Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Genuine Article [Luke 8.22-25] (6 November 2011)

I teach Mathematics to students aspiring to succeed at the Joint Entrance Examination conducted each year for admission to the Indian Institutes of Technology. The examination is easily one of the toughest at the pre-university level in the entire world and students begin preparing as early as the 9th Standard. The questions are much more difficult than those encountered elsewhere. And I have found a very disturbing trend, even among very bright students. When they see a question, they immediately plunge into attempting to solve it. And when they do, sooner or later, if they have not thought things through, they find themselves at a dead end, unable to finish what they had started.

Jesus speaks of a similar thing in Luke 14.28-30. [Read here] Or in the case of our stuck student, “This student began to solve the problem but was not able to finish.”

I do not wish to re-narrate the episode or to give a blow by blow account of what happened. That could be done in another message. But not today. 

Neither do I wish to focus on the parallels between this episode and the episode where Jonah was asleep in a ship while a storm raged all around. There are some remarkable parallels that could be dealt with in a bible study perhaps.

And I certainly do not wish to debate whether miracles are possible or not. As Jesus said elsewhere, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” In other words, we all cling to what we believe even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Events can be explained away as miracles or as coincidences depending on your point of view.

What I would like to do is focus on what we learn about Jesus in this passage and what he is teaching us though it. So we will focus on the words spoken by Jesus. In the short passage that is the scripture text for today’s message, Jesus speaks twice. Before we deal with the first occasion, let us consider the second. 

Jesus asks his disciples, “Where is your faith?” A simple question, with absolutely no difficult grammatical issues. But we must ask ourselves, “What does this word ‘faith’ refer to here?”

Is Jesus asking them to have faith that they too could have commanded the wind and the water and brought the calm they desired? At another point in his ministry, Jesus tells his disciples that they would do greater works than the ones he had done. Surely this interpretation does not violate Jesus words! Moreover, later in Jesus’ ministry and in the Acts of the Apostles we see the apostles perform all sorts of wondrous deeds – healing sick people, raising people from the dead, etc. Indeed in Acts, we do not have a single instance of a follower of Jesus failing in a miracle he intended to perform.

From these episodes in the Gospels and Acts, a whole school of thought within Christian circles has developed that upholds the notion of ‘name it and claim it’. The idea is that if we only had faith – or enough faith as the case may be – we would simply be able to make things happen by saying them out. 

After all, did Jesus not say, “I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son”? So is Jesus asking, “Why do you not simply believe that you have authority over the elements?”

Or is Jesus telling the disciples that they should have faith that he would protect them? The first three Gospels, also known as the Synoptic Gospels, record this incident. But each tells it in a wonderfully different way. In fact, a whole series of studies could be done simply on the different foci these three authors have when narrating this one episode. Unfortunately, we do not have the luxury of that much time.

So let us focus on a single word. When the disciples address Jesus, Matthew places the word κύριος, meaning lord, on their lips. In Mark, the word is διδάσκαλος, meaning teacher. 

Luke uses a very interesting and rare word here, used only by him in the New Testament and in less than five percent of the places where he could have used it. In Luke the word is ἐπιστάτης meaning protector. And only Luke has the word repeated. If they believed that Jesus was their protector, surely Jesus could not have meant that they lacked faith that he would protect them! 

Moreover, if we actually read the Gospels carefully, we would be hard pressed to find Jesus stating anywhere that he protects us. When we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, the Good Shepherd will be there with us. But there is no guarantee that we will emerge from that valley alive. The idea that Jesus is someone who protects us from harm is a sentimental view not really found in the scriptures. Rather, the guarantee he gives us is this: In this world you will have tribulation.

So we can conclude that the fact that Jesus asks them, “Where is your faith?” indicates that whatever faith they had in calling him ‘protector’ was not the faith that Jesus was referring to.

While it is perhaps quite evident, I think we should eliminate the idea that Jesus was referring to faith that he is the Son of God or the Messiah or the Second Person of the Trinity. Those questions arose only much later and were not something that the disciples were even thinking of. Neither had Jesus yet mentioned that he would be dying on the cross and would be raised from the dead. So even belief about what happened on Good Friday and Easter would not be what Jesus is talking about.

So what is Jesus referring to? And now we get to the first time Jesus speaks in this passage. In v. 22 he tells his disciples, “Let us go across to the other side of the lake.” Once again, a very simple sentence, with no difficult grammatical issues. And because it is simple in almost every language, the tendency is to just skip over it as though it were just an empty statement. 

But the sentence is far from empty! It contains the interpretive clue to the question, “Where is your faith?” What could this interpretive clue be? Hold on to your horses! Before we are ready to have that unveiled, we must ask ourselves why we do not see something that stares us in the face.

If you go to any bank or any ATM, you will notice posters placed there that remind us of the various security measures that are involved in the printing of the Indian currency. With counterfeiting becoming a precise science, all countries follow suit. The United States has a whole section of their Secret Services website devoted to training the public to detect counterfeits.

But all these measures have one thing in common. They tell the reader what the genuine article looks like. They focus on visual cues such as holograms and aspects of various marking. They focus on the texture of the currency such as the kind of paper or embossed regions. They focus on various elements like magnetic inks or inserted threads. 

The simple reason is this: There are many ways of doing something wrong, as the majority of Math students realize, but only one way of doing it right!

But if you deal with only ways of getting things wrong, you will never be able to appreciate the genuine item. A person who always buys fake designer wear will not have the skill to distinguish the real item.

And this is what has happened to us. We have gotten so used to the fakes, that we do not appreciate what is genuine. We have been told time and again that inflation will be brought down. But it keeps going up. We have heard many election promises, only to realize that none of these elected persons actually intend to fulfil their promises. We were told that security to the country has been tightened only to have our cities terrorized time and again. We have been told that we will not negotiate with terrorists only to hear later of underhanded dealings. 

We have been told and we have been told. But we have allowed ourselves to be duped into not realizing that we have not been told, but have been told off! We have been shown so many varieties of fakes that we do not recognize the genuine article.

But here in our passage is the genuine article. Jesus says, “Let us go across to the other side of the lake.” It is a clear declaration of intent and promise. Jesus is telling his disciples, “Now we will get into a boat and we will get to the other side of the lake.”

But in the face of the storm, the disciples say, “We are perishing” or “we are dying” or “we are going to drown”. I don’t know about you, but if one of them drowned, that person could not have reached across the lake. Perhaps his body would have reached across, but he would not have. In other words, the disciples are saying, “We are not going to reach the other side of the lake.”

And that is when Jesus asks them, “Where is your trust?” You see, the Greek word πίστις could mean ‘faith’, ‘faithfulness’ or ‘trust’. Given what we have seen today, it is most likely Jesus is asking them, “I told you we would cross the lake. How is it that you do not trust my word?”

But like us, the disciples immediately lost what Jesus was saying. They focused on the miraculous aspects of what had happened. “Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?” If there had been no storm, as perhaps had happened many times given that Jesus ministered in the entire region of Galilee, they would not have remembered it! They remembered this even because of the miracle, while Jesus was trying to tell them that the event was memorable because unlike all the fakes we encounter on a daily basis, he is the genuine article, who lives up to his word.

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