Jesus Justice: Learning and Living the Resurrection

Peter Goodwin Heltzel: "Christ’s kingdom was based on emptying oneself into shalom justice, emptying oneself into practical pacifism and emptying oneself into neighbor love."

Jesus as Exorcist and Healer

Jesus’ healings and exorcisms are enactments of his teaching of the kingdom. Given the power of the demonic world, Jesus spiritually prepares himself for his ministry of release (Luke 4:18-19). After Jesus is baptized by John the Baptist, he goes into the wilderness for 40 days of preparation for his ministry. In the wilderness Jesus commits himself to fasting, roots himself deeply in prayer, and surrenders his heart to his Abba, praying for the fiery passion of the prophets. When Satan comes to try and seduce Jesus to turn a rock into a roll, he is met with jazzlike agility; Jesus returns with the well-known “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone’” (Luke 4:4).

Satan is a cunning adversary; using bread much like the forbidden fruit, Satan attempts to get Jesus to discover how easy it is to empower the self without recourse to the divine. Yet the risk that Jesus shrewdly sees is that human-oriented empowerment is only a death, a self-binding in the sleepy nap of a full belly. In relying on “every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deut. 8:3) instead of his own ability to transform stones, Jesus avoids recapitulating injustice and unrighteousness. Instead we see one of his first expressions of creativity in the Spirit, creatio continua: jazz.

While Jesus travels throughout Galilee teaching the “sole sovereignty of heaven,” the inauguration of YHWH’s socioeconomic order, he also dramatically embodies and performs the basileia song through several powerful exorcisms and healings. The new order will become manifest only through a direct confrontation with the powers. As Ched Myers argues, Jesus’ exorcisms and healings, in addition to bringing physical restoration to the afflicted, also function as symbolic critiques of the ruling powers of Jewish life. Luke gracefully interweaves “authority” with “teaching” into a colorful and provocative tapestry in order to separate Jesus’ teaching from the teachings of the Jewish scribes and scholars of his day. Within the scribal culture of the day, the notion of teaching, especially when coupled with authority, could rightly be construed as power, particularly political power. Jesus engages in direct encounters with all pretenders to the throne, whether their power plays are political, physical or spiritual.

Having overcome 40 days in the wilderness and thus taken the authority to proclaim release, Jesus enters the arena of village life in Galilee, where the pretenders play, and begins not only to speak out but also to physically enact his kingdom reign. The first action he performs after his announcement of releasing captives (Luke 4:18-19) is exorcising a man with an “unclean demon” in the synagogue at Capernaum (4:31-37). Luke sets up the encounter with a clear focus upon power. This exorcism takes place in a synagogue, the seat of religio-political power in the village. In this scene Jesus is brought face-to-face with an evil spirit. The spirit seems shocked and expresses visceral fear at Jesus’ presence, saying, “Let us alone! What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” The encounter is a showdown; the demon recognizes divine power in Jesus and is threatened by his new, commanding authority. Jesus does not even allow a fight; he silences the demon and orders him out. Jesus demonstrates his authority through both his teaching (4:31-32) and his exorcising the unclean demon (4:36). Jesus’ ministry of releasing captives is a ministry of resurrection; he brings liberation and resurrection life to places of captivity and death. Jesus is bringing the life-giving waters of renewal back to the Jewish faith.

After this exorcism, Jesus heals Simon’s mother-in-law and then eats a meal at the house (4:38-39). At sunset, everyone who is sick in the village comes to Jesus and he heals them (4:40-41). At daybreak the next day Jesus travels to a deserted place for prayerful retreat (4:42). To summarize, in Jesus’ first day of ministry in Capernaum, there is an exorcism in the synagogue in the morning, feasting in the afternoon and the healing of the sick into the dark of night. We see this rhythm of teaching, feasting and healing throughout Jesus’ prophetic ministry. These three forms of ministry embody Jesus’ ministry of releasing the captives—a ministry of resurrection.

What we have here are the three main expressions of the authority of Jesus, authority over spiritual powers and principalities, authority over physical ailments and authority to gather people for meals, all three subversive practices aimed at the political powers that have failed time and time again to demonstrate the dynamos of the malkut shamayin.

Jesus’ exorcisms and healings are a dramatic embodiment of a new form of prophetic action, offering the promise of a new socioeconomic order. The oppressive socioreligious system of the day had turned the song of Israel into a heavy, concussive symphony, blasting forth across the countryside as if no one were really listening. Jesus’ prophetic intervention at this musical moment is disruptive. It is as if Jesus walks onto the stage, breaks the conductor’s baton and silences the symphony orchestra. Then Jesus pulls out his saxophone and plays a new song, with echoes of the motifs of the orchestra, but played in a jazzlike idiom. Some of the musicians in the orchestra recognize Jesus’ musical brilliance and begin to play with him, while others pack up their instruments and go home.

Jesus’ song is a call to Israel. With echoes of the prophets of old, Jesus sings a new song. He calls disciples to join his messianic movement of love and justice. Instead of calling scribes and teachers, he calls disciples from the margins of Galilee—fisherfolk and tax collectors (Luke 5:1-11, 27-32; 6:12-16). After calling his disciples, Jesus heals a man with leprosy (5:12-16). According to Jewish law, the lepers were unclean and unapproachable. They were destined to a life outside of the community, completely alone (Lev. 13:46). Those who touched them would also be unclean until nightfall (Num. 19:22). By touching the leper, Jesus fully embraces the sick person, even at the risk of becoming a leper himself.

