From No Ordinary Angel
The angel of the Lord and the angel Raphael are preeminent among the Biblical figures who heal blindness and set people on a new and better course. But they are not the only ones who do so. In the New Testament, it is Jesus who commands our attention as healer and source of truth. Jesus represents both God’s presence or immanence and the fullness of God’s transcendent glory. Luke tells us that Jesus spoke words of the prophet Isaiah to announce the shape of the mission he was about to undertake: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. Luke is careful to show how Jesus fulfilled his mandate literally, releasing those who were physically bound and healing those who were physically blind. But Jesus’s words as reported by Luke overflow this literal meaning. Each item in the mandate points beyond any particular instance of meaning. Each item in the mandate points beyond any particular instance of literal, physical fulfillment to the radically new and transforming character of encountering Jesus. An encounter with him brings change as radical as freedom to captives, as astonishing as sight to the blind.
Among the New Testament healing stories, Mark’s account of Jesus’s two-stage healing of the blind man at Bethsaida is especially rich in its symbolism. Jesus lays hands on the man, but at first he sees only indistinctly. He says, I can see people, but they look like trees, walking. So Jesus touches him again, And he looked intently and his sight was restored. The story foreshadows Peter’s progress – or, rather his lack of progress – in understanding. A few verses later, Peter confesses Jesus to be the Christ, but then rebels when Jesus predicts his own death. Like the blind man after Jesus’s first touch, Peter sees – but not yet clearly. He still does not comprehend that Jesus is to be a suffering Messiah. Not until after Jesus’s death and resurrection will Peter receive the second touch, the one that will give him full sight. In the meantime, Jesus says, Peter is setting his mind not on divine things but on human things.
In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus sometimes operates in angelic ways. For example, Crispin Fletcher-Louis shows how in Luke’s story of the call of Peter and the miraculous catch of fish, Jesus is portrayed much like an angel. Peter had been working all night and had caught no fish, but when Jesus told him to put out the nets into the deep water Peter obediently did so and caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. When Peter saw this, he fell down at Jesus’s knees saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” Fletcher-Louis points out that Jesus’s instruction about where to find what Peter is seeking, Peter’s awe, his sense of shame before Jesus, and Jesus’s words of assurance (Fear not) are all best explained by analogy to Biblical stories of angels.
Or, consider Luke’s story of the Transfiguration, when the eyes of three disciples are opened to glimpse Jesus in his Heavenly glory. Some ancient Jews believed that all the righteous will be made like angels at the end time. Accordingly, many recent commentators have said that the Transfiguration accounts are designed to help the disciples – and us as readers – anticipate such end-time glory. But Fletcher-Louis argues that the more relevant background material may be found in Jewish stories about Heavenly angels, or in stories about a few ultra-righteous persons who become angels before the end time. The Transfiguration reminds Fletcher-Louis of the description of God’s principal angel found in Daniel 10, the transformation of Enoch to an angel as reported in noncanonical documents, and the coming of the angelic Son of Man on the clouds of Heaven as described in Daniel 7, and alluded to elsewhere in the New Testament.
Luke’s account of the road to Emmaus has also been influenced by earlier accounts of angels. As the two disciples were walking along the road, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. Jesus and the disciples conversed. Afterward, when he was at table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. John E. Alsup notes the extent to which scriptural narratives such as the appearance of the angels to Abraham at the oaks of Mamre in Genesis 18–19 and the account of Raphael as Tobias’s traveling companion in Tobit 5–12 stand behind this story of the Emmaus road. In Tobit, for example, Raphael acts incognito, as Jesus will on the Emmaus road. After Raphael reveals his identity, he ascends to Heaven and they could see him no more. Compare this with Luke’s account of Jesus’s ascension Acts 1:9. In the Genesis story of Abraham, Heavenly beings allegedly on a journey are entertained by mortals who seem unaware of their guests’ identity. But even more than such narrative details, it is the central event in the account of the Emmaus road – Jesus’s healing of blindness – that evokes Biblical stories of angels. Jesus, like the angel of the Lord in the story of Balaam and elsewhere, dissolves the old, accustomed way of looking at things. Once the disciples’ eyes have been opened they will never see the same way again.
