Saturday, February 28, 2015

Jesus' Healings as Restoration

One of my favorite healing narratives from the Gospels is found in Mark 5:21-43, where we find Jesus healing two different people. As we read the two stories, we should notice that these two stories are set in juxtaposition with one another, and they have become, in the hands of the author, intertwined into one story. This is intentional and leads us to some very important theological emphases that the author of Mark wants to bring out.

In fact, scholars of Mark have called the structure of these two stories a Markan Sandwich, one of a few that we find in the second Gospel. The Markan Sandwich is when the author tells a story, but that story is interrupted by another story, which is then told in its entirety, before the first story is finished.

In the narrative of Mark 5, Jairus’ story begins, but is interrupted by the story of the bleeding woman, whose story is told in completion before the rest of Jairus’ story is told.  The two stories are intertwined into the sandwich to give meaning to both.

Yet, when we read the stories together, as we should, we also come away with the idea that the two individuals that come to Jesus could not be more different. Jairus, whose name we know, is a male.  The woman, who remains nameless, and therefore insignificant, is a female.

Moreover, Jairus is a leader in the synagogue, a man of great religious and political stature and influence. The unnamed woman, who has been bleeding for 12 years, is an outcast, who has been shunned by her community because of her disease. Jairus can come to Jesus expecting to seek healing for his daughter, but the woman must approach Jesus from behind, hoping not to be noticed by him.

Perhaps one of the reasons these two stories are told together is so that all of us can face the reality that in our human existence none of us are free from the pain of sickness and death. Sickness and death, viewed as enemies of God’s good creation by the biblical authors, do not respect people of importance or sympathize with people of weakness and need. At some point in our lives we will all seek healing.

But what exactly is healing?

The great founder of Methodism, John Wesley, described the intervention of sin into God’s creation as that which brought disease and death to humanity. He preached that healing was holistic union of a person’s body, mind, and soul that returned us to the unity and peace of the original creation.

When we consider the plight of the woman who has bled for twelve years, and despite spending money on doctors and cures, she has not found healing from her disease, we find her seeking this kind of healing. Yes, she was tired of living with this disease that was making her feel sick and weak. She was tired of waking up each day having to deal with this sickness.  But she was seeking something more than physical healing.

Remember who this woman is. She is an unnamed, and therefore, insignificant, female. In fact, when Jesus says, who touched me, the disciples question him, “How can you say who touched me?”  The crowd was pressing in on them, and they simply were not aware that this woman even existed. And for that matter, no one else knew she existed.

Her physical ailment of bleeding was a social, and indeed, a religious stigma that caused her to be ostracized from her community. She had no purpose for living, no real connection to others, not much self-respect, and little, if any, control over her life. She was not only disheartened by the physical state of her illness, she was perhaps more troubled by the mental and social state of her existence.

It may be true that she comes to Jesus primarily for physical healing; something she desperately needed, but which she had not found from other healers. But it is conceivable that this woman approaches Jesus knowing that he can offer her more than the absence of a disease.  He can offer her more than physical healing. He can give her wholeness.

The clue to Jesus’ holistic healing of this woman, which leads to her full restoration as one of God’s children, is found in the way Jesus responds to her act of faith. When hearing the woman tell him that she is the one who touched him, Jesus replies, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

In calling this unnamed and ostracized woman, “daughter”, Jesus affirms her place in the people of Israel, as a daughter of Abraham. No longer is she to be cut off from her community, from her connection to significant others. Rather, she is restored to her community in which she can find love, acceptance, and self-worth.

Moreover, Jesus tells her that her faith has made her well. The word well used in the New Revised Standard Version is actually the word often translated as “saved”.  The salvation of which Jesus speaks is more than the “get me to heaven salvation”. The salvation Jesus offers affirms her holistic healing. Not only is she cured of her physical ailment, she is restored to full health in which she can find purpose and meaning. Her days of hopelessness have now changed to days of purpose and fulfillment as God’s child.

The same may be said for the daughter of Jairus. The death of innocence is a mockery of God’s goodness and blessing for life. Jesus knows this, and in raising this young girl to life, Jesus is not simply restoring physical existence to her. He is affirming the goodness and blessings of life. “Give her something to eat,” he tells those around him. She is alive; let her live life as God intends.

