(In which Jesus again mentions the marketplace, allowing me to dive in with yet another anti-market screed.)
Here is some hope for the doubters among us. Those who are not sure about Jesus may gain some sympathy from this passage. If you’re on the fence about him, wondering whether he has really made enough difference in the world to warrant the title of Messiah, or even God, this incident is something to which you should relate. John the Baptizer, Jesus’ cousin, the one who baptized him and witnessed the descent of the Holy Spirit upon him, the one who said, “He must increase and I must decrease,” even he is still not quite sure about Jesus.
So he sends a delegation of his own disciples to visit Jesus and check him out. They are supposed to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Luke repeats the question twice! He repeats the question because it is so often our question. It is a question that disciples of Jesus have had to answer over and over again, throughout history. Is Jesus really the promised Messiah? Or is there someone else coming?
It reminds me of the animated Disney movie The Rescuers. It’s about a bunch of mice in New York City who get a distress call from a kidnapped girl, so they go all the way to New Orleans to rescue her, and when they get there she is glad that someone got her distress call, but eventually she looks around at these mice and says, “Didn’t you bring anybody big with you?”
John the Baptizer predicted and promised somebody big! But the One who shows up… is only Jesus, an effective healer, to be sure. But he hangs around with riff-raff, and he sure doesn’t look like the spectacular bringer of the wrath of God and the End Times.
I mean, if Jesus is the Messiah – if Jesus is even God – then like how come the world is still in such a colossal mess? Wasn’t the Messiah supposed to end war and injustice and violence? Wasn’t he supposed to “take away the sin of the world”? Well, the sin of the world seems to be going strong as far as I can see. What difference did he make? I mean, we had conflict, torture, plagues, disease, exploitation, hatred, and natural disaster before Jesus, and we have the same things after him. Where’s the evidence that this guy is the Messiah who was supposed to change everything?
It is a set of questions we who follow Jesus have to answer intelligibly now with more urgency, because many people have concluded that Jesus, at least as he is represented by his current church, is not “the way, the truth, and the life,” and they have decided to look elsewhere for their salvation, or enlightenment, or liberation, or healing.
I mean, John the Baptizer himself anticipated someone baptizing with the Holy Spirit and with fire! “His winnowing fork is in his hand” and “he will divide the wheat from the chaff.” It is understandable that Jesus’ actual ministry doesn’t quite look like what John was expecting. Jesus appears to be a disappointment to people who were expecting the last judgment and the end of the world.
So John, who is in prison, sends some of his disciples to go check Jesus out. And they ask that question. “Are you the guy?” Jesus is basically being asked to prove himself.
As it happens, he is right in the middle of healing a lot of people, which John’s disciples don’t appear to notice. Luke says that “Jesus had just then cured many people of diseases, plagues, and evil spirits, and had given sight to many who were blind.”
So Jesus basically says, “Open your eyes and look at what is going on here. You may not think that what I am doing is “Messianic” enough. But it is Messianic enough for, oh, the prophet Isaiah, for instance.” For, except for healing lepers, all of the things that Jesus talks about doing here are specifically mentioned by the prophet Isaiah as signs of God’s intervention in the world.
I envision Jesus walking around the vicinity pointing out and introducing John’s emissaries to people whom Jesus has healed. In Luke’s Greek each example is a short two-word phrase that Jesus rattles off almost staccato fashion: “The blind see, the lame walk, lepers cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead raised, and the poor comforted.”
Maybe Jesus says to them: “I love John, of course, and he may have his own idea of what the Messiah is supposed to do, and that’s fine. As for me, I am too busy fulfilling Scripture to worry about it.”
The activities Jesus highlights expand upon what he announced that he came to do in his sermon in Nazareth back in chapter 4. That included bringing good news to the poor and recovery of sight to the blind. Jesus colors in this vision of emancipation by including all kinds of healings, from lepers to even dead people.
Jesus points to what he is doing. It’s not theoretical. It’s not an argument over the finer details of Scripture. He doesn’t mention any of that stuff from chapters one and two, like how he was born in Bethlehem to a virgin. That’s not what validates Jesus as the Messiah. That’s not what he considers “fulfilling Scripture” to mean.
It’s not just that he’s doing good works and healing people either. Jesus may have cured appendicitis, fixed broken arms, and healed gum disease, for all we know, but the things he points to and the things to which all the gospel writers refer are healings that fulfill the vision of the Old Testament.
There is our response to those who wonder whether Jesus really is Messiah and God. We can point to Jesus’ ministry as recounted in the gospels, and that’s fine. But it’s not enough. People today have learned not to believe everything they read. Neither does anyone care these days about something that happened 2000 years ago. And they shouldn’t.
Jesus doesn’t talk about history. He takes the messengers from John by the hand and introduces them to individuals whom he has healed. We need to do the same thing. We need to be able to point to people who have found healing and liberation by meeting Jesus Christ in this gathering of disciples. We need people to talk about the difference Jesus Christ has made in their lives.
