritual power at work in Jesus. More can be said: Jesus was himself a powerful spiritual presence. The demonized man recognizes Jesus as the Holy One of God and Jesus liberates the man from the spirit.
What happened next should happen: People want to know who Jesus is. There was a power and a presence in Jesus that led people to want to know who this person was. What he had done, though, was not confusing: Jesus the Benefactor liberated humans from evil powers at work in them. Jesus’ powerful benefactions drew attention to himself. He wanted it that way. The decisive question must be “Who are you, Jesus?”
Open to an Opened Universe Benefactor
We are moderns in the fullest sense of that word, and what gives that word its life is that we are through and through anchored in empirical realities. After summers of pitching baseballs to my son, Lukas, my shoulder had so many pains I went to Michael Collins and he sent me to the hospital for an MRI. Through what strikes me as the amazing wizardry of technological science, that image showed several problems. So I had surgery and for an hour or so Dr. Collins chipped and cut and resolved my shoulder pains. And my golf game improved to boot. I tend to believe scientists and doctors and dentists and engineers can diagnose everything. I explain my symptoms to our family physician, John Dunlop, and he knows – and if he doesn’t know I believe he’s got a machine or a test that will tell me the problem. It is when doctors can’t diagnose something that I am surprised. Modernists specialize in knowing cause and effect by subjecting our world to experiment and hypothesis.
Our knowledge of cause and effect, which is the most intoxicating thing about human curiosity, shrinks our universe into what some call a “closed universe.” There are disadvantages in developing the belief that we can determine the cause and effect of everything, and the first casualty is enchantment with the universe and the second casualty is belief in God and the third casualty is trust that the God of this enchanted world can act in demonstrably gracious and powerful ways. Missionaries and cultural anthropologists alike inform us that our modernist ways have closed down our universe and we have become deafened to the voice of God both in nature and in supernature.
Jesus lived on the other side of the world to us. Because his universe was open he was open to asking God to heal people and people were open to asking Jesus to ask God to heal them. They were and he was. People were healed. When Peter’s mother-in-law had a fever, Jesus cooled her down. When people gathered at Peter’s home with all kinds of sicknesses, Jesus laid his hands on the people and the people were healed. A man was a leper, Jesus washed him clean. A paralyzed man had friends who were so desperate to get to Jesus they dug through someone’s roof and lowered their friend to Jesus and Jesus, of all things, forga
ve the man’s sins and healed him. It goes on and on.
The record here is stubborn: Jesus the Benefactor healed people of a variety of symptoms. In healing them, Jesus restored them to health and to society and to table with their families. When we are done reading these stories about Jesus, we ought to be asking “Who is this?”
Every society has boundaries and borders. Not just geographical boundaries, like the invisible line between the State of Illinois and Wisconsin (where people unfortunately choose to wear “cheeseheads” to show their support for the Green Bay Packers), but the invisible borders between people and groups and ideas. When Jesus healed the paralyzed man, the Pharisees and legal experts thought Jesus himself had crossed an invisible border when he said to the man that his sins were forgiven. They accused Jesus of blaspheming – and Jesus silenced them when the man began to walk. (Who’s about to say God’s not on someone’s side who can make a paralyzed man walk?) When Jesus converted a Rome-cooperating and money-grubbing tax collector into his own dream community, the ever-present Pharisees and legal experts questioned Jesus’ allegiance to the Torah: “Why do you,” they asked Jesus, “eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus silenced them once again with this pushback: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”
His opponents weren’t silenced so they asked him why his followers weren’t living out the customary fasting rules – fasting every Monday and Thursday. Jesus tells them a clever riddle about wine and wineskins and suggests that, as long as he is around, fasting morphs into feasting. Jesus can’t be silenced either. On a Sabbath Jesus permits his disciples to do something observant Jews didn’t do: they plucked wheat stalks and rubbed the grains off in order to eat them. But the Pharisees, who clearly operate as the religious watchdogs, thought Jesus had taught his disciples to violate the law against working on the Sabbath. King David, Jesus reminded them, had done something similar. Had they brought up the idea that he – Jesus – wasn’t King David, Jesus would have …. Well, they didn’t so he didn’t but he could have! And he would have told them that someone great than David was here. Finally, on a Sabbath and in a synagogue: Jesus heals a man with a deformed hand. The Pharisees and legal experts aren’t happy so Jesus corners and silences them with a stunningly insightful question that gets to the bottom of their border-creating policies: “which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy it?” No one but a schmuck will say “do evil” or “destroy it” but if they say “do good” or “save life” they end up on Jesus’ side. The opponents gathered together, fuming no doubt in a corner, to figure out what to do with Jesus.
This episodes are intense and they are meant to be. They sum up the way Jesus the Benefactor, the one who was doing good, operated. His modus operandi was to liberate his fellow Israelites from the suffocating tendencies of the control-oriented Pharisees and legal experts, and to liberate the diseased and sick from their suffering.