Health Care and Luke’s Political Diagnostics

Luke 11:14-28

He was driving out a demon from a man, a demon that had him dumb, so that when it had been sent on its way this dumb man, as he had been known, spoke. The crowds were amazed, although some there said, “He orders demons to go on their way by appeal to the chief of demons, Beelzubul.” Others, meanwhile, were putting him to the test, seeking a sign from out of heaven. But, knowing their thoughts, Jesus said this:
“Every kingdom divided against itself is in perpetual ruin, one house dividing itself against another in a state of ongoing collapse. And if the prosecutor, Satan, is divided against himself, how shall he then make a stand? So, you say that I send demons on their way by Beelzebul. If I am sending demons by Beelzebul, by reference to whom are your sons sending demons on their way? Won’t they then be your judges? Still, if I with the finger of God send demons on their way [you should know that] the Kingdom of God has come upon you.
“When a powerful man protects his palace with arms, his possession is at peace. But when one who is stronger comes and overpowers him, he takes the armour for himself, for his own protection and redistributes the armaments.
“The one not with me is therefore against me. And he that is not gathering with me scatters.
“When the unclean spirit departs from a man, he wanders through the dry places seeking a place to reside and finding none he says to himself, ‘I will return to the house from which I departed.’ And coming upon it, he finds it swept clean and refurbished. And so he goes and finds seven spirits more evil than himself and entering he dwells there and the last state for that man is worse than it was to begin with.”
And that was when, having said such things, a voice in the crowd of a certain woman cried out, directed at him: “Blessed is the womb that has carried you and the breasts from which you were nursed.” But His reply was: “Not at all, for blessings rests on those who, hearing the word of God, keep guard over it.”

Here Luke gives us his version, explicitly tailored to Theophilus, of events also recorded by Mark (3:22-27) and Matthew (12:22-30). It may sometimes seem difficult to line up these accounts; do we have here a report of the same event, from a different perspective, or is it to be considered a separate event that only sounds similar? Whatever be the case, from what we have already read from Luke, we can detect and verify that there was continued opposition to Jesus’ teaching from the Pharisees and the Scribes and also the Herodians (see Luke 12:28 and compare with Mark 8:15). This opposition became evident right at the outset of Jesus’ ministry in his hometown synagogue declaration and continued after he had moved on to Capernaum. And as his ministry across Judaea expanded so did the resistance. Luke reports of a scurrilous “diagnosis” that had been fomented by these opponents of Jesus; it involved a persistent rumour that Jesus’ power over evil spirits came from an alliance with an even greater evil spirit, Beelzebul.

Luke’s account can be read as his careful “diagnosis” of the reports he gathered of this encounter. The rumour came from within the crowd that sought a sign from heaven. Jesus warned his disciples against getting carried away; crowds were flocking to him but the size of popularity is no index of genuine faith. There was resistance and opposition at work.

With respect to what we might call various “social policy” issues, the Pharisees, the Scribes (and the Herodians) had mixed their yeast which was, Jesus told his disciples, their hypocrisy. At the same time, Jesus was quite happy to talk about the fermentation of the Kingdom of God’s yeast (Luke 13:21; Matthew 13:33). (The disciples were slow to understand Jesus’ meaning when he spoke of the “yeast of the Pharisees”; at first they seem to have supposed he was referring to a method of bread-making).

But in this instance, Luke refers to those in the crowd infected by this hypocritical teaching that this healing work was merely a manifestation of the rule of the “Prince of Demons”, the alleged “boss” of this Nazarene teacher.

“Well then” says Jesus, taking the lying innuendo right up to those who were caught up in it, “if my work of healing and assisting those who are ill, is to be explained as the work of Beelzebul, who is it that is inspiring the work of the Pharisees – some of whom are your sons! – when they engage in such work?”

In other words: was not such healing work – as given to God’s people in the Torah (Leviticus) – given in order that those bound would be released from the hold of evil spirits? If then Israel’s work of healing is divided, having accommodated the healing work of Beelzebul, as the critics of Jesus suggested, does it not mean that room has been allotted to the Prince of Demons? This can be nothing but a Kingdom divided against itself, on its way to total destruction. Jesus continued teaching, and the crowds included those who had been manipulated, infested. A little later Luke reports Jesus’ warning: “Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees” (12:28).

Jesus discusses the ascription given to him. He contradicts the rumour by asserting that he is a true child of Israel. In effect he asks the question: “Is Israel prepared to remain a true part of God’s plans? Or is Israel going to destroy itself by believing such lies?”

Luke’s account of Jesus’ confrontation with the ersatz “diagnostic”, culminates in his statement, “But if I by the finger of God am doing this healing work, then you should know this without any doubt that God’s Kingly Rule that has come upon you.” This work demands wholehearted response; it is not given in bits and pieces.

Luke’s account is often read as an eclectic collection. But I suspect he is putting these events and sayings together side-by-side, in order to explain as fully as he can, Jesus’ response to the accusation. Luke says it had arisen after this man’s healing.  Jesus went on to allude to grasping and frenetic political rule, that kind of governance that would be well known to these people who, but a short time ago, had responded to John’s call in the wilderness. Why would he do that?

Jesus is saying something like this: “Consider the rule of the one who holds onto his palace as if it is his fortress. For him it is all or nothing. He is not content with control of only a small corner over here, as well as a thin strip of territory over there.”

Luke depicts this dumb man as one held in something like a permanent cataleptic fit. (Matthew 12:22-32 reports that he was blind). His healing not only generated amazement; it brought the allegation of Jesus’ league with Beelzebul to the fore, as well as a demand for a sign.

 Jesus explains that the exorcism of an evil spirit must be complete. If it be only a matter of sending the demon away for a time, the action will simply be the forerunner to a greater disaster. Jesus presented himself to all, the dumb man included, as the Hope of Israel, the One through whom God’s Kingdom is being permanently established. His healing work is part of the proclamation of the Good News of God’s merciful rule. The dumb man, then speaking, had no need to fear. The evil spirit had not only been sent on his way for a time; he had been utterly defeated. That evil spirit would not be returning.

Luke, we are told by long tradition, was a physician. He includes at this point in his account the response of Jesus to a paean shouted by woman in the crowd:

Blessed womb; blessed breasts …

Was Jesus to single out his own mother for special attention?

Not at all. A blessing rests on all who hear the word of God and keep watch over it!

The woman’s cry was oblivious to Jesus’ mother’s actual needs at that time. And what could be the outcome of such a paean? Jesus’ refutation emphasised God’s blessing to persons – God’s image bearers, male and female – those called to a love for God that is entire, whole, full – heart, soul, mind and strength.

Here then is Luke’s diagnostic, reminding Theophilus that his account of Jesus’ ministry is of the emergence of a global way of life that will have nothing to do with fertility cults – neither those of the Ba’als or the Prince of Ba’als or of any such idolatry that  arises elsewhere.

For a study of how Biblical religion departs decisively from fertility religion see here.

BCW

9.12.16

 

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