But there is something more this story tells us about healing. Jesus offers no preferential treatment to Jairus. Rather, he acknowledges the dignity of every human. In a market driven system of health care, Jesus would have passed by the unnamed woman and gone to assist the synagogue ruler in a home visit.  Instead, Jesus stops to recognize the stranger and outcast, not as a number among numbers, but as a person in need.

These two stories, intertwined into one narrative, tell us not only of the healing power of Jesus as a miracle worker; they also tell us what healing really is. It is the restoration of the whole person to the full potential of God’s gift of life, in which we find purpose and meaning, loving relationships in community, and self-love and respect.

This is the kind of healing we all need.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Mark’s Presentation of Jesus’ Death as an Act by and for God

The penultimate event in the Gospel of Mark is Jesus’ death. Yet, if one carefully reads Mark’s story of Jesus as the one who speaks and acts for God throughout the narrative, one gathers a clear understanding that Jesus speaks of his death as an act of God. Indeed, though Jesus is the beloved Son (1:11; 9:7), he submits to the will of God even when that means suffering and death.

Jesus alludes to his death as early as Mark 2:20 where he states, “The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away…”  The use of the passive verb a)parqh may allude to God’s actions in the taking away of Jesus. In Jesus’ first explicit passion prediction he gives to the disciples in 8:31, he states, “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering…” The use of dei, translated as must, implies the divine necessity of Jesus’ death as that which God wills. This idea may also be present when Jesus speaks of his death as that which “is written” (9:12), and that which fulfills scripture (14:49). Moreover, the use of paradi/dwmi, “handed over” in the passive in Jesus’ passion predictions of 9:31 and 10:3, as well as its use in 14:41, again implies that behind the plotting and activity of humans is the activity and approval of God in the handing over of Jesus for death. 

One other passage is clear to suggest this idea. In 14:27 Jesus predicts that when his time of suffering comes, those closest to him will desert him. He views this as a fulfillment of scripture, citing Zech 13:7 from the Septuagint (LXX), the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible. Yet a close examination reveals that in Zech 13:7, God commands the sword to smite his shepherd. In Jesus’ rendition of the verse, he uses a first person indicative verb, not a command. The “I” in Jesus’ citation of Zech 13:7 is clearly to be understood as God. Thus while the use of the LXX text is for the purpose of predicting the desertion of the disciples, the implication of God as the one who ultimately controls the fate of the shepherd Jesus is clear. 

The ransom saying of Mark 10:45 comes at the climactic point of the subsection of Mark where three explicit passion predictions are voiced by the Markan Jesus. It is important to notice, however, that the pattern of 10:32-45 is somewhat different from that of 8:33-9:1 and 9:30-50 in that in neither of these two passages does Jesus return to speak of his death. In 10:45, however, the narrator presents Jesus as not only returning to speak of his death, but also giving a new understanding of his death, one that defines the purpose of his death.  In doing so, he calls his audience to consider Jesus’ death as an act not only willed by God, but also as an act for God, on behalf of the many. 

It is clear from Jesus’ words about his death that he understands his death to be for others (a)nti\ pollw=n; “for {in the place of} many”). Yet in being a death for others, it is also presented as a ransom (lu/rpon) for God. Jesus defines the very purpose of his coming is to serve and to give his life as a ransom. In being a ransom, Jesus’ death is viewed here as that which is done in service not only for the many, but also in service to God. He offers his death in obedience to the will of God, as an act for God, to fulfill the purpose of God, the ransoming of the many.

The force of this offering within the narrative structure of Mark, in which God has entered on the way of victory, is the act which, although bringing suffering to the Son of God, brings victory for God. In the earlier encounters between Jesus and the demonic enemies of God, Jesus acts with authoritative power to overthrow them. Yet, the absence of any encounter with these demonic forces after the saying of 10:45 suggests that the victory of God over the demonic enemies of God will now come because of the faithful death of the Son; a death that serves as a ransom for those under the rule of God’s enemies. 

