This is our fourth week of looking at different definitions of Jesus. We started out very traditionally, with Jesus as the son of G and our saviour, saving us from our sins. Then we looked at Jesus as love, saving us through his example of love. Last week we considered Jesus the suffering revolutionary, saving us by overcoming personal and societal suffering and despair.
Today's definition is different again. It’s based on how people at the time probably saw him, although of course it can't help but be influenced by how his followers came to see him after the resurrection, as the early church grew in their understanding of him. “Jesus was the Jewish Messiah. He came to free Israel from Roman military occupation. He was a prophet and a miracle worker, healing people, casting out demons, and fulfilling all the prophecies in the Hebrew Scriptures about what the Messiah would be like.” Let’s break it down.
“Jesus was the Jewish Messiah.” As we talked about last week, Jesus was Jewish, and although Christians have co-opted the term, Messiah is a Jewish title. It means “anointed one” in Hebrew, and is translated as “Christ” in Greek.
The concept of Messiah grew during the centuries leading up to Jesus. The Jewish people believed that a Messiah would be born of the line of David, and over time they grew to believe that this Messiah would restore Israel as an independent nation, which by the time of Jesus, meant the Messiah would have to overthrow the Romans.
The Messiah was not seen as being divine, just divinely sent. There were many would be Messiah's at the time of Jesus. Most were far more militant, trying to raise armies, to become kings.
That was another reason the Jewish and Roman leaders were unnerved by Jesus. Whether or not he advocated violence, the crowds that followed him were becoming more and more convinced that he was Messiah, and they had the potential to become violent even if Jesus didn't encourage it.
So at that time, Jesus was definitely seen as possibly being the Jewish Messiah, even if he didn't advocate overthrowing the Roman Empire. Now I’m going to jump to the last part of this week’s definition because it continues to discuss the concept of Jesus as the Messiah.“Jesus fulfilled all the prophecies in the Hebrew Scriptures about what the Messiah would be like.”
That is very much a matter of perspective. According to the gospels, especially Matthew, there are many ways and times that Jesus fulfills prophecies found in the Old Testament. The thing is, many verses in the Old Testament that the gospel writers refer to weren't actually written to predict anything about the Messiah. That concept wasn't even around when many of the Old Testament books were written.
However, as the concept of a Messiah grew, certain verses same to be seen as predicting details about him. For example, the verse from Micah about Bethlehem, “But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.”
We’re not really sure what Micah is actually referring to, but Matthew and Luke took it to mean that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, therefore they make sure Jesus is born there.
We see that over and over in the gospels, esecially in Matthew. The writers were looking for ways to show that Jesus was the Messiah, so they went back through Old Testament books and created links, sometimes doing some creative re-writing of passages to make them work for Jesus.That said, as I have mentioned before, Jesus was very rooted in his Jewish faith, so it makes sense that some of what he said and did echoes passages of the Old Testament.
Even before his followers started to think of him as possibly being the Messiah, he was definitely seen as a prophet, one sent by God with a message for the people from God. Being a miracle worker tended to go with being a prophet. If you think back to great Old Testament prophets like Moses, Elijah and Elisha, they all did miracles involving food and healing.
For us today, it’s easy to accept Jesus as a prophet, certainly he brought the word of God to people in meaningful, powerful way. But a miracle worker? One who healed people and cast out demons? That’s a little tougher for us.
As theologian Marcus Borg says, “Christians in mainstream churches . . . tend to ignore the miracle stories of Jesus, or else to interpret them in such a way that no violation of the modern understanding of what is possible occurs.”
We don't really think miracles are possible, therefore we soften those stories to make them acceptable to us. Jesus couldn't walk on water, so maybe there was sandbar. Jesus couldn't raise people from the dead, they were just in coma and so on.
But as Borg and other moderns scholars try to point out, what really matters is not whether or not story is true, but rather, what does it teach us about Jesus. They look for themes, connections, to Old Testament stories & themes, as well as themes of the early church.
For example, Jesus feeding 5000 echoes story of Moses providing manna for the Hebrews in the wilderness. It shows that Jesus is like Moses. It also points forward to communion. The Gospel of John makes this quite explicit. It tells story of the feeding of the 5000 with fish and bread, and then has Jesus say, I am the bread of life.
The story of Gerasene demoniac that we read today has this kind of symbolism as well. Along with the demon possession, there are many other symbols of isolation and uncleanliness: the man lived in Gentile (foreign) territory, near tombs and pigs, both very unclean. The story shows how Jesus overcomes all these sources of defilement and separation and restores the man to health and community.
We see the same theme in the story of healing Jairus' daughter and the woman with internal bleeding. Two women, one a child, one with a condition that would have made her untouchable at all times. Jesus treats them both as being worthy of his attention, he restores them both to full health and inclusion.
But Borg also cautions against dismissing the factual basis of these stories. We can't forget that during Jesus' lifetime he was known primarily as a healer and exorcist. It's the main reason people came to him, at least at first. Individual stories may not be factually accurate, they've had layers of meaning added, but they reflect the kinds of situations Jesus encountered, the kinds of things he did.
Borg speaks of how Jesus was not the only spirit person who was a healer at his time or throughout history. It was only one aspect of who he was, but it was an important one because it drew people to him.
Along with healing, part of Jesus being a spirit person was his ability to cast out demons. Borg talks about how it's easy for us to draw parallels between possession and severe mental illness, but he says that's not necessarily helpful. In Jesus' culture and in many others even today, people would understand that type of behaviour as being that of someone possessed. Regardless of how we understand it, is clear that by casting out demons, Jesus worked emotional and psychological healing in those who were possessed.
Jurgen Moltmann takes this a step further. He sees Jesus' healing miracles as being signs of the coming of kingdom of God. He says “the kingdom of the living God drives out germs of death and spreads seeds of life. It doesn't merely bring salvation in religious sense, brings health in bodily experience too. The spirit makes what is sick and dying alive again.”
It's interesting to note that the word “salvation” in Latin has root “salve” to heal. What if we think of Jesus saving us through healing us? Sometimes it's physical, often it's emotional or psychological, and it applies to individuals as well as to societies and even all of creation.
In our era of modern medicine and science, we tend to dismiss idea of Jesus the healer, but perhaps it's an understanding of him that we need to recapture. After all, don't we all need healing at some point or another? And not just us as individuals, but our society and our world as a whole?
Healing and wholeness are very linked. Jesus brought both to the people of his time. Our society may be healthier in body, but we are still broken in so many ways. Perhaps we still need the healing and wholeness that Jesus offers. May we trust him and accept healing, as individuals and do our part to work for healing for our society and our world.