Our gospel reading begins with Jesus restoring a
man who was unable to speak. For the people who saw the miracle, it
leads to the question, "what does Jesus' ministry mean?" What is the
significance of his healing, driving out of demons, and of all the
miraculous things he did? Some of the bystanders suggest that although he
does amazing works, it is really by the power of the devil that he does
them. And in response to that charge, Jesus tells us something about what
his miracles really mean.
Jesus says that it is ridiculous to suppose that
he delivers people by the power of the devil. The works of evil are marked
by oppression, impurity, and falling away from God. The works of God are
marked by light, thanksgiving, and a free relation to God. If his works
lead to deliverance and freedom before God, then it is by the "finger of
God" that he does them. He uses the picture of a strong man, clad in armour,
carefully guarding his possessions in his own palace. This is a picture of
the devil, holding on to those that he is oppressing by evil and sickness.
But Jesus himself is a stronger man, who comes in and binds the devil and
takes away from him the people that he had as his own.
That is the picture of Jesus' ministry and the
meaning of his miracles. When he heals, when he delivers from evil, even
when he teaches God's word, he is setting people free of the devil and
bringing the rule of God to what the devil had ruled. The devil's will is
sickness and imprisonment, God's will is health and freedom, and in Jesus we
can see God's kingdom happening right before our eyes. It is as if Jesus in
the gospels is walking along in a spiritual spotlight, and for anyone who
steps into the spotlight with him by faith, God's will for healing and
goodness are realized. The miracles are signs that in Jesus God's true will
is finally being done.
And yet the bystanders, the Pharisees and scribes,
see the signs of God's work and say that it is the work of the devil. How
could this be? What kind of people can see the signs of God working good
and think that it is bad? They were people who had such a vested interest,
such a prejudice that Jesus couldn't be who he seemed to be, that they were
ready to say that white was black in order to condemn and criticize him.
So the miracles are signs of God's good working
but they are "speeded up" signs. The work of getting rid of the bad in
ourselves and bringing in the good is all done in a moment. Jesus delivers
us too from the bad and brings us to the good, but it is usually a much
longer process of turning away from bad habits and forming good habits.
This is the work we focus on in Lent, and it is really the work we do all
through the year as well.
In the Gospel, when Jesus is doing this work of
deliverance, when he is inviting people into the spotlight of God's goodness
with him, some of the bystanders look on and even though what happens is
good, they criticize and condemn it. "This is not the right way for people
to be changed," they say. "That way is evil, the proper way is different."
We too can see the path to being better people in front of us, but we can
remain bystanders. We can say, "I do want to change but not this way, I
want some other way. I'm not going to have any part of this way."
You may have heard the story of the man telling
about his visit to the doctor. "So he told me that I have to go on a strict
diet and exercise regularly." "What are you going to do," his friend
said. "I think I'll find another doctor," he replied. Doctors know that
simply giving the right prescription is not going to make people well.
They have to follow his advice. Similarly, the way of Christ is taught, but
there are all kinds of reasons why people cannot follow it. "I have my own
way of being with God." "The church is full of people who are one way on
Sunday and completely different Monday." "The church is just after money."
People make themselves critical bystanders while the ministry of Christ goes
on in front of them.
But if we do step into the spotlight of God's
goodness as we see it in Jesus, what happens then? What does it look like
for God to deliver us from the bad and to the good, not in the speeded up
form of a miracle, but in the more usual human way? Let's consider one
example, we are having a hard time keeping our temper with someone at work.
We feel very angry towards them and we can't seem to help it. We have a
sense that this anger does not belong to the goodness and freedom that
Christ came to bring, but it somehow belongs to the other kingdom of
oppression and imprisonment.
If we can admit that our anger is not a part of
God's will, then we've come a long way. We have seen the beginning of the
path to healing and instead of condemning the path, we've humbled
ourselves. We've admitted that we are in need of Christ to come and deliver
us, that by ourselves, we are bound. And the next step is probably not to
make a lonely resolution that we will try harder, that we will keep a
tighter reign on our anger. It is probably to talk to someone about it.
Alone, bad habits and emotions are very difficult to change. With help,
they become easier.
I have a friend who sometimes calls me on the
phone to vent. He is really angry and he will say some pretty harsh words.
But every so often he will say, "I don't really mean this, but I just have
to get it off my chest." I think it is real wisdom to know when you have to
say some harsh words to get them out, and yet you still know that the real
picture isn't like that. You find someone who will listen, and you vent.
Probably much later, will come a second step. You
start to ask your sympathetic friend, "how does this situation look to
you?" You start to give up your personal prejudice that you must be in the
right and start to "see yourself as others see you." If the first step of
sharing may need God's help, the second step needs God's help even more.
Usually, when we are very angry with someone, if we turn around and face the
mirror, we find that there is something in us which we are not willing to
face. We are looking at a mote in our neighbour's eye, and there is a beam
in our own eye. A friend can help us to see things more clearly, but that
friend may have to wait a long time before we are ready to see.
Once we are starting to face our anger as someone
else might see it, instead of according to our own prejudice, then we are
really on the road to God's healing. Then we have really stepped into the
light with Christ, and he can start to do something with us. As long as we
remain critical bystanders, saying that this way is no good and that step is
quite impossible for us to take, no healing is really possible.
Jesus is the stronger man, who can deliver us from
the bonds of anger, or anything else that holds us. Usually, he doesn't do
it by a miracle, but by a process of sharing, admitting, asking for help,
and humbling ourselves. When we are in need of his healing, let us be sure
not to be critical bystanders, unwilling to accept the path of healing that
God has given us, but let us step into the light with him, and see God's
goodness realized in our lives.