“[Jesus] came to his hometown and began teaching them in their synagogue, so that they were astonished, and said, ‘Where did this man get this wisdom and these miraculous powers? Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary, and his brothers, James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And his sisters, are they not all with us? Where then did this man get all these things?’ And they took offense at him […] And [Jesus] did not do many miracles there because of their unbelief.” – Matthew 13:54-58
C.S. Lewis popularized the argument that Jesus of Nazareth was either a liar, a lunatic, or Lord. Though this trilemma has some logical flaws, I think the underlying point holds true: there’s no room for neutrality when it comes to Jesus. One must either passionately believe and follow him as Lord, or reject him completely as a dishonest and delusional madman. One cannot simply view him as a mere Jewish teacher from Galilee.
The question of Jesus’ identity is the question his neighbors faced in Matthew 13. They were skeptical of his claims of deity–his authority to forgive sins, his claims of eternal existence, his relation to God the Father.
And because they knew Jesus was born of a lower-class family from Nazareth (a.k.a. Podunk town), it seemed very unlikely that he was their God.
But they were not just skeptical of Jesus. They were offended by him.
How could such a common man be so wise?
How could a simple carpenter’s son have such miraculous powers?
How could such a lowly man claim to be God?
So even though they had witnessed Jesus’ works and wise teachings, they rejected him.
Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard also recognized the inherent offense of Christianity: “[H]ere is the possibility of offense […] will you be offended or will you believe. If you will believe, then you push through the possibility of offense and accept Christianity on any terms.”
Living in the wake of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, Kierkegaard reminded his reason-oriented contemporaries that the Christian is called to believe the unreasonable: that a finite human being, existing in time and space, is simultaneously the infinite God, existing outside of time and space. Thus, Kierkegaard called Jesus of Nazareth the God-man, the ultimate paradox, the absurd.
Like the rationalists of Kierkegaard’s modern world centuries later, the people of Jesus’ hometown couldn’t push through the offense. Jesus was a violation to their reason, a logical impossibility.
Jesus’ reaction to his offended neighbors is surprising: “He did not do many miracles there because of their unbelief.” Notice the cause-and-effect pattern here. Because of their unbelief, Jesus didn’t do many miracles.
You’d think their unbelief would’ve motivated him to perform more miracles, to seize the perfect chance to really prove his identity. You’d expect him to convince the cynic by showing off his powers.
But he didn’t.
He wanted them to believe, first.
Reading Matthew 13, I wonder if Jesus works the same way today. Does he work in our lives so we’ll believe and follow him? So our intellectual expectations are satisfied? To appease our rational impulses? Does he prove his power so that we’ll have more faith?
Or does Jesus work in our lives because we already believe? Because we’ve already passed through the possibility of offense and have come to truly trust that he can and will work in us, through us, for us?
I find myself more like the people of Jesus’ hometown. I’m often offended by him, by what he demands, by his affront to my finite human reason and expectations.
He doesn’t fit in the box I try to put him in.
So I wait for more miracles and signs before I’ll believe him. Before I’ll really trust him with my whole life.
But Jesus wants my belief, first. He wants me to take the intellectual risks and trust that he can work miracles, that he can provide for, heal, and transform me.
Perhaps Jesus doesn’t work miracles because I don’t believe he can.
Is he silent because he’s not speaking? Or because I’m not willing to listen?
Lord, help my unbelief.