From the Inside Out | Matthew 9:35 – 10:8
Where are the miracle workers when you need them?
Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness. (Matthew 10:1, NRSV)
If Christians went around with the ability to cure every disease and every sickness, people would pay attention. More people would become Christian, some because they had seen a miracle and it stirred their faith, others because they had seen a miracle and wanted one.
Instead, miracles are as scarce as they ever were, and fewer people are interested in Christianity.
The decline of Christianity may be due to the lack of miracles, but it is more likely due to the abundance of Christians, the loudest and meanest ones anyway. Every day I hear someone condemning other people—usually people who are different, in upbringing, orientation, geography, politics—in the name of Jesus. Forget the fringe groups who would hate everyone else regardless of their own religion. There’s plenty of hate and fear in the mainstream, and only the television charlatans claim to heal in the name of Jesus.
It’s enough to make me want to call myself anything but Christian. Most days Buddhism is looking pretty good. I can imagine Jesus embracing it.
So what do we do with passages like the one from Matthew’s Gospel, claiming that the followers of Jesus will work miracles? It says that Jesus gave his disciples the power to throw out “unclean spirits”—however we might understand that phrase today—and to heal every disease. Imagine it. Imagine being able to stroll through a children’s hospital and heal every kid in there.
Be healed in the name of Jesus. Regardless of your disease. Regardless of your sexual orientation, or faith background, or country of origin. Of all the people Jesus encounters in the gospel stories, he only questions the nationality of one—the gentile woman whose daughter is ill or possessed. It seems his question is pointed outside the gospel, pointed at us, we who listen to the story today, because he goes ahead and heals her daughter anyway.
So did the disciples have the ability to heal people? The gospels say so. The early Church reports it as so. (For example, see Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses, 2.32.4, written in the second century.) How do we understand the stories? Is it true, literally true, that they could heal the sick? Could Jesus? Did they perform these miracles? If so, why was there not a Pied Piper effect, a daily triumphant-entry-Palm-Sunday kind of parade?
Some people say our lack of miracles is due to our lack of faith. They may be right. I can’t contradict them, certainly not with the pitiful amount of faith I myself possess.
There are plenty of religious people eager to point to the modern lack of faith, or to some temporary dispensation of power to the early Christians not shared with us, we later poorer children, but we’re left feeling that the explanations don’t hold water or that we’d have to wear blinders to buy into them.
In the meanwhile, there are other ways to think about it.
Could these be symbolic stories, disease and unclean spirits as a metaphor? Fables or allegories? Simply stories with a meaning? Does that work? Could we think of them that way, and remain among the faithful?
Otherwise, we have no good explanations, but even without an explanation, there may be an application.
Albert Camus said this, though he wasn’t speaking to miracles—
We must mend what has been torn apart, make justice imaginable again in a world so obviously unjust, give happiness a meaning once more to peoples poisoned by the misery of the century.
The prophets put it this way:
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
(Micah 6:8, NRSV)
Maybe we lack the power to walk into hospitals and heal the sick. That is a God-thing, and maybe it always was.
Maybe our work is the lesser miracles—mending what we have torn, restoring justice where we have failed, giving happiness to a child who has known nothing but war and hunger and fear. A home for the homeless. Food for the hungry. Clothes and education and peace for the poor. And medicines for the sick.
Those are pretty good miracles. We already know how to perform them. What is holding us back? Where are the miracle workers when you need them?