“We Have Seen Strange Things To Day”

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

I recently finished reading through the four canonical gospels. I didn’t embark on this scripture study project because the church is studying the New Testament in gospel doctrine class this year, but because, after having completed both another family and a personal read of the Book of Mormon, I thought I should do something different. I thought about reading the Old Testament, which I’ve never completed all the way through (the closest I ever came was more than 20 years ago, on my mission, when I made it all the way to Lamentations when I just gave up). I thought about the Doctrines and Covenants and Pearl of Great Price, but the truth is they’re my least favorite books of scripture; much better, to my mind, for occasional study, both historical and theological, than for devotional reading. And that’s what I’ve come to view my own scripture reading as: an act of ritual and repetition, a brief, daily, meditation upon The Word. The New Testament presented the obvious text of choice. And in reading through the gospels, one point seemed to me to be clearly hammered home by the text, again and again: Jesus seriously freaked people out.

Consider the story that prompted the passage that I use in the title of this post, in Luke 5:16-26. The word of Jesus’s healings and miracles have spread like wildfire from one small village to the next, and rumors abounded about Him. People were leaving their fields and homes and places of work, following Him about, pleading for healings and desperate to hear whatever controversial thing He may say next, and Jesus had to travel into the wilderness to find some peace and quiet in which to pray. Local authorities passed the word when He was spotted teaching, and showed up to watch and challenge him.

And, behold, men brought in a bed a man which was taken with a palsy: and they sought means to bring him in, and to lay him before him.

And when they could not find by what way they might bring him in because of the multitude, they went upon the housetop, and let him down through the tiling with his couch into the midst before Jesus.

And when he saw their faith, he said unto him, Man, thy sins are forgiven thee.

And the scribes and the Pharisees began to reason, saying, Who is this which speaketh blasphemies? Who can forgive sins, but God alone?

But when Jesus perceived their thoughts, he answering said unto them, What reason ye in your hearts?

Whether is easier, to say, Thy sins be forgiven thee; or to say, Rise up and walk?

But that ye may know that the Son of man hath power upon earth to forgive sins, (he said unto the sick of the palsy,) I say unto thee, Arise, and take up thy couch, and go into thine house.

And immediately he rose up before them, and took up that whereon he lay, and departed to his own house, glorifying God.

And they were all amazed, and they glorified God, and were filled with fear, saying, We have seen strange things to day.

Fear, amazement, confusion, curiosity, hysteria, awe: those emotions seem to be a constant in the gospel narratives. In reading those texts for the first time in many years, and eschewing all commentaries or debates over authorship and intentionality, what I saw, again and again, were ordinary people feeling a kind of panic, desperate to stay near this man who was demonstrating such power, hungry for His miraculous touch, begging for His approval and forgiveness, ecstatic over feeling the divine amongst them, and slightly terrified at what Jesus’s words and actions seemed to imply. It was very difficult for me to avoid thinking about how I would have responded–or not responded–to the appearance of a savior, a god, in my own midst. No doubt I would rationalize, contextualize, and express my doubts. But if I saw it, with my own eyes? I would like to think I would have a presence of mind to speak honestly and directly, as the story has Peter doing just a short while the aforementioned story: “When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, Depart from me: for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luke 5:8). But more likely I would be found in the admiring, demanding, wary crowds surrounding Him, praising God for every good thing and asking for more, but fearful of whatever unexpected, unaccountable, outrageous, miraculous thing might come next.

I substitute for our regular Sunday school teacher today, and took a class of about 40 members of our congregation through Paul’s letter to the Romans. There is so much in there–it is one of the few New Testament epistles that is truly all about doctrinal teachings, as opposed to resolving ecclesiastical problems and offering pastoral care–that obviously one can only scratch the surface in a single day. But if anything, I hope those in the class came away with an impression of the deepness, the power, and mystery of what these men, living and writing in the first couple of decades after Jesus’s death and resurrection, we’re trying to make sense of. Grace, law, spirit, flesh, death, righteousness: all strange things indeed. I’ve mentioned before Romans 8:38-39, as perhaps my favorite passage in the whole New Testament. I love it, because of its finality, its comprehensiveness: it’s a passage that, in our very act of reading it, reminds us simultaneously that we are invariably not seeing the whole program, the big picture…and that we, strangely enough, somehow have a place in it all the same.

Comments

  1. As much as the New Testament freaked people out then, the Old Testament continues to freak me out today.
    Maybe if I focused on the bigger picture in the OT, that would help. That’s so hard to do when some crazy story grabs my full attention though.

  2. Russell,

    what I saw, again and again, were ordinary people feeling a kind of panic, desperate to stay near this man who was demonstrating such power, hungry for His miraculous touch, begging for His approval and forgiveness, ecstatic over feeling the divine amongst them, and slightly terrified at what Jesus’s words and actions seemed to imply. It was very difficult for me to avoid thinking about how I would have responded–or not responded–to the appearance of a savior, a god, in my own midst.

    I think we’re a different people today, and the reason/rationality of our education makes it so we’re not as shocked when a “divine” is amongst us. The people back then were far more “spiritual/superstitious” and placed upon a supernatural being the occurrences today we could explain quite easily with science. I mean, I think it would be cool to see someone perform miracles today, but I wouldn’t be shocked by it. I’ve seen far too many special effects movies, and understand much of the physical world that I wouldn’t be shocked seeing someone walk on water today. I’d say that’s a neat trick. :)

  3. I get this feeling especially when reading Mark. It seems like the apostles in Mark are always afraid of asking Jesus questions and basically cowering the whole time. Probably as time went on and the apostles were held in higher and higher esteem, the later Gospels portrayed them differently.

