"When John heard in prison what Christ was doing, he sent his disciples to ask him, 'Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?' Jesus replied, 'Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.'" …The Gospel of Matthew 11:2-6
'A Prophet Mighty in Word and Deed'
As I observed in the previous part, Jesus and his career was clearly unique and distinctive in many aspects in comparison to prophetic figures and to the common assumptions of the time. Last week I gave you a sketch of Jesus' Kingdom announcement and vision as well various ways that the Kingdom announcement was put into practice. This week I wish to go into greater detail observing the 'words' and 'deeds'. The focus of Jesus' words will be his use and meaning of parables as well as his own prophesies of judgment to Israel. As for Jesus' deeds, the healings, exorcisms and dealings with sinners will be the main focus. Another area to observe is Jesus' relationship with his peers and contemporaries — including his disciples — the sinners and his opponents. In doing so, I hope to develop a better understanding in interpreting Jesus' prophetic career.
Jesus is perhaps best known for his use of stories — the parables. A parable is a brief story that illustrates a lesson, moral and or religious. Ignored or perhaps downplayed by scholars like John Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg, Robert Funk and others, the parables used by Jesus play on imagery, symbols and metaphors as well as hopes and beliefs deeply rooted within the ancient Jewish faith. The fig tree, the vine and the vineyard are all common symbols of Israel, the sheep and the shepherd relate to the relationship between Israel and her king, the list goes on. Jesus also used other common ideas to express the relationship between Israel and YHWH, such as a steward and a master, a father and a son, a bride and a bridegroom. All of the ideas used by Jesus within the parables would have been familiar Jewish terms, within a familiar Jewish language, relating back to a basic Jewish understanding. Perhaps the biggest issue in Jesus' parables, is the relationship between the common Jewish belief in the Kingdom and Jesus' own vision of the Kingdom. Many scholars struggle to work out where the parables sit in the Kingdom message. Is Jesus completely reworking the idea from the ground up or is he simply giving his 'twist' on it?
My understanding is neither. Rather, Jesus was using a familiar context but was articulating a 'new way of understanding' the fulfilment of Israel's hope and the coming Kingdom. Working from the preconceived traditional hopes and traditions, he radicalized them, explaining this radicalization with stories. The parables are Jesus' way of expressing information about the Kingdom and explaining the means of bringing the Kingdom forth. The parables are not words of philosophy to ponder and debate; rather they are words of 'welcome' and 'warning'. They invite hearers to the Kingdom and they warn hearers of the consequences if the invitation is refused. In short, Jesus tells the parable and it contains an invitation explaining, "if the Kingdom is like 'that' then people of the Kingdom should live like 'this'. If not, then because of 'that', 'this' will happen to you." Jesus' parables clearly work within Israel's prophetic realm, as N.T. Wright explains: "He drew on many models from the Hebrew prophets, and brought them together in a new synthesis appropriate to the particular moment that the nation now faced." If this is true, it in turn leads us to look at another prophetic aspect Jesus shared with the prophets and his predecessor John: the themes of warning, judgment and disaster.
Oracles of Judgement…
If Jesus is to be understood as having a prophetic career, it's not strange that we find Jesus being presented as an oracle of YHWH's judgement. Many Biblical fundamentalists and literalists see the words of the gospels as referring to the end of the world; however this is not the case. In the traditions of other prophets such as Elijah, Jeremiah, Isaiah, John the Baptist, as well many others before and after his time, Jesus announced the coming of YHWH's judgement upon Israel, prophesising a great national disaster for Israel, ultimately the sacking of the Jerusalem and destruction of the Temple. I do not wish to go into too much detail about my views about Jesus' conflict with Jerusalem and the Temple, as I am saving that topic for next week. however, Jesus' announcement of the impending Kingdom parallels and, in a sense, works against his announcement of an urgent warning. It is a balance between the two, Jesus warns just as the Kingdom is close at hand, so is the judgement that awaits those who reject it.
However Jesus' words alone did not catch the public attention, his deeds as well as his works earned him a "reputation". Within the gospels, he is most well-known by the crowds for his public displays of miracles and healings and by his opponents.
