After the spectacular experience on Mt. Tabor, when Peter, James, and John saw Jesus transfigured in divine light and talking with no less than Moses and Elijah, and they heard God’s voice from heaven saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him,” they come down. And they come down in more ways than one. Not only do they descend off the mountain, they also descend from the heights of mystical experience, back to a world of sad and broken people and their problems. After hearing the voice of God, now they are back in a world where demons rage and people plea in desperation for freedom.
A man whose only son is possessed approaches Jesus. The nine disciples who did not go up the mountain were unable to heal the boy. They had only recently returned from missionary journeys in which they were accomplishing things like this every day. But in this case they don’t have the touch. They have failed.
Jesus is frustrated. “You faithless and perverse generation,” he says, generally to everyone. “How much longer must I be with you and bear with you?” It is a rhetorical question, of course. Now that Jesus has started talking about his inevitable death, it is almost as if he is saying he will be glad to not have to deal with all this dysfunction, faithlessness, and perversity.
He tells the man to bring his son over, and the demon obligingly dashes the boy to the ground in dramatic convulsions. With no fanfare at all, Jesus quickly rebukes the demon and heals the boy, giving him back to his father. Thus Jesus shows he has power to restore even one of the most intractable of all family circumstances: the self-destructive son.
It probably characterizes all generations, but when the family is under particular stress, especially from a sick and oppressive society and an exploitative economy, it is our sons who are most prone to be attacked by the demons of anger, resentment, violence, addiction, and other forms of self-harm. If a culture doesn’t have sufficient ways to channel and embrace young, male energy, this energy festers and starts to eat away at its host. We are in danger of losing our sons to dissipation, drugs, accidents, or the criminal justice system.
Jesus personally rebukes this demon and restores the son to the loving father’s embrace, which means to his family and his community. In addressing the unclean spirit as an entity separate from the boy, Jesus affirms and frees the boy’s essence or true self. Realizing that our broken and enslaved ego is not our essence is necessary for our liberation. Once we are able to see that we are not identical with the forces, feelings, thoughts, and habits that are mauling us and threatening others, then we may turn and be healed.
Christ shows us that we are not identical with our sin, our diseases like cancer, or our thoughts, habits, words, or our manifold addictions. They are not us; they are something else that has a hold on us.
Jesus appears as the truly human One, true and essential humanity is realized in him. When we encounter him, he causes our own humanity deep within us to sort of resonate with him. And this shakes off of our true nature everything alien to it that would control or harm us. We recognize ourselves in him and we realize that everything in us that does not reflect him is not really part of us either.
After this exorcism, everyone is astounded and amazed, Jesus is receiving adulation and congratulations and gratitude from all sides. In the middle of this he turns to his disciples and says: “Get this through your thick skulls: the Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands.” Don’t be confused by all the accolades now. We’re on our way to Jerusalem where it’s not going to be pretty.
Not only does his transforming and liberating power make him even more dangerous to the authorities, but only the One who gives his life for the life of the world has the power to enact these changes and transformations in people’s lives. And that second part is what I find many people missing today.
The gospels are not the notes of observers following Jesus around like reporters or biographers. They are memories recalled back through the powerful lens of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The events of that Passover in Jerusalem are embedded in everything people would later recall and write down about Jesus. The cross and the empty tomb are not surprises to anyone writing or reading the gospels, they are the whole reason anyone writes or reads the gospels in the first place.
The deeper we get into Luke’s gospel, the closer we get to that Passover, the louder are its anticipatory echoes. Jesus is no ordinary faith-healer. He is the Son of Man and the Son of God, as we just heard on the mountain. He is the true human-being and the true God. Just as the character of his life as a dangerous revolutionary made inevitable his execution at the hands of fearful human powers, his coming death and resurrection are also what make him so effective as a healer, exorcist, organizer, and teacher.
Jesus Christ is the sacrificial, overflowing, self-emptying love of God; he is now turning his face to Jerusalem where this love gets finally accomplished in his death and resurrection. He is the Great High Priest making his way, even forcing his way, to the altar. It is because that is where he is going that he has such freedom, such authority, and such a tight identification with people. He is not just another person separated from others by a chasm of subjectivity; he is the Word by whom the very cells in our bodies were created. He doesn’t just identify with us in our common humanity, he also identifies with us from deep within our matter and our breath.
The disciples don’t get it, of course. Out of Jesus’ earshot, they start arguing about who of them is the greatest. Jesus chose three to accompany him on the mountain, therefore one of those three must be the greatest. The other nine failed in casting out that unclean spirit, so they must be inferior. They are developing a hierarchy, a pecking order, among themselves. This is exactly what Jesus does not want them to do. So, “aware of their inner thoughts,” he brings them together for a lesson in leadership.