Closely connected to this understanding of the Markan Jesus’ words in 10:45 concerning his death is the saying which he speaks at the Passover meal in Mark 14:22-25. The presence of the word pollw=n (many) in 14:24, and the idea that the cup (poth/rion), a word link with 10:38-39, is his blood which is being poured out for many, not only presents a word association between the two sayings, but an association of ideas; Jesus giving his life. Yet the idea of covenant introduced in the Passover meal saying presents the Markan audience with further information about how the Markan Jesus understands his approaching death. 

Jesus speaks of his death as an act which he carries out in obedience to God, and as an act of God which establishes a new covenant between God and the people of God. Moreover, since Jesus interprets his death as establishing the new covenant between God and God’s people, his statement concerning his not drinking until he does so in the Kingdom of God, serves to present his death and resurrection as that which will usher in God’s final rule. Thus, as in the ransom saying of 10:45, Jesus is presented in the Passover meal as speaking about his death as an act for God establishing a covenant between God and God’s people.

The overall theological intention of the narrative presentation of Jesus’ death in Mark’s Gospel, then, is to show that redemption and salvation are God’s initiative and purpose, accomplished through the divinely ordained death of Jesus.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Is the Bible the Only Source of Theological Authority?

Here's another excerpt from my book, Reframing a Relevant Faith. This portion is part of the chapter on Reclaiming the Bible. You can purchase the book from the publisher at or through Amazon at A Kindle version is also available at

The book is written for group discussion.

Can scripture stand on its own as a basis of authority?  On the one hand, we would have to answer this in the affirmative.  The stories of scripture, both from ancient Israel and early Christianity have stood the test of time and, although they have been translated and transmitted down through history, they have stood on their own authority and have influenced the faith of millions across time and space.

On the other hand, given the fact that these texts have been translated, as well as interpreted since their beginning, we would have to at least qualify our affirmative answer to the question of whether scripture alone is the authoritative basis of Christian faith and practice.  That is to say, a text, though standing on its own, can only have meaning through the exchange between text and reader.  Meaning may be found in a text, but meaning does not come to life until the text is read and interpreted.
One of the foundational theological shifts that occurred during the Protestant Reformation was an emphasis on the sole authority of scripture as that which is sufficient for faith.  Indeed, while Martin Luther is known for challenging the Roman Church most notably on the issues of indulgences and salvation by faith alone, his arguments were based on his belief that theological doctrines must be based on scripture alone, or sola scriptura, and not on any church authority, whether bishop or council.  This belief continues to serve as one of the hallmarks of Protestant Christianity, particularly in free church traditions.
Yet, even so, it is difficult to say that sola scriptura has ever been fully practiced even in Protestantism.  Indeed, Protestant confessions that have developed since the time of Luther and his fellow reformers are in and of themselves interpretations of scripture.  Moreover, the commentaries that began to appear from the Protestant leaders, most notably Luther and Calvin, lay out a Protestant faith that is an interpretation of scripture.  Thus, even these great heroes of the Protestant faith do not allow scripture to stand on its own, but offer their own interpretations of scripture.
Yet, in the 18th century, a new leader in the Protestant tradition, John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, re-framed the understanding of the authority of scripture in what has become known as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral.[1]   Many historians, however, believe that the Wesleyan Quadrilateral was most likely developed by Albert Outler, a twentieth century Methodist theologian, who derived this way of viewing scripture from John Wesley’s writings.  From whatever source this methodology developed, we can use it as a way of recognizing the authority of scripture, but not as the sole authority.
In the quadrilateral, scripture holds primacy of place for normative Christian understanding and practice, but there exists an interdependent relationship between scripture, church tradition, personal experience, and logical reason.  Scripture serves as the foundational authority for the church through its time and space existence in the world, but scripture must be interpreted in light of church tradition, personal experience, and logical reasoning.  In this sense, scripture is what the human biblical author believes to be the revelation of God to his specific historical situation, the time of the text, but that revelation lives on the existence of the text and the interpretation of the text in future generations who must rely on tradition, experience, and reasoning to formulate meaning for the church in its current context.
This means that although the text of scripture still serves as a basis of authority for the church’s faith and practice, indeed it must remain as such, each generation and locality of the church must find its own interpretations that are in conversation with the text of scripture and church tradition, but that are open to the influence of personal experience and logical reasoning.  In this way, the Bible still remains valid as a source of Christian faith and practice, but the literal understanding and interpretation of the Bible now has a more rational filter through which the text can be sifted so that it remains relevant.
Thus, sola scriptura, or scripture as the sole authority of faith and practice, is a misnomer, and does not reflect the reality of how the text of scripture has been used and continues to be used in the church.  Indeed, it is erroneous to suggest that sola scriptura has ever really been practiced.  While the reading of scripture in worship and community is important, someone must interpret the text in order to formulate legitimate interpretations that represent the fullness of the gospel of grace and peace in each and every context.