For centuries, Christians have interpreted the miracles to be Jesus' 'proof' of divinity, almost as if Jesus goes around the Galilean countryside performing them to 'show off' his Divine power. In reality, they do not offer 'proof' to his 'divinity' but rather his 'authority'. It is important to understand the difference between Jesus performing miracles and Jesus performing magic — something heavily debated between scholars to this day. From my understanding, magic implies 'the human manipulation or provocation of the divine or quasi-divine forces', whereas miracles are the 'gracious acts of God on earth'. I wish to stress that Jesus did neither, and that is why I sit in the same boat as James Dunn, and N.T. Wright in preferring to call them 'mighty deeds' or simply 'deeds'. Rather Jesus' mighty deeds of healing and exorcising as best seen as a prophetic signs to the people who witness them.
In healing, previously the people healed would have been excluded because of their impurities; however they are now healed and restored to the covenant. For Jesus to heal someone physically was to restore their status as a son or daughter of Abraham and a part of the covenant people of YHWH. The gospels report that many of these healings reached all over the unclean, impure and banned categories: blind, deaf, dumb, lepers, a woman with a bleeding disorder, and the crippled. Perhaps he even extended a small amount of these works to the Gentiles and Samaritans, although I have no reason to stress the issue either way. While I doubt Jesus went out of his way it be associated with them and to perform signs to them, I would not be surprised if he did have a few encounters with them, bearing witnesses to their inclusion in the coming future Kingdom.
The exorcisms is also a topic that isn't to be simply understood as Jesus merely releasing someone from the power of the demonic, while this is true in part, it is not the full answer to what Jesus is doing. Like the healings, the exorcisms are signs of the Battle rather than the Kingdom. In the gospels the nemesis of Jesus is not the priests, nor the scribes, nor the Pharisees, nor the Romans, but rather Satan. Satan is depicted in the modern world as some kind of beast-like figure with horns and wings, but it is better to see Satan as the embodiment of everything YHWH and the Kingdom isn't. In the Hebrew, Satan means adversary, the great symbol of uncleanness, impurity, paganism, sin and evil. In the first century most Jews would associate this adversary with the Roman Empire, however this was not so with Jesus. Jesus' exorcisms point to the battle Israel must face and the foe the Kingdom will conquer, not Rome, but sin.
'One thing you lack...'
I strongly agree with the views of E.P. Sanders, James Dunn and Ian Elmer of Jesus' relationship with the Law. From my studies, it seems clear that Jesus was a Law-observant Jew, and to doubt such a claim, one can only support the argument by using Mark's Gospel. To quote Ian Elmer: "Not even Paul, written earlier than Mark by someone who knew Jesus' original clan, suggests that Jesus taught a Law-free message. This is why Paul almost never quotes Jesus or refers to him other than in the 'spirit', because Jesus in the 'flesh' taught a gospel that had different foci to that of Paul's gospel." The phrase used by Jesus when speaking about the Law to people has always been something of interest to me, 'one thing you lack...' I find it reasonable to say if Jesus spoke 'against' (using the word against very loosely) the Law, it would have only been because how the Law was being used to oppress the poor, the sick and others who were seen as 'beyond the pale'. The Law was meant to be YHWH's ultimate blessing upon Israel and some were using it in a way to divide the pious from the sinful, to empower the rich and authoritative, while weakening the marginal and so-called 'sinful' members of society, a practice clearly condemned by the prophets, as well as Jesus. Yet, while the Law and observance to the Law were important, to Jesus it wasn't enough nor was it central, rather the change of heart and direction in light of his Kingdom message was what was important.
In short, all of Jesus' sayings and parables, his actions and works, are signs: a sign to the people of YHWH that YHWH is active and so is his Kingdom.
More Than a Prophet?