Jesus’s greatest healing is that of Saul, the Pharisee – later known as the Apostle Paul. Saul has been ferociously pursuing Christians and dragging them to prison. He is convinced that the new Christian movement, called “the Way,” runs counter to the purposes of God. But when Saul is traveling on the road to Damascus, a bright light from Heaven flashes around him and he falls to the ground. He hears a voice say to him,
I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. But get up and stand on your feet; for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you to serve and testify to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you. I will rescue you from your people and from the Gentiles – to whom I am sending you to to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light. (Acts 26:15–18)
When Saul rises, he can see nothing. Others have to lead him by the hand. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank. Before healing Saul, Jesus must first show him how blind he really is! Three days later a disciple lays hands upon Saul and something like scales fall from his eyes. Saul’s eyes then open onto a new world – a world where he knows Jesus as Lord and himself as Jesus’s servant. Like Balaam, Saul has been given a new perception of reality; the old perception fell along with the scales. The “Way” that he once rejected has become the path before him.
In the letter to the Philippians, Paul writes about how coming to know Jesus has changed his life. After listing out all his qualifications and accomplishments in Judaism he writes, Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as dung, in order that I may gain Christ. By his own account, Paul had been zealous but moving in the wrong direction. Jesus turned him around and set him on the path toward a new goal, the goal for the prize of the Heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. Paul’s ideas about what mattered in life changed. Dung or filth – those are the strong words he now uses to describe what he once regarded as his great successes in life. Today it still takes the strongest words we can find to describe how Christ can transform us. We struggle to find images that are up to the task. Luke spoke of blindness healed and bonds broken. The author of John’s Gospel spoke of second birth. Today, David Ford speaks of a shift in the boundaries of our being.
The Jesus who transformed the disciples on the road to Emmaus, who transformed Saul to Paul, and who transforms us is the crucified Jesus. Here is the greatest difference between Jesus and the angels. For angels, not being of flesh, do not know the weaknesses of flesh. But Jesus – though he lives – is always, first, the Human One. Fletcher-Louis shows how, in the Emmaus road story, Luke counters his own angelomorphic portrayal of Jesus by insisting that he ate a piece of fish. It was axiomatic in Jewish antiquity that angels do not eat – or at least they do not eat Earthly food. By showing Jesus eating, Luke makes the point that his identity cannot be reduced to that of an angel: he is divine like the angels, but he is also human. His experience as a human epitomizes the trials that humans must endure. Jesus is the one who knows in his own person not only what it means to be hungry, but also what it means to be mocked, falsely accused, beaten, betrayed, and utterly forsaken. He is the one who knows what it means to have his faith and obedience tested to the utmost. Because he has lived through such trials, Jesus understands our trails in a way that no ordinary angel ever could. But he does not offer us an easy way out of such trials – only a way through them.
The self-help angels say: Be specific and ask big. But Jesus says of Paul: I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name. To us Jesus says: Whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. When we take up the cross we commit everything we have and are to the quest for God and God’s righteousness. The self-help angels serve individual wants and desires, and make no demands. They urge us to ask for their aid in getting what we think we require. But the crucified and risen Jesus heals us by reordering our desires. He brings to the surface the desire that lives beneath all desires and that only God can satisfy. This one desire, which overwhelms all others, is the desire for God – what Paul calls, the Heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. Christ fills our mind and heart with this desire until every other desire pales by comparison. Jesus said, The kingdom of Heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it. So too we who would follow Jesus sell all that we have. We exercise control over what we own. When we sell all, we relinquish that control. We say, Jesus, this property, this family, this career, this life are no longer mine. They are yours. And we have made a good exchange. We have purchased the pearl of great price.
David Ford writes of the longing in our day for something magical, the quick fix, the miraculous touch or medicine, the dramatic release. Occasionally that kind of miracle does happen. Certainly many of the recent angelic interventions reported in the media qualify as miraculous, quick-fix solutions. Ford notes that Jesus, too, gave quick-fix help by healing people and feeding them. But the thrust of his teaching, Ford writes, was to get at the roots of evil and suffering, and his message of the kingdom of God was about a healing that involved love, trust, compassion, forgiveness, and radically inclusive hospitality. He faced the fact that that sort of healing can only be offered by those who embody it, whatever the cost. Jesus embodied such healing in his own life and death – a death that Ford calls the healing exchange at the heart of Christian faith and worship. As Jesus’s disciples we are called to follow him, to live and die like him, and so to become like him the balm for all wounds. Mysteriously, our own healing begins when we commit to living our lives for him so that others might be healed.