Now, we might say that this is rather a tall order, since we have no memory of blind people receive their sight, the lame people walking, lepers being cleansed, or deaf people hearing, let alone people being raised from the dead. We could make a case for our bringing good news to the poor, but that’s about it, we think.
But think again. Certainly Jesus healed physically and literally. And he also healed figuratively and spiritually and morally. When he talks about “the blind” he sometimes means people who cannot actually process light with their eyes; but other times he means people who cannot “see” the truth. Maybe if we broadened our understanding as well, we would see that these are redemptions and healings that do happen around us.
Do the spiritually blind receive their sight in the sense of gaining important new insights into their life? Do we learn to see things differently and better? What of people paralyzed by guilt or fear, unable to act or make a move on their own? We don’t deal with many actual lepers, but we are able to welcome and embrace some of those whom our society deems unclean and impure and so treats like lepers. Do we help people to hear the truth for the first time? Can we open the ears of people’s hearts to receive God’s Word of grace and forgiveness? May we not even be instrumental in bringing dead and shattered souls back to life? May not people lost in the death of addiction or despair find new life in God’s Spirit here? Finally, we are fully capable of bringing the good news of relief and release to poor people in our area.
Jesus Christ gives every gathering of his followers the ability to transform lives in these ways, in addition to the literal healings that can happen. We may not trust him enough to let the fullness of his power flow through us. But I am positive that these are the kinds of things we are called to do and we should expect to see happening among us.
When John’s delegation departs, Jesus talks to the crowd about him, noting that John himself only claimed to be a forerunner. And the same people who were attracted to him, that is, the sinners, are finding a home and redemption in Jesus’ circle.
And, on the other hand, the same leaders who criticized John for being too strict and ascetic, now criticize Jesus for not being strict or ascetic enough! Indeed, they call him “a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.” With some people it doesn’t matter what you do, they are going to find a reason to hate you if you don’t fit into their organizational flow-chart of the status quo. If you challenge, or even seem to challenge, their power, they will find some reason to hate you and spread propaganda about you.
Jesus uses the analogy of “children sitting in the marketplace,” playing games. And isn’t that mainly what goes on in the marketplace: childish games? There have been many interpretations of Jesus’ example here, where the children call to each other: “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not weep.”
We could envision petulant children getting angry that others – John and Jesus, perhaps – are not playing along with them. John wouldn’t dance; Jesus won’t weep. Neither will play by the rules of the market.
Jesus and John both reject the market as a place where anything real and true is going to happen, and they avoid the games, rituals, posing, bluster, charades, ruthlessness, and hard-sell tactics of that world. This earns them the ire of those who pretend to be all about the Torah, the law, the Bible, but who are really consumed and possessed by the values of the market: which are, “buy low, sell high.” Make a profit.
Opposed to the market, that childish, silly, theatrical, environment of lies and theft, Jesus and John both advocate values and practices based on sharing, generosity, truthfulness, and giving. Back in chapter 3, John advised people about this. And Jesus appears to have an agenda of putting physicians and pharmacists out of business by dispensing free health care.
In fact, Jesus’ whole ministry appears to be based on the idea of everyone simply giving each other what they need. It is a model that is finally and fully realized in Acts 2 by the early church. We have to assume from Jesus’ own practice, that this was how his new, alternative communities were supposed to act all the time. If someone is hungry, sick, poor, ostracized, possessed, in prison, or even dead, you address the need immediately. You don’t try and sell them something.
“Nevertheless,” says Jesus. “Wisdom is vindicated by all her children.” There are the children in and of the marketplace, and there are the children of Wisdom. It is the children of Wisdom, that is, those who follow the commandments and values and practices of Wisdom, who show by their actions that Wisdom’s ways are just and true. In other words, Wisdom works.
Jesus embodies and demonstrates and reveals the ways of Wisdom, and he does this in his healing and liberating and forgiving, redeeming, and transforming ministry. This is what he shows to John’s disciples. He may not be the Messiah some hoped for, anticipated, fantasized about, or expected. But he is the real one. He is the One prophesied by Isaiah and others, and he is the One who discloses the children of Wisdom.
The church may not be what some want either. If we think that this is where God does whatever we want, gives us the life we desire, makes us comfortable and satisfied, and takes away all pain and confusion, that’s not real. But if we seek the place where God’s will to heal and free and welcome people – sinners – is enacted, then this could be the place.
Jesus gives us the power to be this place, where “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, [and] the poor have good news brought to them.” He gives us the Holy Spirit so these kinds of things may happen even among us. And sometimes they do, as you know.
But when someone asks us, is Jesus the One? Is he the One who can heal me? Is he the One who can liberate, redeem, forgive, or empower me? Or should I look elsewhere? We need to be able to say, “Look, meet this brother who was healed; meet this sister who has been set free; meet this broken soul who has been restored; meet this person whose life has been turned around. Then you tell me if Jesus is the One.”