4.5 Jesus’ Ministry
One of the first miracles of Jesus took place at Cana, in Galilee, where he turned water into wine at a wedding ceremony. However, why did the servants go to Jesus when they realised that the wine was about to run out? Normally this problem is to be solved by the host or by the bridegroom. In this case would it mean that this happened at Jesus’ own wedding? The New Testament never mentions that Jesus was unmarried. In fact it would have been most unusual for a young Jewish male, at that time, to be unmarried. We presume that he was not a member of the Qumrân community so that he was not obliged to follow the strict celibatory rules of the Essenes. According to the Gospels he was not ascetic and, probably, the contrary.
The Gospels tell us very little about Jesus. We do not know what he looked like, or if he was married and had children. Mark and John’s Gospels do not even mention his birth or childhood. He enters their stories after they have introduced his fore-runner, John-the-Baptist. John was much more popular that Jesus then and he preached his own religion that survived until about 50 AD, as told in the Acts. For instance, when Paul arrived in Ephesus he noticed that the “disciples” there had never heard of Jesus or the Holy Spirit. They only knew John-the-Baptist and they thought that “The Way”, as the religion of these early believers was known, meant following “The Baptism of John” as their first preacher, Apollos, had told them, and as he had told the Corinthians too. From the New Testament, we learn that John had many followers and that, like Jesus, he was arrested and condemned to death. When Herod first heard of the popularity of Jesus he thought that John had risen from his grave. If Paul had not been such a strong believer in Jesus the new religion could have been that preached by John, and it would not have been very different. In this case the New Testament would have been interpreted as saying that John was Divine, but this did not happen. Some historians have wondered if John-the-Baptist was an Essene but there is no clear answer to this question. What we can say is that his teaching was not Essene since he believed that all people could be saved, whereas the Essenes thought that this was only possible for the Elects. However he could have been associated with this sect some time before, as his teaching seems to be inspired in part by their beliefs. John thought that the end of the world was near, and that a Messiah was on his way to save the people who had first to be purified by water and repentance. (18)
It is through his dealings with people that we can understand what sort of man Jesus was. He is accorded the authority of the exorcist and healer. Once Jesus met a very strong wild man who was living in the mountain and he soon realised that some “devils” were living inside him. Jesus commanded the devils to come out of the man and to go inside a herd of pigs nearby. The pigs became so frightened by the devils, or the man’ shrieks, that they jumped off the mountain and killed themselves. The Gentile farmer asked politely Jesus to go and perform his miracles somewhere else; he could accept that the Jews were not eating pigs, but to destroy them was too much for him to accept.
Jairus, the ruler of the synagogue in Capernaum, was desperate because his daughter was very ill and ready to die anytime. While Jesus was on his way, a woman suffering from haemorrhages touched Him and was healed. When he arrived at Jairus’ house the funeral was in progress, but Jesus said that the girl was not dead and everybody laughed. He asked the people to leave and he told the girl to get up and she did it. Thinking that the girl would be hungry he told his parents to feed her, and not to tell anyone that she was healed. By contrast with St Paul and the early Christians, Jesus was not afraid of women and he treated them as equal to men although that was against the customs of that period.
Near Capernaum was the town of Magdala where about 30 to 40,000 people lived at that time. Mary Magdalene came from this town and she became one of his followers after he chased “seven devils” out of her, meaning that she probably was epileptic. She was wrongly identified in the early Church as the prostitute who anointed Jesus’ feet in the house of Simon the Pharisee. She was also identified with another Mary from the village of Bethany, near Jerusalem. There is no evidence in the New Testament that she was a prostitute, a sinner, Jesus’ wife or his lover, or that she emigrated to France where she was buried in Aix-en-Provence. Her closeness to Jesus is shown as she was a witness to his resurrection, as mentioned in the Gospels. The presence of so many women among his followers is an indication that Jesus was not planing an armed insurrection against the Romans.
Once Jesus went to the house of Simon, the Pharisee. A woman known as being a sinner came in with some ointment. She went down on her knees and, with her tears, she wet Jesus’ feet, dried them with her hair, kissed and anointed them with the ointment she had brought in. The Pharisee Simon protested that Jesus, if he was a Prophet, should have known which woman she was and sent her away. Jesus told Simon that nobody, but this woman, washed his feet, dried and kissed them after he came into his house. As a result, her sins, which were many, were forgiven. This story is similar to that told in the fourth Gospel of the woman who committed adultery. Brought by the Pharisees in front of Jesus for judgement, he was reminded that the Law of Moses said that she should be stoned to death. He refused to do this and told the crowd: “He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone at her”. After the Pharisees had left he sent her away without condemning her, but only after he told her to stop sinning.