This movement is not going to be a conventional coronation. This is not a military general gathering popular support and a burgeoning army the closer he gets to the capital. This is not a new central government or bureaucracy needing ministers and department heads. That is not going to happen.
Jesus looks around and spies a kid playing nearby. He motions her over and stands her in front of him as he sits there. And he says to the disciples, “Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the One who sent me.” That is, God. “For the least among all of you is the greatest.”
So stop this ridiculous and disgraceful arguing about which of you is the greatest. If you want to be really great then make yourself nothing, make yourself as powerless, innocent, simple, and dependent as this child. Maybe then God will work in and through you. But as long as you think you’re important and as long as you want to be great and powerful, forget it. Your ego is blocking the flow of God’s Spirit into the world.
There’s not going to be any hierarchy. There’s not going to be any pecking order. You guys should be trying to outdo each other in weakness, service, and childlike wonder. Not decorating your prospective offices in some royal palace.
The church continually forgets this lesson. We compulsively generate hierarchies and different levels of status. If the least is indeed the greatest, as Jesus says, then our true role models are those who do the work in mission and in congregations, not people with exalted titles like “Executive” and “Head-of-Staff.”
Luke then reports that John responds to Jesus. John is one of the three who went to the mountain with Jesus. Even he is pretty clueless about what Jesus has just said. Jesus has just indicated that there are to be no hierarchies or pecking orders among his disciples. John assumes that there must still at least be a distinction between the insiders and the outsiders. I mean, maybe we are not supposed to have distinctions between us who are followers of Jesus, but surely we are better than and superior to those who don’t follow Jesus at all! Okay, we’re all equal in this group, but Jesus can’t be saying that we are even equal to people outside of our group? John wants a clarification on this point.
So he tells Jesus, apparently with some pride, like he is expecting a commendation, “Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he does not follow with us.” He’s not in our church. He’s not in our denomination. He’s not even technically one of your official disciples. We don’t know him. He uses your name without the proper authorization. He didn’t train with us. This could be diluting our brand!
To which Jesus replies, Brand-schmand! This is mission is about healing and liberation! I don’t care how it gets done; I care that it gets done! I don’t care who does it! I care about the ones who receive it! If someone is out there casting out demons in my name, leave them alone! They’re doing better than you guys, lately. If someone is healing and freeing people from bondage, “do not stop him; for whoever is not against you is for you.”
Jesus always allows that there are other people out there doing good work. In chapter 11 he talks about even some of his opponents being agents of liberation. The point is not which brand, which label, which group, which doctrine, which method, which words or actions, or even which name people are using. The point is about whether people are being set free or not.
If you’re part of the select in-group, thoroughly trained by Jesus himself, and yet you are unable to free a boy with an unclean spirit, then you might as well be part of the “faithless and perverse generation” that frustrates Jesus. If you are casting out demons, bringing people to freedom and wholeness, but not part of Jesus’ own group, Jesus says, Fine! “Do not stop him!” The point is the liberation, not the label.
There is only one point of evaluation of any ministry for Jesus: does it help people become freer, more healthy, more human, better, happier, and more giving and forgiving? Or are they just as filled with fear, rage, shame, greed, ignorance, and violence as they were before they got involved in a ministry? On the last day, will God ask you what religion you were? Or will we have to show how we healed, did justice, loved kindness, made peace, promoted joy, and helped set people free?
What do you think?
Jesus is God. He is the Word by whose Breath God creates and brings into being all that is. Everything. All matter and energy. He is not the property of one religious institution, or even many. God is not a local deity related to one piece of real estate, or only present among one group of people. God is not even just the Lord of this planet.
Jesus cannot be the Savior of all people if he is not somehow, as God, present within all people.
We are Christ’s disciples. We are sent into the world as he is, to proclaim and enact this new order of peace, healing, justice, equality, and freedom called the Kingdom of God. We are to bring people to salvation by pointing out, naming, and rebuking the forces oppressing people within and without. We are to show that the way to liberation and healing is through trusting in the God of love, who reveals in Jesus Christ who we most truly and deeply are.
And in being conformed to him, we separate from, shake off, and leave behind all that would restrict, harm, sicken, or kill us. We turn instead to become one with him, and, as Peter says, “participants in the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4), even “filled with all the fullness of God,” as Paul puts it (Ephesians 3:19).
Where we see freedom, equality, justice, peace, and love at work in the world, there we see Jesus Christ. Where we see blessing and liberation and healing, there we see his name. Where we see simplicity, humility, wonder, joy, and delight, there we see the Presence of the living God.