            For more on the Wesleyan Quadrilateral see Michael Kinnamon and Jan G. Linn,  Disciples: Reclaiming Our Identity, Reforming Our Practice, Chalice Press, 2009; and Don Thorsen, The Wesleyan Quadrilateral: Scripture, Tradition, Reason, & Experience as a Model of Evangelical Theology, Emeth Press, 2005.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Jesus the Human One

Here's another excerpt from my book, Reframing a Relevant Faith. This portion is part of the chapter on Reclaiming Jesus. You can purchase the book from the publisher at or through Amazon at A Kindle version is also available at

The book is written for group discussion.

While many Christians affirm the divinity of Jesus, and while we could spend a great deal of time discussing whether Jesus claimed to be divine, or what the earliest followers believed about his divinity, or the events at the Council of Nicaea and the creed that came forth from that council meeting that defined the son as the same substance of the father, there is one important aspect of Jesus’ nature that cannot be disputed.  Jesus was human; as every bit as human as any person of his time.  While many Christians today may prefer to see Jesus as divine, even to the extent that in our minds he is more divine than human, the historical reality and the theological depth of his humanity is something we must not overlook or downplay.  Indeed, looking more closely at Jesus as a human is something that gives rich meaning to Jesus’ life for Christian faith.
There are many titles that are used in the New Testament to describe Jesus, but the one title that Jesus preferred to use to refer to himself was “the son of man”.  This title has been hotly debated among scholars, but one thing seems to be certain.  Jesus favored this as a reference for himself, and in doing so, he was using it as a way of declaring his identity with human existence.  The phrase, son of man, is a term that simply means a human.  Jesus was the son of man, the human one, or the one who embodied what it means to be human.
There are at least three important points that can be made from the observation that Jesus was human.  First, to say that Jesus was human is to say that he had a body.  This may be an obvious point to make, but making it demonstrates an important truth for us. If Jesus took on human flesh in the incarnation, then we must affirm that the essence of human flesh and human existence are good.  This was the problem with many Christians in the early church beginning in the second and third centuries. They could not accept that Jesus was both divine and human, for perfect, transcendent divinity cannot take on imperfect and defiled flesh. Thus, they formulated ideas that Jesus was only a vision, but he could not have been a real human.  Yet, this seems to be exactly what the New Testament teaches us about Jesus. The human body became the home of God.  This raises significant theological questions, particularly concerning the idea that every person is born with an inherent sin nature.  But to affirm Jesus as a human, re-affirms the ancient Hebraic idea that all humans are made the image of God. 
The second significant point to make about Jesus’ humanity is that in being human, Jesus represents for us what it means to be faithful to God.  Jesus was not programmed to follow God.  He chose to follow God.  And in faithfully following the ways of God, he became the paradigmatic disciple, who sets the example for others who seek faith in God and who seek to live God’s will.    
This is artfully communicated in Mark through the plot of the narrative that seems to hint that an early Christian audience might understand their own lives of discipleship as paralleling Jesus’ life.  An early Christian audience of Mark’s narrative would have recognized the story of Jesus as their own story.  From baptism, to proclaiming the kingdom of God and doing the will of God, to facing opposition, persecution, and death, one aspect of Mark’s presentation of Jesus reflects the life of the Christian audience of Mark’s narrative.  In other words, the lives of Jesus’ followers, if they are faithful disciples, should mirror his life.        
But the third theological point taken from our observation that Jesus was human is that in taking on human existence, Jesus became vulnerable to human struggle, pain, and suffering.  While affirming human existence as good, and while seeking to restore humanity to the original blessings of the creation, Jesus nonetheless faced the pain and suffering of human existence.  Again, we can look to the plot of Mark, particularly how Mark handles the temptation of Jesus, to see this idea very clearly.
