St David's Uniting Church, Canterbury
"Did Yeshua work miracles?"
In February 1941 the Italian military had given up the fight against Allied forces in North Africa. It was a Sunday morning, and all was quiet. A young British trooper stood up at his gun emplacement to look around. A lone Italian sniper 100m away took aim. The British soldier went down from a blow in his chest like a kick from a horse. He had been struck just above the heart; the bullet was embedded in a Gideons New Testament in his breast pocket. You can guess the interpretation placed on that. A miracle? Of course. Young soldier miraculously preserved from enemy fire by the power of Christ! I was told this by an English minister who claimed to have known the young man in question.
In 1944 some Australian troops were camped in Syria, waiting to be sent home. One took off on a motor cycle, on some errand. He was about 100m from the camp. A fellow soldier, cleaning his rifle, was unaware it was loaded. The gun discharged accidentally. If you're wondering, the bullet did not hit the motor cyclist. It struck cooling fins on the cylinder block. It was deflected upwards at precisely the angle to enter his chest cavity from below, and kill him instantly. Consider the number of variables in that; the most minute change in just one of them would have altered the outcome. I know the daughter of that man.
Why did one die and the other escape death? Was God somehow tinkering with the ingredients in one case, and caught napping in the other? Was God more favourably disposed to the first man? Or do these and most attempts at explanation, in terms of God's action or inaction, all sound absurd? If you want my answer, go back and read the address from June 22, "What is God doing today?" [Can be found in 'Food for Thought Archive' on this web site.] Today we conclude our series on "The Real Jesus" (or Yeshua) with the subject of whether he worked miracles. I propose we approach this via three questions.
First, what do we think is meant by 'miracle'? Most dictionaries say it's something in the physical world that can't be explained by human or natural causes, and therefore is attributed to some supernatural agency. For instance, if water turned into wine, or a donkey started speaking Hebrew. You find both of those in scripture.
Now obviously, if this is what 'miracle' means, then an awful lot of things would have seemed miraculous to pre-scientific people, who didn't have anything like our understanding of the way things work. It's not hard to understand why they would have seen miracles (in those terms) everywhere; that is, bespeaking some sort of supernatural tinkering with things. But I have to tell you that this is not what is meant in the stories from John we have heard this morning – about the mass feeding on the hillside, and the walking on water. So, what is 'miracle'?
In the New Testament there are two Greek words translated 'miracle'. One is dunamis (pronounced 'dinnamis'), from which we get words like dynamic and dynamite. Dunamis means a demonstration of power, and should be translated as such. Let me illustrate. I once saw a man who was a competitive weight-lifter come to the aid of a lady with a Mini. It had a flat tyre. When she looked in the boot, she found a spare but no jack! This chap lifted the rear corner of her Mini while someone slid some bricks under it. That is what dunamis (translated 'miracle') is: a demonstration of power that makes you say "Wow!"
The other other Greek word is sêmeion (pronounced 's'mee-on). This means a sign, a portent, a warning; perhaps from heaven, altho not necessarily. One Monday morning in 1963 I was returning to Adelaide from Renmark. After Blanchetown there is a long straight strip. There was at the time no speed limit. I had wound up my car to 100mph (160km). Too fast; of course! I slowed down. In the main street of Lyndoch, at 25mph (40km) I blew a tyre – a front tyre! Had that happened a little earlier, I wouldn't be telling the story now. That is what scripture calls a sêmeion – a hugely powerful sign, portent, warning!
You can see that the meaning we attach to miracle (something suggesting a supernatural intervention) is not quite what scripture is getting at. Those deeds of Yeshua which are referred to as 'miracles (translating dunamis and sêmeion) are seen as demonstrating one of two things – or maybe both of them.
One is that we're dealing here with a person who seems to have resources that set him apart – making him worthy of special attention. We are bumping up against someone who is like no other. The scientist Arthur Peacocke calls him "the God-informed person par excellence."
The other thing (related to what we've just said) is that his words and actions are pointing beyond him to something utterly mysterious. Puts shivers up the spine! "There's more in this than meets the eye, and you'd better do some serious thinking about it."
So, second question: was Yeshua a miracle worker? If by this we mean someone whose actions suggest unusual competence or point us toward ultimate reality (God), then it's probably correct to say 'yes'. On the other hand, if we mean someone whose actions look like conjuring, illusions, sleight of hand, magic tricks – which are in the same order as spoon bending or levitation or sawing in half the lady in the box – that is something else. Matthew and Luke tell us how Yeshua dealt at the start of his ministry with a bunch of temptations. They were temptations to achieve his purpose by displays of wonder-working – like doing a back-flip off the temple pinnacle and landing unscathed, or turning stones into bread; the old 'rabbit out of the hat' trick. Yeshua is said to have rejected this way of operating.
