Preaching the miracle stories of the Gospels in a rational age is not easy. Yet the Synoptic Gospels, and the first nine chapters of Mark in particular, are filled with stories of Jesus as a miracle-worker. What to make of this for the liturgical year of Mark?
First, we must clarify what constitutes a miracle. In common parlance, a miracle is an unexplainable phenomenon outside the normal range of human experience. It is supernatural or transcendent. It defies scientific explanation. Yet in Mark — as in Matthew and Luke — miracles are called “deeds of power” (Greek, dynamis).1 They are thus intimately related to Jesus’ authority, power and teaching. Unfortunately, in the modern mind, miracles are seen more as supernatural interventions in human affairs that often address our banal human needs. Thus, quite often people pray for miracles by bargaining with God: “Lord, if you do X for me, I will Y or Z (fill in the blanks!).” The request might concern the cure for a disease, protection of a loved one, finding a job, or winning the lottery. In any case, the desire is for a divine effect far beyond the normal in our lives and in our way. Mark has a slightly different conception.
Miracles in Mark
There are basically three types of miracle stories in Mark: exorcisms, nature miracles and healings. The first miracle (1:23-27) is a superb example. Under the influence of evil spirits, a possessed man cries out to Jesus of Nazareth, recognizing Him as “the Holy One of God.” Jesus rebukes him and expels the demons. But notice how the story is framed. It begins with astonishment at Jesus’ teaching with authority, in contrast to the scribes, and it concludes with amazement and a perplexing question: “What is this? A new teaching — with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey Him” (1:27).
For Mark, the meaning is clear. Jesus’ ability to exorcise demons is a main element of His teaching. It is not a question of “magic” or provoking wonderment at some unexplainable trick. In Mark’s day the Greco-Roman world was filled with charlatans and magicians. Even Jesus in Mark acknowledges other miracle-workers, and He is not incensed that someone else would seemingly be in competition with Him (12:38-41). In fact, some Gospel miracles about Jesus have counterparts in contemporary figures, like Apollonius of Tyana or Honi the Circle Drawer, who could do wondrous deeds.2 But the similarity stops there. Jesus’ ability to perform “miracles” is to show forth God’s power and Jesus’ own authority to heal primarily by the forgiveness of sins, such as in the cure of the paralytic (2:12). The internal healing of a person is as important, if not more so, than the external miracle.
Another category of miracle relates to nature. The calming of the stormy sea (4:35-41), the duplicate miraculous feedings of the crowds (6:34-44; 8:1-9), and Jesus’ walking on the water (6:45-52) are examples of Jesus’ manifestation of powers beyond the normal and that show His ability to control even mother nature, which, we know well from experience of natural disasters, can be an awesome destructive force. For Mark, these are merely further indications of Jesus’ identity as God’s Son. He has been gifted in ways beyond the norm, but faith in Him is what is important, not astonishment at His incredible deeds. After the miracle of walking of water, for instance, the text says His disciples’ “hearts were hardened” (6:52). Even witnessing such phenomenal power does not necessarily bring one to faith.3 Hardened skeptics or convinced atheists can be a tough crowd to change, even by miracles.
Faith and Ambiguity
This leads us to the intriguing relationship miracles display between faith and ambiguity. The healing stories, the third category of miracles, illustrate this point. Amazingly enough, miracles, in and of themselves, are not irrefutable proofs of Jesus’ identity in Mark. Frequently, Jesus’ miracles produce fear, awe, astonishment or amazement in those who witness them. But none of these reactions is what is truly necessary, namely, faith. Jesus Himself attributes His effectiveness to peoples’ faith in Him, not to His own power. A prime example is the woman with the 12-year hemorrhaging. After her incidental healing by only touching Jesus’ cloak, Jesus says to her: “Daughter, your faith has saved you; go in peace, and be healed of your disease” (5:34; cf. also 6:56).
