12th February 2017
This term we are looking at Fairy tales about Scripture, and this evening we look at Christian myths about believing in Miracles. As today’s New Testament reading seems to suggest, you need faith in order to believe a miracle, and that miracle can lead to you being forgiven and everybody living happily ever after. This framework, that miracles provide some kind of a basis for Christian claims is rightly and widely ridiculed.
According to the text, a bunch of Jewish peasants take their disabled friend to be healed by Jesus, but the venue is packed with admirers and critics. So, they climb up on the roof, remove the tiles, and lower their friend into the centre of the room. It’s a ridiculous scene, this chap dangling from the sky in some kind of makeshift harness with all the dignity of Boris Johnson. Jesus heals the bloke, commends the faith of his friends, and tells him his sins are forgiven. Everybody, or almost everybody, is happy. Job done. Faith leads to miracle leads to forgiveness… and hey presto: Christianity.
The trouble is, as Professor Hooker implied last week, a text without a context is a con. And the context of this incident is pretty clear. Jesus had contravened religious procedures healing a leper, declaring him clean – then sending him to the priesthood. He was courting controversy. How did the priesthood react? A bunch of Pharisees and their legal team had climbed into a minibus and travelled up from Jerusalem, to see what this Jesus was up to.
He had, after all, declared in public that the Old Testament reading we heard (Isa 61:1-3), was being fulfilled in him. A new age had dawned, an era of forgiveness when debts are cancelled, slaves are freed, and all other kinds of socially chaotic realities followed. The tension created by this incident, has been obscured because words like faith and forgiveness have decomposed into a morass of religious slush.
Forgiveness, in the context of Old and New Testament readings here – before anything else, means liberation. That is, freedom from oppression, from slavery, from social and economic humiliation. All those horrible, dehumanising forces lose their power when liberation comes. And the word we use to translate that liberation, is the same Greek word as forgiveness. Forgiveness, above all, marks a new era – a new state of affairs which renders obsolete a status quo from which political and religious leaders were beneficiaries. They had the monopoly on declaring forgiveness and liberation – who did Jesus think he was, declaring forgiveness willy-nilly? All the officials from the mini-bus were livid. He
was undermining their authority. Who can forgive sins but God alone, they grumble.
But here, faith is the other problematic word. Faith is generally understood as the act of removing your brain, and straining yourself to accept things that can’t be true – performing mental gymnastics to make yourself believe what is clearly false. But again, the word used for faith is better translated loyalty. In this instance, loyalty to the God of Israel. That is, loyalty to this God means not accepting the status quo of the priesthood. Faith is essentially acknowledging that this Jesus is the means by which the God of Israel is working amongst his people. Faith and forgiveness are better translated as loyalty and liberation. When you do that, this story is heard very differently.
Those who are loyal to what God is doing now, experience the liberation God has promised now – not simply forgiveness as a spiritual transaction to prepare you for the afterlife, but liberation in the most practical, down-to-earth sense. For the author of the Gospel, this – like all other supposedly miraculous events, is not a mere metaphor. It is clearly an incident he believed actually took place. It becomes an acted parable, an actual incident that shines a light on who Jesus was and how God was at work through him.
This is not to say that Luke automatically expects his readers to believe it, but that he simply reports that this is what seemed to happen. Luke never demands that his readers use incidents like this as a basis for faith, or that they need some kind of faith in order to believe in stuff like this. He simply says, here’s what I think happened: you make of it what you will.
Of course to modern readers, miracles look silly. This is mostly because modernity was the era when there were such things as laws of nature, of which humanity had a pretty good grasp. So when something happened that did not comply with the perceived law of nature, it must thereby have been miraculous or supernatural. This is certainly the view defended by sceptics from David Hume to the New Atheists.
But, Augustine – in the fourth century – had a more sophisticated and defensible view. For Augustine, ‘Miracles are not contrary to nature but only contrary to what we know about nature’ (Augustine). It’s quite hard to argue with that. For Augustine, as for the authors of Scripture – there was no supernatural realm. Because to appeal to the supernatural is to assume that all avenues of the natural realm have been fully explored and understood. Equally, the Scriptural authors could all count themselves as materialists, and could quite happily accept there was nothing beyond matter. Again, since scientists cannot fully explain how matter works or where it comes from, there is no need to appeal to anything beyond matter when unexpected things happen in the material world.
When something unexpected happened, first Century Jews didn’t think – oh, that was supernatural. They thought, oh – our understanding of the world as we thought we knew it may have to be reconfigured in light of what has just happened. So when people witnessed this healing event, we hear that they did precisely that – they had witnessed what is called a paradox, something unexpected that contravened their understanding of how the world works.
In a world where the dice were loaded against the poorest members of Galilean society, in a world where they felt and were made to feel, that their lot in life was divinely ordained, where lack of wealth or health or freedom were a divine curse – they were confronted with a person whose every action undermined those dehumanising beliefs. To witness an incident like this one that undermined those beliefs, left them scrambling for a new way of looking at the world. That, in itself, was good news.
The assumption that modern readers are more perceptive and less gullible than the Iron Age inhabitants of Lower Galilee is a very difficult claim to take seriously. The assumption that modern western voting public are informed citizens who make rational choices. Ancient Galileans working at close quarters with nature, witnessing death on a regular basis and conscious of their place in society, were ignorant, gullible myth-victims who didn’t know where babies came from and didn’t know how death worked. I’ve not read any valid modern objection to miracles that had not already been raised in the Ancient World.
In fact, history has left modernists like David Hume superseded by scientific progress, but vindicated the fourth century Augustine. Unlike his New Atheist comrades, Richard Dawkins unwittingly endorses Augustine’s view. ‘Miracles’, says Dawkins, are ‘natural phenomena we don’t understand yet.’
That is precisely what Luke seeks to communicate to his reader. To those on the minibus who like the world as it is, for those from the lower echelons to whom the world has been cruel, Luke’s Jesus declared in word and action that the natural world is not what you thought it was. The onlookers did not say, ‘oh okay – that miracle’s convinced us to become slavish gullible religious puppets’. They worship God but conclude nothing more than, ‘we’ve seen strange stuff today,’ or in Dawkins’ words, ‘we’ve seen natural phenomena we don’t understand yet.’