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Official Website of the
Catholic Diocese of Little Rock
Published: January 15, 2011
This is the 10th column in a 13-part series
By Cackie Upchurch
Director of Little Rock Scripture Study
“If only I had lived in first century Palestine, I’m sure I would have recognized Jesus. It would make such a difference just to see him and watch him work.” These and similar words are often expressed when 21st century people struggle with how to respond to Jesus and his message.
The reality is that the challenge to see and believe, to witness and to follow, would be very much the same then as now. In fact, our generation may have a definite advantage. We have the witness of centuries of people from every part of the globe who have responded in faith to spread the Good News of Jesus. We have the gift of the Spirit among us to stir our hearts to respond. And yet the struggle to recognize him fully is still with us.
The Gospels are filled with episodes of people encountering Jesus, with as wide a variety of results as there were types of people: scribes and Pharisees; tax collectors and prostitutes; the hale and hearty as well as the blind and lame; women, men and children; foreigners and fellow Jews. What becomes clear throughout the Gospels is that Jesus was a people person. He conducted his Father’s business in the day to day interactions that are a part of every culture in every time and place.
Yes, he gathered people on mountainsides (Matthew 5:1-2) and plains (Luke 6:17-17), and spoke to others in the synagogue (Matthew 12:9-14; Mark 3:1-6; Luke 4:15-21; John 6:59) and yes, he was often surrounded by crowds who had heard of him and came with suspicion or curiosity. Mostly, Jesus interacted with small groups and individuals, and often these interactions began with a question.
In the first public act of Jesus in Mark’s Gospel (Mark 1:21-28), an unclean spirit cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?” This encounter allows the Gospel writer to demonstrate the power of Jesus to rebuke and overcome all that is opposed to God. Even an encounter with the opposition becomes an opportunity to demonstrate the authority of the Son of God.
When the Pharisees asked the disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (Matthew 9:11), Jesus used the overheard question to remind his followers that mercy outweighs legalism. Such insight set him in opposition to the religious leaders of his day, but it also breathed new life into what it means to respond to God’s call. When two blind men cried out for pity, Jesus replied first with a question, “Do you believe that I can do this?” (Matthew 9:28) Such a question, found in many exchanges, is a way of helping the person in need to articulate his or her desire and trust. Such a question sets the stage for the kind of transformation that leads to discipleship.
A profound teaching came in another story, when Jesus’ disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2) Jesus could have simply answered that neither sinned; that alone would have been a shocking revelation in a world that believed if the effect was illness, then sin was the cause. But Jesus used this moment to identify himself as “the light of the world.”
When Jesus used parables to teach his followers about the Kingdom of God or the qualities of discipleship, his closest followers often did not understand the meaning of the stories. In one instance, when Jesus described the vigilant servants who were prepared to meet their master, Peter spoke for all the disciples, “Lord, is this parable meant for us or for everyone?” (Luke 12:41) Jesus always looked for the teachable moment. He always found a way to draw his listeners into a story and then turn it inside out so that it fit his audience to a tee. Yes, the story was for them and for all of us.
When we read the Gospel accounts or hear them proclaimed at Mass, we are being given the opportunity to encounter Jesus. The Second Vatican Council in its Constitution on Divine Revelation stated, “The Church has always venerated the divine Scriptures as it has venerated the Body of the Lord …” (21) We venerate the Scriptures because we believe that God is truly present there.
In a particular way, the Gospels reign supreme in revealing Christ and in inviting us into relationship with him. Each time we recognize in the ancient stories our own story, we have the opportunity to respond in faith.
This article was originally published in Arkansas Catholic Jan. 15, 2011. Copyright Diocese of Little Rock. All rights reserved. This article may be copied or redistributed with acknowledgement and permission of the publisher.