One interesting feature about the temptation of Jesus is that Mark’s account is much shorter than either Matthew’s or Luke’s, both of whom include details that are absent from Mark.  In only two verses, Mark raises challenging theological questions by what he does say as well as through what he does not say about Jesus’ temptation.  I don’t have the space to rehearse all the explanations scholars propose as to why details are missing from Mark, or perhaps why Matthew and Luke felt it necessary to include details, but I can offer my own interpretation that gets at the heart of Mark’s theology and offers us a way of seeing Jesus’ humanity as our own.
In my view, the reason Mark’s temptation story is shorter than Matthew’s or Luke’s is not because Mark was less concerned for details.  The purpose is to imply to the hearers of his story that Jesus faced temptations and trials throughout his life, and not just in a one-time encounter with the mythical character Satan.  Moreover, the shortness of Mark’s account of Jesus’ temptation also indicates to the readers that Satan was not the primary tempter of Jesus.  Mark shows us through the remainder of his narrative that Jesus faced trials and temptations throughout his life, and most of these did not come from Satan, but from Jesus’ closest followers, and even Jesus’ own inner struggle, particularly in the garden on the night of his arrest.
Another interesting, but I think more theologically awkward trait peculiar to Mark’s story of Jesus’ temptation is the way Jesus is placed in the wilderness to be tempted.  The opening chapter of Mark reaches a crescendo at the baptism of Jesus, when we hear the voice from heaven express God’s pleasure with Jesus, and when the Spirit of God comes upon Jesus.  Yet, immediately, to use one of Mark’s favorite words, the same Spirit that came lovingly onto Jesus casts him into the wilderness to be tempted.
While both Matthew and Luke soften Mark’s rawness by using a Greek word that indicates that the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness, Mark is clear to use a term that communicates the idea that the Spirit of God threw Jesus into the wilderness for the explicit purpose of facing temptation.  In other words, though he is proclaimed by God to be the Beloved Son, Jesus would not be protected from the vulnerability of being human.  Indeed, it appears that Mark understands that God placed Jesus in the circumstance of temptation.
While the traditional interpretation says that Jesus had to face temptation to be the pure sacrifice for human sin, and thus God allowed him to be tempted, I think the more theologically rich interpretation is that God was intentionally putting God’s future at risk.  Jesus was not tempted just to know what humans face.  Nor was he tempted as a way of making him the worthy sacrifice for our sins.  By deliberately casting Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted, God was placing God’s purposes in the hands of the human Jesus, taking the risky chance that Jesus might fail, thus exhibiting divine vulnerability in the human Jesus.  And yes, it was entirely possible that Jesus could have failed, and thus we must admit that there is a great measure of scandal to God’s providence in relation to the life of Jesus.
Although we tend to picture Jesus as a divine figure who had it all under control, the reality is that Jesus lived a very vulnerable life and was not immune to or protected from the challenges that the people of his time confronted every day, especially those persons at the bottom of the embedded social and religious structures of Palestine. First century Palestine was a volatile place within the Roman Empire, and those on the fringes of that society who were oppressed by injustice and violence were the most vulnerable to the pains and struggles of life.
But the idea that Jesus embraced human vulnerability raises a crucial theological question. For what reason did Jesus live as a human susceptible to the struggles of life? Did he become incarnate and face human vulnerability just so he could be a sacrifice for our sin? While many Christians answer this question with a resounding yes, it seems to me that there must be more to Jesus being human than just God’s plan for him to become a sacrifice.  Jesus’ choice to take on human vulnerability was based on something more concrete that had a more intimate effect on those vulnerable persons around him.  His free choice to be vulnerable to everyday existence was not for the purpose of being some sort of worthy sacrifice. His choice to take on human existence was a choice to unite with the most vulnerable of society.
The humanity of Jesus is theologically rich for our understanding of him and how he becomes the model for our own faith.  As the paradigmatic disciple, Jesus expresses faith in God and faithfulness to God as he embodies the vulnerability of human existence.  In doing so, Jesus does not walk aloof of the struggles and injustices of human life, but endures them with hope and faith.  His life was indeed both radical and scandalous, but his hope in God and God’s rule of justice that he sought to embody, caused him to embrace the radical and scandalous life to which God had called him, even though it would lead to a violent death.