And yet, there's not much question that he healed people of diseases. This is a separate issue. The evidence for it is fairly compelling. What the diseases were is another matter, of course. Medicine in the 1st century bore little resemblance to medicine today. Diagnostic procedures were different, diseases had different names, and they were commonly attributed to evil energies. Psychiatric disorders, in which people behaved strangely, would have been seen as evidence of demon possession. The distinction between what we see as physico-organic, and what is sometimes called psycho-somatic, didn't exist. It's entirely possible that Yeshua healed both kinds of disease, but the information in the gospels is not sufficient for us to know what they really were.
However (and this is the point), for anyone who was ill to get well after contact with Yeshua would have had a huge impact – especially if it happened fairly quickly. Looking back over his life, and reflecting on these things in the light of what they now believed about Yeshua, the gospel writers quite correctly saw them as 'miracles'; that is as demonstrations of power, pointing us toward the ultimate reality who is uniquely present in this person.
You need to remember the agenda of a gospel writer. It's not to say, "Here's somebody who does magic." Rather, it's to say "Here's one in whom God is at work. Take note! Listen to him!" Any story that helps validate this is useful to a gospel writer. Readers aren't going to ask those 'science-based' questions you and I ask. They simply hear in the stories the resounding affirmation, "Here is one in whom God is at work. Take note! Listen to him!"
Last part: what are these stories telling us today? To answer that, there's one further step we need to take – albeit tentatively, I should think, for some of you. Let me approach it in the form of a question. Have you ever wondered if the gospel writers might have followed the example of Yeshua himself, and fashioned little stories for teaching purposes? In other words, that while there could be some factual basis for accounts like these, strictly speaking they never quite happened the way they're told? They're made up to deliver a message.
Don't be shocked! It was very common. Teaching was by story. Like all rabbis, Yeshua taught by telling stories. We call them 'parables'. There's no record of anyone asking if they were 'true'. Nobody ever said, "Who was that chap with the two sons? Who was that fool mugged on the Jericho road – and the Samaritan who helped him? Who was that woman friend of yours who lost the coin and scratched around on the floor for it? Who was the lunatic that hired people at different times during the day and then paid them all the same?" They knew these incidents were probably contrived – to get people thinking.
Why shouldn't gospel writers sometimes follow a similar method? That is, the use of stories based on something which maybe happened in Yeshua's ministry but where a spot of inventiveness is being employed? For those of you who may not like this, please allow me to say again what miracles are. They are not proofs that Yeshua can do magic tricks! They are demonstrations of power by someone who challenges the forces of chaos, and signals that God is bringing a new day. That's what the gospel writers want us to hear.
John the gospel writer is a mystic, a visionary, a 'seer'. Above all, he is a person of hope. He is a poet, a lyrical writer, an artist who uses words the way some painters use form and colour – wildly and without pretending to be strictly representative. A friend of mine, former professor of biblical studies with the University of Winnipeg, compares John with the French painter Marc Chagall – whose works have a sort of dream-like quality, and are not very 'logical' in our terms. If this John is the John who wrote the book of Revelation, he is a person whose graphic dreams are shared with us. If you're familiar with the book of Revelation, you know that almost all of it has this dream-like quality.
I read the accounts of the great festive meal, and of the event on the lake, like this. The great festive meal, where five thousand are fed despite the odds, is like a giant eucharist. The eucharist is among other things meant to foreshadow the time when there's no more hunger; when all sit down at a great banquet. The event on the lake foreshadows a time when the forces of chaos, symbolised by the deep, no longer endanger; when the ragged edges of creation and the threats to our existence are vanquished. In other words, both stories are visions that nurture hope, when we need it! I propose this as a way to read them. You don't have to read them 'literally' any more than you read the creation stories literally.
In the end, if taking Yeshua seriously is going to depend on whether he can bend spoons or levitate or cut the girl in the box in two – and that he must be able to do such things before we say he is the word of God made flesh, then we've turned the word of God into something cheap and nasty, tawdry and tacky, tricked out in glossy packaging. The fact is that we, like the earliest followers, believe he's the word of God made flesh not because he's a magician, but because what he is and says makes extraordinarily good sense of life!
Exodus 14:21-29 The miraculous parting of the waters
John 6:1-21 Two miracle stories
address delivered at St David's Uniting Church, Canterbury, by the Rev Dr John
Sunday, August 3, 2003.
MAY BE REPRODUCED WITH ACKNOWLEDGEMENT