All my study so far suggests that Jesus was clearly perceived as a prophet by the commoners who saw and heard his message. I would argue that Jesus, while clearly redefining the Kingdom, the message of the Kingdom, the people of the Kingdom and how the Kingdom worked, still worked from a prophetic outlook. In public, he carried the persona of the prophet, announcing the Kingdom, teaching and preaching, welcoming and warning the people. Yet did Jesus go beyond this status? Is he more than a prophet? This question plagues the crowds and disciples as they can't quite get their head around what Jesus is: "What manner of man is this?" (Matt 8:27); "Who then is this?" (Luke 9:9); "Is this not the carpenter's son?" (Matt 13:55). With the Gospel narrative, the question of Jesus' identity and self-understanding comes to its peek by the disciples at Caesarea Philippi, where the profile of a prophet does not do justice to what the disciples see in Jesus, nor do I believe Jesus sees in himself:
Jesus went out, along with His disciples, to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way He questioned His disciples, saying to them, "Who do people say that I am?" They told Him, saying, "John the Baptist; and others say Elijah; but others, one of the prophets." And He continued by questioning them, "But who do you say that I am?" Peter answered and said to Him, "You are the Christ." And He warned them to tell no one about Him. (Mark 8:27-30)
But then what to make of this? Is Jesus the Christ, the Messiah or just another one of the prophets? Did he claim such a title and if so, in what sense? One only has to glance across the Jewish concept to see how strange Jesus' status as Messiah is. In what sense is Jesus to be understood as Messiah? Was the term given to him after his death and resurrection or is it something that can be traced back to his own self-understanding? Why did Jesus go to Jerusalem and what relationship does the city have to Jesus' mission and ministry?
In any unfolding Kingdom drama, the man who took on the part of Messiah was destined to travel to Jerusalem. In following Jesus' path to Jerusalem, I believe we are walking in the foot prints of Jesus' messianic agenda and identity. However, like the Kingdom, like the people of the Kingdom, like the message of the Kingdom, it was not what the people of the time thought it would be.
As the Kingdom was redefined, so was the role and task of its agent, the Messiah.
The Turning Point…
When one looks across the last week of Jesus' life — the temple action, the last supper and the crucifixion — one can discern even more information about the mission and message of Jesus, but more importantly the self-understanding of Jesus. Are their signs that Jesus thought of himself to be the Messiah? I would argue yes, many in fact, the two central ones being the Temple act and the Last Supper. However, in what sense can they be understood to be messianic? Can they be traced back to Jesus? Why is Jesus' re-imagining of the Messiah so different to what was expected at the time? If any of these questions are to be answered, we must look at the stage where all the answers are set, Jerusalem and I beg readers to keep in mind the old saying 'actions speak louder than words'.
According to the gospel traditions, Jesus brought the Twelve to Caesarea Philippi, and he asked them what the people thought of him. "The people think you are a prophet" they replied. "But you,' Jesus asked, 'who do you, say I am?" Peter answered, confessing his belief that Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah. In saying this Peter spoke for the Twelve and the rest of disciples, declaring that Jesus was YHWH's anointed one, the true king of Israel, the one they had been waiting for, the one who YHWH has chosen to set Israel free. One should notice how the shift in personas and agendas in Jesus and his movement from the Galilean countryside to the city of Jerusalem, the shift from prophetic to messianic.
To understand this shift, we must first understand the vocation, meaning and concept of the Son of Man and its relationship to Jesus.
The Son of Man…
I have always been fascinated by Jesus' use of the title and term 'the Son of Man', a figure in the Book of Daniel who is portrayed as the embodiment of the Israelite ideal. This book focuses on the prophet Daniel — a Jew taken into exile by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar. While the story focuses on Daniel, large amounts of the text consist of Daniel having visions and him interpreting them. In one of these, Daniel see four beasts, representing four world empires that have had dominion over Israel. He also sees 'the Ancient of Days', representing YHWH, who takes his throne and passes judgement on the four beasts, bringing their tyranny to an end. However, Daniel also sees another figure: "One like a Son of Man" who comes to YHWH "with the clouds of the sky" (Daniel 7:13-14). Originally, the vision would most likely have this Son of Man represent Israel. Whereas Israel's oppressors are seen as beasts, Israel is represented as a human. The hope within these visions is the YHWH would one day remove the authority and control of the beast-like empires and give it to the human-like Israel.
Within the gospels, the various Son of Man sayings note and speak of suffering as well as glory. Much has been written about the Son of Man figure in first century Jewish literature and the gospels and scholars are divided about the origins of the tradition, the authenticity of the sayings and whether or not Jesus used the term himself, and if so, in what sense. Within the New Testament, the Son of Man is only found in the Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and once in Acts. In the gospels only Jesus uses this expression and, though many would disagree, in reference to himself.
Having said this, if Jesus did use the term himself, what did he mean by it?