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Jesus also heals a man born blind (John 9:1-3). Yet, Jesus not only gives him physical sight, he also gives him spiritual sight to see his messianic identity. Jesus wants to heal bodies and souls, our whole humanity. Through these healings and exorcisms Jesus dismantles the barriers that have kept the afflicted from offering their full gifts to the cultivation of their communities. Healings and exorcisms are metaphors of the reality of the basileia tou theou. In a world where humans are bent and broken, Jesus says “Come unto me; I will heal you and give you rest.” The healing that Jesus brings to individuals is part of a broader ministry of establishing shalom in the cities across Galilee.

Galilee was under Roman occupation, with a strong and constant presence of Roman soldiers stationed throughout the region. When Jesus arrived in the country of the Gerasenes, he met a demon-possessed man who was homeless, living in the tombs on the outskirts of town (Luke 8:26-39). The man was wild and could not be bound by chains. He even injured himself, cutting himself up with rocks. The community was scared of this man on the outer margins of their community.

Jesus has compassion on the Gerasene demoniac. Jesus asks him his name and he responds, “Legion,” for many demons had entered him. Jesus casts the demon Legion from the Gerasene demoniac, sending it into pigs, who drown in the sea. During that time the name Legion would have immediately called to mind the legions of the Roman army, like the infamous Tenth Legion. By calling this demon by name, Jesus is not only saving a demon-possessed man but also critiquing the Roman political occupation and the oppression that had developed in its wake. The exorcism becomes a parable that unveils the brutal violence of the Roman army that traumatized the Jews of Galilee. During a colonial occupation, the colonized people often internalize self-hatred and begin to act out in self-destructive ways. In this exorcism Jesus clearly identifies the Roman legions as the oppressors, and offers a parable of restoration of the oppressed. After being healed, the man from Gerasa becomes an evangelist, “proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him” (8:39). Every per son that Jesus heals becomes a new leader in the messianic movement for love and justice.

As Jesus heals and exorcises, he also is forming a new generation of Spirit-filled leaders who can continue his prophetic ministry when he is gone. Jesus passes on to his disciples the power he has over the demonic world. When the 70 disciples joyfully return to Jesus after being sent on their first mission, Jesus says to them, “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning” (Luke 10:18). Jesus has received a prophetic vision concerning the descent of Satan. Writes René Girard, “Evidently he falls to earth, and he will not remain inactive. Jesus does not announce the immediate end of Satan, not yet at least. It is rather the end of his false transcendence, his power to restore order through his false accusations, the end of scapegoating.”

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After affirming his spiritual authority over Satan, Jesus imparts his disciples with the power of the Spirit to energize their ministries: “See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (10:19-20). The disciples are not to be arrogant about their spiritual power, but are to use it wisely as they proclaim and embody the kingdom of God. There is a spiritual struggle at large in society between Jesus’ kingdom and the kingdom of the prince of the air. Being heralds of the just and peaceable kingdom means being prepared to exorcise demons from possessed bodies and sinful institutions.

Jesus encounters a crippled woman while teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath (13:10-17). He lays his hands on this woman, who was bent over, and prays for her, and she immediately stands up straight. The leader of the synagogue rebukes Jesus since the law forbade healing on the Sabbath (Exod. 20:9-10; Deut. 5:13-14). While Jesus knows the rhythm and rules of the Sabbath, he improvises in this situation in order to restore this woman to full health. Jesus’ ministry of release includes direct confrontation with Satan: “Ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for 18 long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” (Luke 13:16).

This healing of the crippled woman on the Sabbath echoes Jesus’ earlier healing of a man whose right hand was withered, even though the scribes and the Pharisees were dismayed (Luke 6:6-11). The Psalms say,

If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither! (Ps. 137:5)

Jesus’ healing of this man with a withered hand becomes a metaphor for the restoration of Israel. As Israel is restored, we will see restoration of the shalom in the community of creation. Jesus is restoring blessing to the house of Israel so that Israel can fulfill its destiny promised to Abraham that his family would be a blessing to the families of the world (Gen. 12:1-3). Through healing on the Sabbath, Jesus claims his authority as the Messiah, revealing the true intent of the Sabbath—rest, renewal and restoration of shalom within the community of creation.

Exorcisms are songs of victory over the devil and his mission of destruction. As Jesus sings songs of victory, he demonstrates the power of the Spirit of God against the satanic forces of darkness. The struggle for righteousness is against the very cosmic powers of darkness and spiritual forces of evil (Eph. 6:12). From Hendrikus Berkhof to Walter Wink, a growing group of biblical interpreters argue that these “powers and principalities” are also manifest in the institutional structures of society. The struggle against the powers and principalities is both a spiritual and an earthly struggle; Jesus seeks not only to redeem individuals, but also to redeem the structures of institutional power like the synagogue. The ministry of healing entails a healing of the socioeconomic order.

Throughout his ministry, his healings and exorcisms are signs of the new creation. Jesus’ healing miracles demonstrate his compassionate concern for the physical body, while his exorcisms are warnings to all spirits of the air and powerful institutions that Jesus, and Jesus alone, is the Lord of Creation. Jesus’ healings and exorcisms are integral to the formation of a new community—a new social body of disciples who live together in a prophetic community as a critique of the politics of power, be they from far-off Rome, or closer to home.

Luke is clear; Jesus’ jazz is a song of power—the power of love to overcome any obstacle. Jesus’ song is not meant only for the virtuoso; Jesus is not merely playing jazz, but teaching it to others. The disciples, too, have authority to teach, to heal, to exorcise, to empower and invite others to create their own jazz music, and in so doing, to be bound together in a community, a community that listens deeply and closely to the needs of the people and not merely to the desires of the ruling class. One of the ways the wisdom of love is passed on is through faithful feasting.