If you have dipped down into much of my work at all then you will probably recall that I am haunted by these words of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber:
“To the Jew the Christian is the incomprehensibly daring person, who affirms in an unredeemed world that its redemption has been accomplished.”
Everything is supposed to be different after the Messiah comes. But everything is all too much the same.
I think this is part of why I so desperately want us to take hold of the human Messiah who walks the pages of the Synoptic Gospels. When the Messiah is human, the extension of himself through the lives of other humans can become not only possible but requisite.
But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s look at a slice of the Jesus story in Matthew.
When John the Baptist is in prison, he hears about the works of “the Christ.”
Titles are important. When a title is dropped in a passage, it provides a clue to how the identity of Jesus is being depicted and/or understood by people in the given scene. In this case, the narrator tells us that what John is hearing about is the Messiah’s deeds.
What we think it means for Jesus to be Messiah will deeply impact why we think Jesus can do the types of “works” Matthew has in mind.
Messiah does not mean God. Messiah means “anointed one.” Priests were anointed, kings were at least spoken of as anointed. It seems likely to me that the anointing with oil was to be symbolic of the anointing with the Spirit that was the ideal for, especially, prophets and kings.
In early Judaism, a Messiah would have been a representative human figure (priest or king) through whom God was leading the people of Israel at the time of eschatological salvation/renewal of God’s people.
Matthew has affirmed that Jesus fits within this broad categorization by depicting Jesus as son of David and by having Jesus anointed with the Spirit at his baptism.
What Jesus does in the story does contain many surprises, but for the most part these fit within the rubric of Messiah–an idealized human character.
So when Matthew tells us that John hears about the works of the Messiah, he’s not asking us to imagine that these are the works of God incarnate (there’s a place for that, but maybe not in Matthew); he’s asking us to imagine that this is what it looks like when God’s promised, ideal human ruler comes on the scene.
John asks if Jesus is the Coming One. Apparently this is a way of saying, “The Messiah we have been expecting.”
To this Jesus replies, “Tell him what you see and hear: the blind seeing, the lame walking, lepers cleansed, death hearing, dead raised, poor having good news declared to them. Oh yeah, and also tell him that anyone who does not stumble over me is blessed.”
What it looks like for the Messiah to be on the scene is for everything that’s wrong with us (literally/physically and symbolically/spiritually) is addressed and rectified.
John seemed to wonder–where was the chaff-sifting threshing that he had been waiting for? He had heard about the works but wasn’t sure that these were Messiah works.
But Jesus laid his fears to rest: yes, this is what it looks like when Messiah comes. But you have to know what you’re looking for. If we don’t know what we’re looking for, we won’t know it when we see it.
I think that this is just what Martin Buber would say to Christians today: “Actually, I am looking for such restoration of humanity, and I do not see it. How, then, can you proclaim redemption?”
And here is, perhaps, where the humans following the Human One have failed. The things Jesus does he invites his followers into. He had just sent them, and empowered them, on a missionary journey. They were to heal and exorcise.
The restoration of humanity was not to be a one-off reality with the person of Jesus put on pause until the Son of Man returned. It was to be the work of the people.
The reign of God is arriving, Jesus will go on to say. The times have turned since John’s day. Jesus is making the world a new place, and his followers are greater than the greatest prophet of old.
The world should be changing. And we should be at the heart of it.
See, I think that once we realize that we are the people of the human Jesus, the Christian faith gets much more scary. The stakes get inordinately higher.
If all that we are called to do is believe that Jesus is God, or believe that Jesus died for me, then there is no risk, and no possibility of a disproved faith.
But if we are to believe that Jesus is the Messiah of a people who are to become in and for the world who Jesus was in and for the world, then the failures of the world to demonstrate its redemption lie at our feet.
Have we been the spirit empowered healers? Have we so focused on “preaching good news” that there are no deeds or transformations to make it good?
What would it take for us to become the kind of people who demonstrate that Jesus is, in fact, the coming one, and we are the people who came in his train?