Monday, July 28, 2014

Learning to Read Miracles

In yesterday's gospel lesson, we rounded out three weeks of parables yesterday, and now we move to three weeks of miracles. Some of us might celebrate that transition—no more picking apart enigmatic sayings of Jesus and attempting to apply two-thousand-year-old wisdom to contemporary life. But I think the miracles are even tougher to understand than the parables.

Parables are supposed to be picked apart. I’ve only heard one person tell me he interpreted parables by reading them as literal truth—an interesting hermeneutical approach that is worth considering another time. For the most part, people read parables as hyperbolic or allegorical or exemplary teachings of Jesus. When we read the parable of the mustard seed, no one goes out and plants mustard seeds, expecting the kingdom to grow out of the ground. But people read miracles as if the whole point of the story is the thing that happened. But that’s not good enough.

Miracles need to be picked apart just as much as parables do—probably even more. We get trapped by the “feat of wonder” and forget that there’s a deeper, more important teaching hidden in the text. Yes, part of the point is to show us that Jesus is able to do amazing things, but that’s only the beginning. “What else?” the preacher is supposed to ask or else she ends up preaching a dull sermon.

Take this week’s parable for instance: the feeding of the five thousand. As you can see, the narrative is brief. Jesus goes off by himself, but he is pursued by the crowd. When he comes ashore, he has compassion on them, cures their sick, and, when the day is done, urges the disciples to feed the multitude. They raise the natural question: where will we get enough food? Jesus asks how much they have, and then he multiplies five loaves and two fish into enough to feed everyone with twelve baskets left over.

What’s the point of the miracles? That Jesus can take five loaves and two fish and feed five thousand? Or, to take it a tiny, still-too-small step further, that Jesus is able to provide abundantly? Yes, sure, but what else? There is a tension between physical needs and spiritual needs—what have the people really come to Jesus for? There is a tension between wilderness and civilization—where will the people be taken care of? There is a tension between the disciples’ materialistic focus and Jesus’ spiritual insight—who will give them what they need? There is a Eucharistic prefigurement with the taking, blessing, breaking, and distributing. There is a ridiculous amount of leftovers—so much so that any priest or altar guild would blush at the wastefulness of twelve baskets full—that points to something more than abundance. The danger isn’t in over-interpreting this miracle. The danger is in leaving the miracle unmined for its multiple meanings.

I’ll suggest that in order to get to the heart of any miracle story we have to suspend our belief in its literal truth long enough to glimpse its real meaning. That does not mean that we cannot and should not cling to a literal reading of any of Jesus’ miracles! I believe in the literally, visually verifiably empty tomb, and that leads me to believe in the physical historicity of just about every miracle story in the gospel. But the literal truth is only the beginning. Try putting it on a shelf for a few hours. Pretend that the story was an exaggerated metaphor that developed within the Christian community to point to a bigger truth about Jesus. What does the story say to us then? What is the evangelist trying to get across? What happens to Jesus when we stop thinking of him as just a miracle worker? Then, after you’ve read and reread the text and gathered all you can from it, bring the historicity back to the story and see what happens. Let the miracle mean more than the miraculous. Let it teach you something else about Jesus and the Christian faith.

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