I show the following YouTube clip the first night of class to spark a discussion on how popular culture perceives Jesus:
In the video, one of the participants comments that Jesus is a magician like David Blaine. While my students chuckle at the remark, it's not an unheard of perception within our culture. Nor was it in Jesus' day.
There were plenty of magicians and miracle workers in the first century. When Jesus appeared on the scene, some considered him to be one of them. And, Jesus was in fact a miracle worker; however, in exploring this in class, we contrast Jesus' motives with the intentions of others. In comparison to most first century miracle workers, Jesus wasn’t doing it for self-aggrandizement. He wasn't performing tricks to draw crowds in, nor was he doing miracles to hold his audience in suspense, leaving them wondering how he did it. Jesus wasn't doing it for attention or to boost his approval rating, but rather, for God’s glory, reputation, and honor. In performing these acts, Jesus’ intent was theocentric—he was revealing God’s character and announcing God's Kingdom.
What then is God’s character? What is his Kingdom about?
In Luke 7.11-17, we discover a widow who has lost her only son. As readers, we're wowed by the son's resuscitation, but tend to gloss over the widow's role. The only miracle we see is the raising of the son back to life, and in doing so, we fail to recognize the widow's miraculous restoration.
If we look closely at the text though, it is all about her. She was a widow; the crowd was with her; Jesus saw her; had compassion on her; spoke to her, and, finally, gave the dead man back to her.*
Why is this so miraculous?
In the first century, women were completely dependent on male relatives for social status, identity, and worth. Husbandless, and now sonless, this widow has no means of financial support, no social standing, and no access to the community. Her situation is dire; she’s extremely vulnerable; she’s isolated and alone. Lacking a male representative, she’s left exposed to the social elements, with little hope of survival.
As such, this woman was doomed to a destitute lifestyle on the fringes of society. Without financial assistance or social capital, the community would treat her like an outcast, giving little heed to her existence. Jesus knows this; he’s saddened by her loss; he understands her plight; and he’s moved with compassion.
In response, he physically resuscitates the son, and in so doing, he socially resuscitates the widow. In returning life to the son, Jesus returns life to her. The latter restoration is just as much of a miracle as the former.
What the crowds witness is that Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament, who desired shalom—peace, wholeness, and relational well-being—for his Creation, was present in the form of Jesus. The crowd exclaims, “God has visited his people!” (v. 16) and so should we, for this is the “WOW!” factor of Jesus’ miracle. This is what should captivate and cause us to stand in awe—that God is in the business of restoring life to the physically, socially, and emotionally dead. He is a restoring God; his Kingdom is about restoration. This was his plan from the beginning, and it is this same redemptive project which is disclosed in Jesus’ mission. **
From this miracle, we see that God values life. Knowing this, may we hold our lives, and those of others, in such high esteem.
We recognize that God is a restorative force. As such, we're called to minister to those in need of healing, revealing God’s compassion as we bring wholeness, hope, and connection to those who so desperately need it.
We understand that God is on a redemption crusade. Let us join him.
*Green, Joel B. The Gospel of Luke (NICNT), p. 289. Eerdmans, 1997.
**Ibid. p. 291.