Within the first century, the passages about the Son of Man figure in Daniel, 4 Ezra, Enoch and other texts was readily interpreted as being messianic. The Son of Man who is vindicated after his suffering at the hands of the pagan beasts was seen as the Messiah, not by all I might note but it was a readily and accepted interpretation of the text. I would argue that Jesus' use of the term Son of Man was something indeed messianic however it was a designation not directly understood and easily misinterpreted by outsiders and onlookers. To Jesus, this messianic designation implied obscurity, homelessness, and rejection but at the same time, humility, peace, love, friendship as well as service, suffering and ultimately death, however it would also include authority, power, kingship, and above all else, vindication.
It must have been ever so clear to the Twelve and the disciples following him, that when Jesus set off to for Jerusalem a messianic revolution was about to begin. Jesus warned them that this was not the way the Kingdom would come, nor was this the image of the real Messiah, yet time and time again, they failed to understand what was going on, missing the meaning of the Kingdom and misinterpreting the way of the true Messiah.
The City that Kills…
Jesus' words and deeds in Jerusalem are full of messianic overtones. Scrap the idea of Jesus' action in the temple as being one of reform or an attempt of take over. Rather, the action is much deeper, powerful and meaningful and is best seen as a sign of judgement and a claim of messiahship. In front of the Passover crowds, Pharisees and priests, Jesus went on a rampage turning the tables of the money changers, a deed that meant that the dwelling place of Israel's living god was under judgment and was ready to be pulled down. This symbolic action echoed the words of the prophets, such as Isaiah's nakedness (Isa 20:2) and Jeremiah smashing the pot (Jer 13:26). The point to make here is that the one who has the authority to judge the Temple was the king, the Messiah and it is clear that Jesus passing his verdict over the Temple was a messianic act.
Once again, within his mission to Israel he offered her one last welcome and one last warning.
'The days are coming...'
Because of their violent ways, plans of bloody revolution, compromise of the Kingdom and self piety, Jerusalem faced a coming disaster. If they continued to the way of brutal zeal and aggressive resistance, it would be only a matter of time before the wrath of Rome would befall them. I would argue Jesus predicted and warned the people of the Fall of Jerusalem, understand however that it was nothing unusual to predict that Jerusalem would be destroyed by enemy action, as Josephus reports himself and others to have foreseen its fall. This is also true of the ancient prophets who foresaw the destruction of Jerusalem if Israel kept flirting with foreign nations. The Essenes waited in the desert, confident that the Temple would be destroyed and their day would come in which they would build the new Temple.
Jesus warned against false prophets who, like the ones the prophets had faced, would attempt to persuade the people to place their trust in the Temple and urge the people to fight against the enemy with violence. I would argue that Jesus saw Israel, Jerusalem and the Temple like sheep without a shepherd, scattered across the mountains heading straight into the wolves den, a disaster waiting to happen. This disaster however would not be some accidental and unfortunate event but rather the coming wrath of YHWH because of their failures. The coming disaster would be worse then the slavery in Egypt, worse then the fall of the Northern Kingdom, worse than the Babylonian exile but in the eyes of Jesus, it would be just and deserved.
The Last Supper…
Jesus by the eve of Passover would have had no doubt in mind that his death was fast approaching. By his controversial act and actions in the Temple, his life was clearly at risk. So in celebrating the Passover, Jesus gathered his motley crew of disciples together for one last final meal. The Passover at this time was designed to commemorate the escape of their ancestors out of Egypt and yet speak of the hope of the coming Messiah. The basic thrust being, as Moses led the people out of slavery at the hands of Egypt, so would the Messiah at the hands of Rome. Yet, rather then lamenting the exodus, he gave the meal new meaning in the lenses of his coming death and future vindication. To his followers, as they had remembered the trials and suffering of their forefathers, Jesus requested that they would remember his. Yet it also reaffirmed his belief in the eschatological banquet, reassuring the Twelve that they would feast with him in the Kingdom.
In a strange way, the Last Supper is a mixture of hope and despair. It represents not only the calm before the storm, but anticipates the events that will transpire shortly. However it is truly strange how Jesus came to not only accept these forthcoming events, but even interpret them in the context of the coming Kingdom, the fate of all prophets, the destiny of the Son of Man, and the task of the Messiah.
What are your thoughts on this commentary?