A Varied Catalogue
Nobody doubts that Jesus ever did miracles. These miracles even occupy an important place in the course of his public life. The problem is: what did Jesus’ miracles consist of?
The evangelists relate different kind of miracles. Some were truly spectacular such as the resurrection of Lazarus after being dead for four days. Others were a little curious like the coin in the mouth of a fish or the healing of the soldier whose ear had been cut off. Or more puzzling even is the fig tree without any fruit which instantly dried up after being cursed.
Jesus did some thirty-five miracles that are described in the gospels. These can be classified into three categories: miracles on people, miracles on nature and resurrections.
The “miracles on people” are those that include Jesus’ healing of those who were sick. These include the healing of the ten lepers (Lk 17: 11-19), the bent woman (Lk 13: 11-13) and the possessed man out of the tombs (Mk 5: 1-15). There are about twenty-three of this kind.
The “miracles on nature,” as the name suggests, are the wonders that Jesus wrought over different elements of nature. There are nine of them in the gospels: the changing of water into wine (Jn 2: 1-11), the calming of the storm (Mt 8: 23-27), Jesus walking over the waters (Mt 14: 25), the multiplication of the five loaves and two fishes to feed the five thousand (Mk 6: 35-44), the multiplication of the seven loaves and a few little fish for four thousand (Mk 8: 1-9), the first miraculous catch (Lk 5: 1-11), the coin in the mouth of a fish (Mt 17: 24-27), the withered fig tree (Mk 11: 12-14) and the second miraculous catch (Jn 21: 1-11).
Finally, we also have three “resurrections” by Jesus: Jairus’ daughter (Mt 9: 18-19), the son of the widow from Nain (Lk 7: 11-15) and Lazarus (Jn 11: 1-44).
The Scientists’ Opinion
Since time immemorial there have been attempts to define the miracles. The fact that these interrupt the natural course of what is known (i.e. the water must remain water and not be changed into wine; a dead person must remain dead, not opening eyes and standing up), made the theologians formulate a definition of what a miracle is that is almost official today: they are “all events that suspend the law of nature.”
This implies that when one is faced with an unusual phenomenon, say for example, the healing of an illness, one must analyze the event in terms of all scientific and technical possibilities that exist. And if, after an exhaustive study it is concluded that such healing is inexplicable and that it really goes against all laws of nature, we are, therefore face a miracle. It is because all the laws of nature that must be met in a certain way seem “suspended,” “interrupted” by a superior force, in this case, by God, who is producing this miracle.
Miracles No More
This definition of a miracle offers a lot of problems.
In the first place, in Jesus’ time it was not yet known that there exists certain “laws” in nature. Hence, the apostles could not have known if Jesus was transgressing these “laws” when he made the Paralytic stand up from his bed (Mk 2: 1) or when he cured a deaf-mute putting saliva on the person’s tongue (Mk 7:31). They were simply in awe.
In the second place, while not all the laws of nature have yet been mastered, once in a while some new ones are discovered, or those that we know are modified, corrected or completed. These provide explanations to what was previously inexplicable and unnatural.
For example, while before it was considered a miracle (i.e. an interruption of the natural laws) that saints levitated in the air while they celebrated the mass, that there are people who have stigmas, emitting light or remain uncorrupted for centuries after their death, these phenomena can now be explained thanks to scientific advances.
That is why, in front of an incomprehensible event nobody can affirm, with absolute certainty, that all the possible laws of nature have been transgressed. This is the case, at the most, of those that are known today.
A Transgressor God?
In the third place, if a miracle were a suspension of the laws of nature, why would God violate the very laws that God made? To improve them? This would signify that God did not make these laws very well and that God could have done better. Is it to show in an obvious manner God’s power? If by means of a miracle God’s existence can be “demonstrated,” then, faith will disappear and God will just be one fact that can be scientifically known.
If with a miracle one can “prove” positively God’s being, then all the world will be obliged to believe (just as people believe in the President of the United States, or the Pope, thanks to the signs that we receive via the various means of communication) and there would be no atheists.
But what is certain is that not a single occurrence, no matter how marvelous or inexplicable it is, can make God’s existence “evident.” We believe in God with faith, that is, without “seeing” anything.
Consequently, the definition of a “miracle” as one that “cannot be explained by natural law” is inadmissible. How do we define it then? To do so we must go back to the gospels themselves and see what they say.
The Two Faces of a Miracle
For Jesus’ contemporaries, a miracle was a startling event – surprising, leaving people marveling at it. Yet, in front of it they did not ask if it could be explained or not. It was enough for them that this occurrence was not common and that their faith had already told them that it is about a sign of the presence of God.
This is to say that “miracles” in the gospels have two facets: a) the event is uncommon and extraordinary (as seen by many); b) one can discover in it a religious meaning (which only happens to those who believe).
That is why the evangelists never did ask if Jesus was doing something naturally possible or impossible. It was enough for them to call an event a “miracle” if it was something unusual and, if with the faith of a believer, they were convinced that God was acting right there.
Early on we can already see in the Old Testament how the book of Exodus tells that the sea divided itself while the Hebrews were fleeing Egypt, because Moses extended his hands over it. But then, the very same book adds that it was due to the blowing of a strong east wind all night that made the sea a dry land (Ex 14: 21).
Why, then, did the waters of the sea divide into two? Was it due to an unexplainable power of God or was it because of a strong wind that came on that day? For the Israelites, it was the same. A strong wind blew at night and the faith of the people made them see that God was there. There was, therefore, a miracle. Because a) it was not expected that a strong wind should blow on that very day; and b) the Israelites felt God’s presence in this occurrence.
