Last week, our Sunday evening discussion group read the passage of Matthew 13:53-58. There, Jesus is visiting his hometown. In just two verses, the witnessing crowd moves from amazement to distrust to offense. They say something like:
“Huh? Where did he get this wisdom and power?!”
“Isn’t this Joseph and Mary’s boy, the carpenter?”
“Yeah, who does he think he is?”
The attitude change seems a little unfair to Jesus, but it is definitely relatable. It’s a bit like a conversation you might imagine around a family thanksgiving table:
“Wow! That sounds like a pretty important, big-city job.”
“I remember when you were never happier than when you were playing in the mud with your cousin.”
“Pass the potatoes, hotshot…if it’s not beneath you.”
Wherever Matthew has taken him thus far in the first 13 chapters, Jesus has been met with awe and belief. Over and again, Jesus has been approached by people who know him only by reputation but still possess great faith in his ability. We might not even notice the pattern until we get to this story. Why would it be that the people who “know” him best have the hardest time believing?
As Jesus heals someone, he often notes that their faith is integral to the process (see Matt 8:13, 9:22, 9:29, etc.). I guess we don’t realize how essential belief is to the miraculous power of Jesus until we read this story and come across that haunting last verse: “And he did not do many miracles there because of their lack of faith” (Matthew 13:58). Compare this to the Jesus-mantra elsewhere: “Your faith has made you well.”
What is it about faith in particular that has power? We should first note that “faith” and “belief” may be interchangeable words but are truly distinct in comparison. They both denote an acknowledgment of and reliance on particular information (i.e. “Jesus has unique power to heal people”); but “faith” seems to emphasize great(er) trust in what may not yet be proven (i.e. “Jesus has the power to heal ME”). As mentioned earlier, many of the people who are noted to have this great faith resulting in their personal healing seem to know Jesus only by reputation. Their faith seems to be based on little or no first-hand evidence. The writer of Hebrews defines it well: “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1). Confidence in hope. Assurance of something unseen. The power of faith alone may be in its audacity.
Was Jesus’ miraculous ability always enabled or hindered based on the level of faith of his audience? On the one hand I believe Jesus was fully human (a point we often forget or downplay). In fact the most human thing about Jesus could have been that he also struggled to believe in his own abilities while others were doubting him. I’ve been there. I bet you have, too. It is comforting to know that the human Jesus shared similar struggles and that even he had to practice great faith. On the other hand, I believe Jesus was so in touch with divinity that he was able to access other-worldly powers and confidence. As so, I don’t believe Jesus was limited in his power by the level of faith he encountered. In fact, I really hope faith isn’t a prerequisite to all miracles. Otherwise, most of us would be out of luck. Isn’t it true that the moment we are most in need of healing seems to accompany our faith-tank at its emptiest?
The power of faith then seems to be in a person’s audacious seeking. I believe Jesus is reacting in similar ways even today to this kind of searching and longing and trust. He responds with healing and freedom and comfort to those approaching in faith. “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened” (Matthew 7:7). And for those who have known Jesus for awhile, may we never grow so complacent that we limit his ability to surprise us.