With this post, I am concluding my series of reflections on my forthcoming online retreats on the ministry of Jesus through the eyes of others. There is so much more to explore than I have tackled here in my blog posts—which is why I’ve planned an entire series of nine online retreats to delve into this material. God willing, the first online retreat will be available by the end of the year. Meanwhile, today’s topic is on Jesus’ interactions with those in Jerusalem, especially with those who held power and authority in his religious tradition.
Jerusalem was the center of religious life for the Jews of Jesus’ time. If you could afford the time and money to do so, you went up to Jerusalem for religious festivals (Passover, the Feast of Booths, etc.) several times each year. The gospels tell us that Jesus did go back and forth between Galilee and Jerusalem (85 miles each way, on foot!) multiple times over the course of this three-year ministry. Evidently he chose not (or couldn’t afford?) to stay in Jerusalem itself. He stayed instead with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus in Bethany, which was two miles away and a favored place for Galileans to stay when they came south to Jerusalem.
Jesus and his disciples would walk from Bethany into Jerusalem each day. They went to the temple to worship and they visited various sacred sites, such as the Pool of Bethsaida (also transliterated Bethzatha or Bethesda). The Gospel of John says the pool was by the Sheep Gate and surrounded by five porticoes—the ruins of which have been excavated in the photo above. This pool was known for its miraculous healing powers, but evidently those powers were limited. When an angel stirred up the water, only the first person to reach the waters would be cured.
When Jesus visited Bethsaida on the sabbath, he found “a multitude” of invalids—outcasts, as I talked about last week—who were clustered around, waiting for the water to be stirred up. He asked a man who had been ill for 38 years if he wished to be made well and the man responded that he couldn’t move quickly enough to be first into the water. Jesus’ response was simple: He healed the man, instantly and completely. Perhaps Jesus was proving that his powers were not limited. Perhaps he was making a point about not relying on an angel, but requesting help directly from God. Perhaps he was even intentionally stirring up the religious leaders, challenging the authority of those who had dismissed these outcasts as nobodies.
Jesus certainly did stir up a hornet’s nest. The religious authorities judged the formerly ill man for working on the sabbath—Jesus had told him, “Rise, take up your sick-mat, and walk”—and he told them that he was just following Jesus’ instructions. The leaders accosted Jesus and accused him also of working on the sabbath. This was a great opening for Jesus to berate these religious leaders about the right use of true power and authority.
Jesus started by claiming that God was working on the sabbath, and had commissioned him—Jesus, the Son—to do the same. (You can read Jesus’ whole speech here.) Jesus made it clear that his authority came straight from God, not from religious tradition or the passing of a baton from one leader to another. He said, “I do nothing on my own authority, but do the will of the one who sent me.”
I wonder what it was like for these religious leaders to hear him speak in this way. He’d proven his power by healing the ill man—and flouted tradition by doing so on a day of rest. He seemed, on one hand, to care nothing for religious tradition, yet he clearly said he believed in God. He spoke with great authority and acted with real power. By his very actions, he threatened the power and authority of the religious leaders who did their best to limit power to their particular group. No wonder those religious leaders wanted to silence him!
I look forward to exploring this further, doing my best to get into the minds of those who heard Jesus speak—both the ill outcasts and the religious leaders. Meanwhile, I invite you to consider your own relationship with power and authority. We all have power and authority, through our various roles and social status in life. Do you wield your power to raise your own status or to bring healing and hope to others? How might you be called to speak truth to power, as Jesus did, in this day and age, in this time and place?