Sunday, July 8, is the 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B). Mass Readings: Ezekiel 2:2-5; Psalm 123: 1-4; 2 Corinthians 12:7-10; Mark 6:1-6
The Gospel today recounts an interchange between Our Lord and the people of his native land that closes with a statement that is surprising and perhaps even a bit puzzling: “So he [Jesus] was not able to perform any mighty deed there, apart from curing a few sick people by laying his hands on them” (Mark 6:5). Is it really true that Our Lord was powerless to work miracles in this place?
In order to answer this question, we must first understand the true purpose of miracles in Christ’s earthly ministry. When we recall the mighty deeds that Christ worked — the healings, the exorcisms, the multiplication of food, raising people from the dead — we tend to think of them as awesome displays of divine power that somehow prove who Christ is. Yet it is important to qualify this understanding of miracles to some degree. Although they do reflect the power of Christ’s divinity, the ultimate goal of the miracles that Christ performs is, as the Gospels frequently point out, connected to faith: He performs them so that people might come to believe.
This means that Christ performs miracles not in order to force people to believe in him, but to elicit faith from those who are open to his teaching. Sometimes this comes about through the people’s realization that he is fulfilling the words of the prophets (e.g., Luke 4:21); at other times, it comes about because Christ’s miraculous deeds fill a deeply felt need in people’s lives (e.g., Mark 5:25-34). Yet, in all of these cases, the miracle is the means through which faith is implanted in those who are predisposed to receive it.
If we return to today’s Gospel, we see that the people of Jesus’ hometown are offended, literally scandalized (skandalizō), by Jesus’ ministry of teaching and healing. The people are not willing to entertain that Jesus might be the Messiah, the long-awaited Savior of God’s people, because he is too familiar to them. The people expected the Messiah to be an other-worldly figure who would demonstrate his great power at every turn, but this Jesus came from a familiar place and spoke and acted humbly — even his miracles were not what they expected, since they were not grand displays of power, but were ordered toward alleviating the suffering of the poor and lowly. Because Christ did not conform to their ideas of the Messiah, they not only did not believe in him, but they also took offense at him. This was a matter of completely rejecting Christ, and it is the key to understanding what Mark means when he says that Christ was not able to perform any mighty deed there. For Mark, a mighty deed in the fullest sense is one that actually brings about faith in those who experience it. By that definition, Christ is unable to work a mighty deed because the people have rejected him out of hand.
It is helpful to keep these realities in mind when thinking about the role of miracles in our world today. Particularly when our prayers for God’s miraculous intervention seem to go unanswered, which can be difficult and frustrating, it is important to remember that miracles are not rewards or favors that God gives to those who already believe in him; rather, they remain a means by which God instills in the human heart the faith that saves. And only God — the one who searches the depths of every human heart — knows if and when a particular miracle will bring about such faith.
Dominican Father Jordan Schmidt is an instructor
in sacred Scripture at the Pontifical Faculty of the
Immaculate Conception at the
Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C.