Jesus: Magician or Liberator?

Luke 8:19-9:6; cf Mark 4:35-5:42

The writer of Luke/Acts had a very different agenda from the writer of the gospel of Mark.  Mark’s Gospel is a progression – a journey – from Galilee to Jerusalem.  Mark was the first to pull together the sayings and stories about Jesus and create a narrative that took listeners from confusion to clarity, from misunderstanding to revelation.  Mark’s Gospel announces the arrival of God’s rule based on radical fairness and inclusion of poor and marginalized people.  For Mark, God’s rule is in direct opposition to Roman law and order.  Luke’s job, in contrast, was to make the new Christian Way acceptable to his Roman patron, Theophilius.  (See The Five Gospels, p. 294.)  He takes Mark’s stories and mixes them up so that Mark’s logic is lost.  The emphasis changes from social and political justice to magic and miracle.

As we continue with Luke’s gospel, the next section begins with Jesus’s mother and brothers coming to see him.  They can’t get to him because of “the crowd,” and he seems to dismiss them: “My mother and my brothers are those who listen to God’s message and do it,” he says.  The question is, what is the message, and what are we to do?  For Luke, the answer seems to come at the end of this series of exorcisms and healings.  “He called the 12 together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to heal diseases.”  The work seems to be to bring “good news and healing everywhere” (9:1-6).  After this, Luke shifts to relating the parables; there is one more exorcism, and one more healing.  Luke seems most concerned with convincing people that Jesus was the messiah, and with the importance of Christian piety.

Luke’s version of Mark’s story about Jesus “rebuking the wind and the waves” so that a “great squall” dies away is most often considered to be another miracle story.  “Who can this fellow be?” the terrified disciples ask each other, “that even the wind and the sea obey him?”  In Mark’s sequence, the story follows the parables of the Sower and the Mustard Seed. The irony in Mark’s story is that Jesus’s clueless followers still don’t get what Jesus is trying to teach them.  Mark’s Jesus could not be more clear: “Why are you so cowardly?” he asks – perhaps with some irritation.  “You still don’t trust, do you?”

But watch out.  Christians traditionally have added or assumed that Jesus is implying the disciples don’t trust him.  But that’s not what he says.  Look at the way Mark originally set the scene (Mark 4:35).  In contrast to Luke, who says “One day Jesus and his disciples happened to get into a boat . . .” Mark’s Jesus is teaching beside the sea, or Lake Galilee.  “Later in the day, when evening had come, he says to them, ‘Let’s go across to the other side.’” Any fisherman worth his salt should have known that even though the Lake was subject to sudden storms, in the evening, there is often (if not always) a calm as the sun sets.  How many recreational sailors on the Chesapeake Bay (or any large body of water) have had to either use their onboard engines, or be towed back to Annapolis once the sun approaches the horizon and the wind dies?  So Jesus falls asleep on some cushions in the stern of the boat, and a sudden squall materializes.  Why should those supposedly seasoned sailors panic?  Surely that squall would have died out as quickly as it came up?  In Mark’s view, Jesus’s followers not only do not understand what Jesus was trying to teach them.  They don’t even trust their own experience of God’s natural world.

The 5th Chapter of Mark contains three stories of deliverance.  The first, which we read in Year C from the Gospel of Luke, is the story of the “man of the city”  possessed by a demon named “Legion.”  When the demons ask Jesus not to send them back to “the abyss,” he sends them into a herd of swine instead.  Now, swine are unclean animals.  So the swineherds must be outcast people – perhaps they are gentiles, even Roman servants.  So when the man says his name is “Legion,” is he saying his life has been taken over by Roman oppressors?  The people of the surrounding country are frightened by Jesus’ action in healing/delivering/liberating the man from the oppression of the Roman demons by releasing them into the pigs, which are then destroyed because they run down the bank into the lake and are drowned.  The people ask Jesus to leave, and he does.  When the liberated man asks to go with him, however, Jesus tells him to go home and let people know “how much God has done for you.”  But instead of proclaiming how much the Hebrew God had done for him, the man claims instead how much Jesus had done for him.

Perhaps if the man had claimed the Hebrew God instead of the man Jesus, the Romans would not have paid so much attention to Jesus as a threat to Roman authority.  Beyond that, however, is the possibility that when Jesus sends the man home, back to his gentile village, he is sending his message of distributive justice-compassion into the heart of Roman-occupied society.

Mark follows the demoniac with two healings, and Luke makes no changes.  The first is the raising from the dead of the daughter of a “synagogue official.”  That story is interrupted by the second story about a woman in a seemingly permanent state of uncleanness because of a “flow of blood” that has lasted 12 years.  After she is healed by surreptitiously touching Jesus’s robe, Jesus goes on to tell the supposedly dead child of a possible collaborator with Rome to get up.  The possibilities for metaphors about 1st Century resistance to unclean Roman rule fairly leap off Mark’s pages.  These are not miracle stories about medical cures, demon possession, and the mis-use of livestock.  They are parables about subverting political and spiritual oppression; they show how trust in God’s reality transforms one’s oppressed life under imperial (Roman) occupation into freedom and justice.  In Luke’s context, these are illustrations of healing and miracle working, which Jesus’s real “mother and brothers” are supposed to be doing

For 21st Century Christianity, the question is, which interpretation makes the most sense?  Magic and miracle, or liberation from injustice?  Scholars and commentators are often accused of reading 21st Century world views back into 1st Century writings.  That is a fair enough criticism; however, two points need to be made.  First, the sayings and stories about Jesus have been re-interpreted from the point of view of whatever century any particular scholar or preacher happened to be in since the day after Jesus’s death.  Second, – and most important – even if the historical Jesus was really about magic and miracle (and contemporary scholarship is divided about that), 21st Century, post-modern, reason-based, would-be followers of Jesus cannot accept that interpretation without suspension of disbelief at a level that threatens our integrity.

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