The very word “miracle” comes from the Latin mirari, meaning, “to admire.” The condition, then, for a miracle to happen is that an event causes people to be in awe, notwithstanding any or no explanation.
The Mother-in-Law and the Centurion
If we will now analyze the miracles of Jesus, we will reach the same conclusion. There is no doubt that he did wondrous deeds, expected only from someone with such extraordinary personal irradiation. But if one goes far from there, thinking about the events as suspending the laws of nature, then one goes far beyond the teachings of the gospels.
For example, that Jesus took the hand of Peter’s mother-in-law and afterwards she was cured (Mk 1: 30-31) was truly a “miracle” for his disciples. But today any psychologist can explain this wonder through the laws of psychology.
The same is true in the case of the Roman centurion. This man went to Jesus that he might heal his paralyzed slave. Jesus told him to go in peace because his slave was already well. When the official went back to his house, he found his slave cured (Mt 8: 5-13).
Isn’t this an everyday occurrence? A believer goes to ask Jesus to cure somebody who is sick. Perhaps, the person will go to the Church, to a temple or a chapel. Then, when she or he goes back home, that person discovers that the sick one has recovered.
The problem is nobody looks into such cases as a miracle because the cure generally has a natural explanation (the sick was seen by the doctor and was given appropriate medicine). In contrast, the one who has faith discovers right there and then that the same miracle is told in the gospels.
The Bread in the Pockets
Let us have another example. One day, Jesus took five loaves, multiplied it and with it fed some five thousand men, not counting women and children (Mt 14: 13-21). How did the bread come about? The gospels do not specifically say that it came from the “sleeves of Jesus,” or that “they fell from heaven,” or that they came from the people’s hands. It is only written that “He took the five loaves …pronounced the blessing, broke the loaves and handed them to the disciples to distribute to the people. And they all ate, and everyone had enough” (Mt 14: 13-21).
Now, let us suppose for a moment that many of these people had their own provisions. (It is not improbable that the people, undertaking such a long journey following Jesus to a deserted place, had brought something to eat.) When they arrived there late, they felt hungry but self-centeredness impeded them from showing what they brought because they did not want to invite the others to eat. Therefore, in front of Jesus’ preaching about love and generosity, somebody took his bread and his fish and offered to share them. In an instant, following this example, the rest also took out what they brought along, so much so that everyone was able to eat, had their fill and even leftovers.
This is nothing else but a hypothesis (supported by some scholars). But if it really happened in this way, a miracle still took place. Because to let bread come from nothing or convert some five thousand self-centered and stingy persons to a people who are generous and able to share what one owns is already an unusual event. Those who have faith discover how the hand of God is acting. Hence, these two facets of a miracle are present.
Not Returning from Hell
In that case, we can conclude that the miracles that Jesus wrought do not have to be taken as that spectacular and with such an impact. Otherwise, the entire world would have been forced to believe in, and accept him.
Thus, when Jesus cured one bent woman, the chief of the synagogue, rather than being stupefied by the same wonder, was vexed because Jesus cured on a Sabbath (Lk 13: 14). It means that what happened did not really impress him and that it was just natural for him. He was protesting that the same act could have been done on any other day of the week.
The same thing happened when Jesus cured a man born blind. The Pharisees, instead of being in awe of something yet unseen, became angry because the day was a Sabbath (Jn 9: 16). And when Jesus exorcised a possessed deaf-mute, the gospel says that the Pharisees did not believe in Jesus because they could do the same (Mt 12: 22).
That is why the miracles that Jesus made did not necessarily move everyone in the same way. Only those who had faith in him saw it; the others did not.
We can also include the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. It is said that when he asked Abraham to permit Lazarus to go back to earth to warn others about hell, Abraham told him: “If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the grave” (Lk 16: 31). With that Jesus subdued the spectacular in his miracles of resurrections and put above all others the power of preaching.
We can imagine that the signs and wonders that Jesus did were not different from what happens in our communities, groups or prayer meetings today. Suddenly, somebody with paralysis can just start to walk, move a part of the body or a deaf can just begin to talk. Whoever has faith will discover a miracle. Somebody who has no faith will insist on an explanation.
Miracles to Discover
There is a story about the great French thinker and philosopher Blaise Pascal. One day he had a rendezvous with a friend in a castle on top of a hill. Some time passed while waiting for his friend; the latter came with his face distorted, his clothes torn, and his body full of bruises and wounds.
“What happened to you?”asked Pascal.
“You cannot imagine what miracle God has just done for me!” replied his friend. “When I was coming here, my horse fell down near a slope. I fell down too and I went tumbling down but I stopped right before the precipice. Imagine that? What a miracle the Lord has done for me!”
To this Pascal answered,” And what miracle did the Lord do for me, when you came I haven’t even fallen off my horse!”
How many miracles does the Lord do for us every day? How many are the miracles that we never see, and never get to realize? How many times has the Lord saved us remarkably from difficulties, healing us from fear and anxieties, helping us out in times of troubles, making us pass by so many dangers unharmed, assisting us in the misfortunes of everyday, giving us what is needed in due time, giving us the gift of companionship of special persons?
But we never realize it because they seem so “natural” for us. We await other miracles-those that are unexplainable, the unnatural, the incomprehensible. And because we do not know how to see with faith, and discover how many good things unknowingly pass by during the day because God is with us. Many times when night comes we think that we have lived through another ordinary, non-transcendent day, almost without God, and because of that it is a boring day!
But God continues to do miracles. The same miracles that God did in the time of Jesus! We just have to accustom ourselves to discovering them, to train our eyes for them. Only then will they become dazzling, majestic, impressive and then, change our lives. How changed the lives of the apostles had been, seeing the very same things we see!