Another example is the healing of the mute boy possessed by a demon (9:14-27). Jesus’ disciples were not able to perform the exorcism, so the boy’s father, in desperation, comes to Jesus and professes his faith in Him with the memorable words: “I do believe, help my unbelief!” (9:24). Only then is the miracle effected. But Jesus explains, “This kind [of evil spirit] can only come out through prayer” (9:29). Faith and prayer are essential for the efficacy of miracles.
Even more astonishing is the story recorded in Mark of Jesus’ visit to “His native place” (Nazareth). There, of all places, Jesus “was not able to perform any mighty deed” and He was astonished at “their lack of faith” (6:5-6)! One cannot get a clearer picture of the relationship between Jesus’ power to perform miracles and the recipients’ faith. One must truly believe to receive what God so freely offers in miracles.
Sometimes I have heard people ask why miracles don’t seem to happen today as they once did, as in Jesus’ day. My response is that perhaps we are simply asking for the wrong kind of miracle. It is not that miracles have stopped. On the contrary, miracles happen every day. There are unexplainable cures, cancers that go into mysterious remission, wayward children who finally find a sure path to follow, or marriages wounded by human failure that finally are put back together. But often, when we pray for a miracle, we are asking for an answer to our prayers in a particular fashion and in our time frame. We are not being truly filled with faith that God can effect a miracle for us.
Moreover, as Mark’s Gospel shows, miracles are in and of themselves ambiguous. I am reminded of the wise adage attributed to St. Thomas Aquinas: “To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one who has no faith, no explanation is sufficient.” Miracles and faith go hand in hand.
The Greatest Miracle
In a sense, the greatest “miracle” in Mark’s Gospel is Jesus’ self-sacrifice on the cross and subsequent vindication in the resurrection. Only at the cross does a human character in Mark’s story pronounce publicly the expression of faith that is essential to Christian identity. After witnessing the manner of Jesus’ death, a Roman centurion cries out: “Truly, this man was the Son of God” (15:39). This is an unambiguous statement of faith. This is what Mark’s community would have recognized as the real goal of the Gospel, to bring people to faith in Jesus Christ by reflection on His public ministry, His passion and His death.
So what does this short exercise in Markan interpretation tell us? The point is certainly not to pooh-pooh the faith of our parishioners when they seek miracles in their lives or express frustration that God has not answered their prayers in a specific way. This is normal. But Mark teaches us that miracles, faith and prayer constitute a complex network of Christian belief. It is not wrong to ask God for miracles. Indeed, Mark’s stories show us that Jesus’ miracles were often the result of a humble, sincere request on the part of simple, everyday people. And Jesus insists that “Everything is possible to one who has faith (9:23). But humbly asking with the same attitude as the father of the mute boy — “I do believe, help my unbelief!” (9:24) — is what is essential. None of us is really worthy of miracles in our lives, yet God wills that we be well and blessed. Thus miracles can and do happen today, as they did in Jesus’ day. Giving people the courage to pray with this conviction is what our preaching of miracles should be about.
Miracles are stories of God’s power and ability to enter our world in ways beyond our comprehension. Thus we should not avoid preaching these miracles. Neither should we reduce them to rationalistic explanations (e.g., the “brown bag” picnic theory for the multiplication of loaves!). With Mark’s Gospel, we can take the high road and preach miracles for what they are: God’s powerful teaching at work in Jesus Christ. TP
1 John’s Gospel is a different matter altogether. There Jesus’ wondrous deeds are called “signs” (Greek, sémeia); they are related to that Gospel’s particular Christology.
2 Some of these individuals are known to us through the writings of the Jewish–Roman historian, Josephus, as well as other ancient sources.
3 One could make here an interesting contrast with St. Paul who, though he could do mighty deeds, insisted that his power was more importantly found in his weakness and sufferings as an apostle (cf. 1 Cor 13:1-13; 14:18-19 and 2 Cor 12:10).
FATHER WITHERUP, S.S. is Superior General of the Society of Saint Sulpice. Among his many publications is Gold Tested in Fire: A New Pentecost for the Priesthood (Liturgical Press, 2012).