  4. Love it, RAF.

  5. Thoughtful read, Russell. Thanks.

  6. I think we’re a different people today, and the reason/rationality of our education makes it so we’re not as shocked when a “divine” is amongst us. The people back then were far more “spiritual/superstitious” and placed upon a supernatural being the occurrences today we could explain quite easily with science. I mean, I think it would be cool to see someone perform miracles today, but I wouldn’t be shocked by it. I’ve seen far too many special effects movies, and understand much of the physical world that I wouldn’t be shocked seeing someone walk on water today. I’d say that’s a neat trick.

    You really think so, Daniel? I have the completely opposite impression; I think that we’re so comfortable with the accoutrements and methodologies of science that when/if we see something plainly “miraculous” it would terrify us even more than did the comparable miracles of two thousand years ago, all our rationalizations aside. If I encountered a man who claimed to be divine, and I saw him turn water into wine, or walk on water, I suppose I would immediately start thinking about what kind of magical trick or hidden technology he had up his sleeves or in the soles of his shoes; but if I saw him take someone with a crippled and twisted leg, place his lands upon, and the leg was suddenly straight and the man was able to walk away, I suspect I might just faint dead away.

  7. Good call on Mark, Syphax. I haven’t done a thorough word search so as to be able to parse the differences in this particular language use in the gospels, but I wouldn’t be surprised that if you did you might see more of it in Mark, slightly less in Luke, and then slightly less again in Matthew. Just in reading them straight through it was clear that depictions of fear, confusion, bemusement, and panicked activity on the part of Jesus’s followers were much, much less in John than in the synoptic gospels, but then John stands out anyway as trying to do something different with Jesus’s story.

  8. Jesus was certainly a scandal and yet I feel he fails to scandalize our generation as often as he seems to have done those who followed him then. Certainly the act of reading these accounts creates a somewhat different approach to these events than actually witnessing the miracles you mentioned, but I cannot help but think he should still shock us, even in Sunday school.

  9. Kierkegaard argues that genuine Christianity does not exist without the possibility of offense. This is, in part, because of the revelation of sinfulness and the call to repentance. But the possibility for offense rests also with the idea that this person, standing before one, claimed authority– and more, claimed to be God. SK held that, faced with this person who claims divinity, one either responds in faith or in offense (though one could also respond with indifference but this was also, for SK, offense). In some ways, the miracles might be taken as evidence of that authority and that divinity. And they’d be full of potential to offend or cause scandal. Indeed, SK one hasn’t really encountered real Christianity without Christ being made contemporaneous, including the ever present possibility of offense/scandal.

    I think the miraculous still has the power to create scandal, now as much as any other time (not really sure our age is any more or less susceptible to be scandalized by the miraculous–though the how and what of that scandal may differ. Moroni does write about, and denounce, our imagining up a God who can do no miracles. No doubt the scriptural account of Christ’s ministry still has potential to scandalize us. But I think the contemporary counterpart when it comes to Mormonism is the traditional account of how the Book of Mormon came to be and also the claim (through the restoration) to have authority–an authority possessed in completeness only by Latter-day Saints. At least there are some parallels, I think.

  10. Keith,

    Thanks for presenting this association with Kierkegaard’s argument. I suppose I would want to expand the notion of “offense” to include one’s sensibilities, one’s assumption of normality and predictability, also being “offended.” Certainly the “doctors of the law” and Pharisees and others which abound in the gospels were experiencing that kind of offense/scandalization: not just at what Jesus did, but, as I mentioned above, “slightly terrified at what Jesus’s words and actions seemed to imply.” (He can’t do that! That’s not possible! But wait–it just DID happen! My word, do you KNOW what that means?!?)

    The Book of Mormon does partake of that some, a little bit, though exactly how and to what extent is a curious question. But it’s certainly the case that, before our treatment of the BoM became, for most of us anyway, thoroughly correlated and rational and proof-texted, the real heart of the BoM wasn’t so much what it says (the content) but rather was is IS (the context). Look…a BOOK. (Where’d it come from? How’d you write it? What, you didn’t write it? It came from God? My word, do you KNOW what that means?!?) Miracles terrify and confuse and fluster and offend. They also bespeak an authority, when they appear: they cannot be gainsayed or rationalized into existing assumptions, because they manifestly are their own thing.

  11. Early saints used the BoM primarily as evidence of a miracle–a witness that God speaks/acts now. I agree. But they were also told (and we were told) that they/we are under condemnation for treating it lightly. In other words, I take it that it is important to know what the book says. Otherwise (and this, as your post hints it, is the problem with miracles taken a certain way), we’ve simply been wowed by the miracle, not taken by it’s Divine/authoritative message. But not to worry, we can take what it says seriously while holding on fully to what it is. In fact I take it to be a huge mistake to divorce what is says from, as you say, what is.

  12. Or, Keith, to use Levinasian terms, don’t divorce the “saying” from the “said”, but also don’t make the reverse mistake of thinking that if you have the “said”, the “saying” is irrelevant.

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