Many stories in the Gospels represent Jesus as being friendly with the sinners. In his parables, and in his life, he preached for their forgiveness, and he admitted them in the Kingdom. This was the authentic Jesus’ teaching and it was not the teaching of the early Church, nor St Paul’s. For instance the “Acts of the Apostles” made it clear that sinners were not welcome in church: Ananias and Saphira were killed by St Peter, after being baptised, for giving only have of their worldly goods to the Church. He wanted all!
One of the most intense moments in the Gospels is the Transfiguration, that is when three friends of Jesus saw Him shine with light and they realised that he was one of the Enlightened, like Moses and Elijah. This story and the miracle of the loaves are important because they help to define Jesus in the eyes of other people. They help us to understand not only how these stories fit in the Gospels but also the formation of the Gospels, as well as how they determine the course of Jesus’ life.
The Transfiguration does not appear in the fourth Gospel as it is not necessary from a theological point of view. To John, there is no need for a moment of enlightenment as the glory of Jesus and God are basic to his faith. Matthew, Mark and Luke tell us that Jesus took Peter, James and John on the mountain side to witness his Transfiguration. Jesus was enlightened and Moses, the Giver of the Law, and Elijah, the greatest prophet, appeared at his side until the miracle ended. Some scholars believe that this miracle must have occurred after Jesus’ death. If the three witnesses saw such a vision, it is difficult to believe that they could forsake him in the end. This experience did not allow the witnesses to proclaim that Jesus was Divine, God or the Third Person of the Trinity. They saw the Revelation through Him, not that he was Himself a Divinity. However Jesus filled his followers with a sense of his closeness to the Heavenly Father.
The healing and the teaching go together with Jesus; people came to Him not only to be healed but, also, because in the process of healing they came to understand more the love of their Creator. It is why Jesus, as other healers, proclaimed the forgiveness of the sick person’ sins. The Pharisees objected to this, as well as those who believe that sin can only be forgiven by the death of Jesus on the cross. They were wrong as Jesus’ message was that the Heavenly Father had forgiven them. This was seen as a scandal by the Pharisees and the Essenes who believed that forgiveness could only be offered to the Pure. Nevertheless he had achieved a high degree of pureness and enlightenment himself, even if the Gospels tell us that Jesus often lost his temper, quarrelled with his family, and made mistakes. In other words he is described as a human being.
The episode called the “Loaves” is very important to understand Jesus’ working method. According to the fourth Gospel Jesus crossed the sea of Galilee to the sea of Tiberias. Jesus climbed off the boat and sat with his disciples. Although it was near Passover, a crowd was following Him. Jesus wanted to find some bread to feed them but all His disciples Philip and Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, could find were five barley loaves and two fish that a young boy was carrying and this was not enough. Jesus asked the five thousand people present to sit down and forget their differences. He then took the five loafs and the fish and, after giving thanks, his disciples saw that there was enough to feed the crowd. Afterwards he told his disciples to collect the remains and these filled twelve baskets. Mark gives more or less the same version of the miracle. What is more important in this story is the feeding and not the multiplication of the bread. The people present proclaimed that Jesus was the Prophet they were expecting and they wanted to make him a King. This obliged him to flee and hide. In fact most people had not seen the multiplication of the bread and only knew that they had been fed; but his disciples knew that they had been fed by Jesus as the Jews, at the time of Moses, had been fed by the manna sent by God. This miracle is very similar to the Christian Eucharist, even if the practice of eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Christ was invented by St Paul.
Like the Pharisees, the Essenes and many others, Jesus believed that Israel should return to the Lord in a spirit of penitence and joy. But unlike the others Jesus thought that any Jew could turn back to the Lord and not only the Chosen Ones. It only required trust in God, love of God and respect of the neighbours as told by the Torah. In the crowd that followed him in the desert there were all kinds of people: “Sicari”, Zealots, Pharisees, … and ordinary people. By making these five thousand men to sit down Jesus made them forget their problems, their desire to attack the Romans, their greed, their violent instincts, their sectarism, … He was, in fact, obliging them to behave peacefully. When he preached to them about a “Kingdom not of this World” they saw Him as their natural leader against the Romans and they wanted to make Him, whom they identified as their Messiah, their King. But he refused as his is the Kingdom of Love found in Heaven, and he never pretended to be the Messiah they were expecting. (18)