“And Jesus marvelled…” (Luke 14)

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Twice the Bible says “Jesus marvelled…” The first time it refers to the obdurate unbelief he encountered;the second to the rich possibility of faith that took him at his word.

There’s an instance of the negative reference in Luke 14:

“One Sabbath, when Jesus went to eat in the house of a prominent Pharisee, he was being carefully watched. There in front of him was a man suffering from abnormal swelling of his body. Jesus asked the Pharisees and experts in the law, ‘Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath or not?’ But they remained silent. So taking hold of the man, he healed him and sent him on his way.

Then he asked them, ‘If one of you has a child [or donkey] or an ox that falls into a well on the Sabbath day, will you not immediately pull it out?’ And they had nothing to say.” (Luke 14:1-6)

Jesus faced a continuing witch hunt.

That is to say,the socially respectable note of being invited to “the house of a prominent Pharisee”  is qualified immediately by the fact of being “carefully watched.” This is a set-up, an attempt to put Jesus on the spot to gather evidence with which to accuse him. The point of the accusation is the moot point: “‘Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath or not?”  To substantiate the “committee’s” findings, the invited guests include “experts in the law.”

In such a context of unbelief, it is surprising that a healing took place at all. In a comparably difficult situation, in Jesus’s hometown, Mark states that  “He could there do no mighty work, save that he laid his hands upon a few sick folk, and healed them.” (Mark 6:5)

So healing is possible, but the extent inhibited, by unbelief.

In Mark’s passage, the story continues that Jesus “marveled because of their unbelief.” In Luke 14 we are not told precisely how Jesus responded, just that the dinner guests were silent in the face of his question about the validity of healing. It must have been a tense silence!

And Jesus heals him anyway, in the very teeth of their silent resistance, their cold, calculating dislike, as they “take counsel” how to destroy him.

So the response of Jesus was rather like that of the redoubtable Miss Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice, who simply refused to be belittled:

“There is a stubbornness about me that never can bear to be frightened at the will of others. My courage always rises at every attempt to intimidate me.”

The word “stubbornness” can sometimes be negative (and that’s the whole point of the novel- isn’t it?- in the way that it can engender both pride and prejudice), but the last sentence shows the positive side: a wonderful strength of character.

Jesus just would not be intimidated from doing the right thing.

Maybe that’s why Jesus gave Thomas the physical proof of his resurrection (in John 20) that Thomas sought? Maybe he had an admiration for someone who could stick to his guns despite the concerted opinion of ten of his closest friends! “You can believe what you like, but I have to know for myself!”

People like that may find it hard to come to faith, but once they make it, they are the unshakeable truest of the true!

In the narrative of Luke 14, Jesus offers an explanation of his action of healing. ‘If one of you has a child or an ox that falls into a well on the Sabbath day, will you not immediately pull it out?’  It’s not really a proper answer to people wanting chapter and verse from Leviticus, because “they had nothing to say” to it.

It’s not that they were  persuaded by an intellectual argument, but simply that they were speechless with anger.

For Jesus did not seek to convince them from Scripture, but to convict them through their conscience and common sense: “Wouldn’t you do the right thing yourself? Wouldn’t you do the expedient thing, the sensible thing, the loving thing?”

And here, in their response, we see the pride (and the prejudice) in all its self-deceiving ugliness. In Jesus we see strength of mind and purpose, set to do the will of a good Father. In them we see a self-serving legalism. At the back of it is the thought expressed in John 11:48:“If we let Him go on like this, everyone will believe in Him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.” Do you see the mix of jealousy and self-reference?

I was reading the story of Rosa Parks, the unlikely spark that lit the blaze of the American Civil Rights movement, simply by refusing to move to another bus seat. Here’s a few quotes:

She said: “All I was doing was trying to get home from work.”

“I had given up my seat before, but this day, I was especially tired. Tired from my work as a seamstress, and tired from the ache in my heart.”

“[But actually] people always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was forty-two. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”

“I learned to put my trust in God and to see Him as my strength. Long ago I set my mind to be a free person and not to give in to fear. I always felt that it was my right to defend myself if I could. I have learned over the years that when one’s mind is made up, this diminishes fear; knowing what must be done does away with fear.”

This sequence of reflections prompts insight into what Jesus was doing, and the courage that rose with every attempt to intimidate him. It indicates the clear-sightedness with which he chose the way that led to the cross. And “knowing what must be done does away with fear.” He wasn’t going to give in to fear, to intimidation or to false religious legalism. And he knew that the refusal would cost him his life.

Just as it did for Martin Luther King.

We cannot underestimate the opposition. Unbelief is an awesome spiritual force. Jesus couldn’t do so much because of it (Mark 6:5). This means that our unbelief may be able to withstand the love and power of God.

It seems that we are far more powerful than we might have thought, but in a negative way.

The thing is – either you believe him or you don’t. You either believe him and he is allowed to operate in your life, or you do not believe him and he is not able. One might chafe at the use of the word ‘allow’ in this case, but that’s the conclusion the Bible offers.

But if Jesus ‘marveled at their unbelief’ (in Mark 6), he also ‘marveled’ (same Greek word) at the great faith of the Centurion (in Matthew 8:10). The Centurion saw Jesus as a man of ultimate authority and he gave him the respect he deserved. He trusted his word only, requiring nothing else. He knew that Jesus was able to perform what he needed.

Today, we choose again how we respond to Jesus.

Respect him, honour him, and plant his word deep in your heart, so that you can have a strong belief in him.

And go out and make Jesus marvel. 

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