In this week’s Scripture readings, two of the three passages involve miracle stories, each of which comes right near the beginning of one of the gospels. In Mark 1:21‐28, we read of Jesus teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath, and then healing a man there who has “an unclean spirit.” In the Gospel of John, likely written twenty to twenty‐five years after Mark, we encounter in chapter 2 the story of the wedding in Cana, where Jesus famously turns water into wine. Each of these stories plays a critical role in the author’s initial presentation of who he understands Jesus to be. Both miracles point beyond themselves, contributing to the gospelwriter’s portrait of Jesus.
As I have considered these two stories anew this week, I really appreciated the way Brian McLaren articulates the dilemma that these and other miracle stories present for many contemporary readers. (A portion of McLaren’s commentary is printed below.) I think he’s right in suggesting that any serious consideration of these miracle stories raises difficult questions about how God moves in the world. If we accept the accounts as historic, we may wonder why we don’t experience similar miracles more frequently, Yet if we’re more skeptical, we can easily end up with a God who seems to be boxed in and confined by our own beliefs about what is and isn’t possible.
I enjoy wrestling with these questions, and my sense is that many of you do, too. I value the work of McLaren and other contemporary biblical scholars who encourage a more literary approach to Scripture that emphasizes discovering the meaning of such stories over questions about their historicity. But I’m also aware that those scholars who focus attention on the search for the “historical Jesus” are nearly unanimous in understanding Jesus as a healer and miracle worker. While it may be difficult to use critical historical methods to verify the details of any particular miracle account, Baptist scholar William Herzog affirms that, “it is, historically speaking, a virtual certainty that Jesus performed mighty works that we call healings and exorcisms” (William R. Herzog, Prophet and Teacher, p. 19). So we are still left the question of what to do with these stories that, at least to some extent, challenge our understanding of how the world works.
There’s no easy answer to questions like these. The gospel stories are rich with possibilities and implications. I believe God invites us to keep wrestling with them, and to do so together, in community. I’m grateful to be part of a congregation that is committed to doing exactly that.
Minister with Children, Youth, and Families
You can’t go many pages in the gospels without encountering a miracle. Some of us find it easy and exciting to believe in miracles. Others of us find them highly problematic.
If you find it easy to believe in miracles, the gospels are a treasure of inspiration. But you still have to deal with one big problem: the miracles in the gospels easily stir hopes that are almost always dashed in people’s lives today. For example, in Matthew 9 you read about a little girl being raised from the dead, but since that time millions of faithful, praying parents have grieved lost children without miraculous happy endings. In Matthew 14, you read about fish and bread being multiplied to feed the hungry, but since that day, how many millions of faithful, praying people have slowly starved, and no miracle came? Doesn’t the possibility of miracles only make our suffering worse when God could grant them but doesn’t? It’s all so much worse if accusatory people then blame the victim for not having enough faith.
If you are skeptical about miracles, you avoid these problems. But you have another problem, no less significant: if you’re not careful, you can be left with a reduced world, a disenchanted, mechanistic world where the impossible is always and forever impossible. You may judge the miracle stories in the gospels as silly legends, childish make‐believe, false advertising, or deceitful propaganda. But in banishing what you regard as superstition, you may also banish meaning and hope. If you lock out miracles, you can easily lock yourself in—into a closed mechanistic system, a small box where God’s existence doesn’t seem to make much difference.
There is a third alternative, a response to the question of miracles that is open to both skeptics and believers in miracles alike. Instead of “Yes, miracles actually happened,” or “No, they didn’t really happen,” We could ask another question: What happens to us when we imagine miracles happening? In other words, perhaps the story of a miracle in intended to do more than inform us about an event that supposedly happened in the past, an event that if you were to believe it, might prove something else.
Perhaps a miracle story is meant to shake up our normal assumptions, inspire our imagination about the present and the future, and make it possible for us to see something we couldn’t see before. Perhaps the miracle that really counts isn’t the one that happened to them back then, but one that could happen in us right now as we reflect upon the story.
‐‐Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking, 96‐97