In the course of Jesus’ three-year ministry, we see that Jesus always initiated relationships with those he called to himself (Luke 4-5). Indeed, people did come to him, but that is because he made himself accessible, first by going out and then by drawing others to himself through the extraordinary things he did either for people or within their presence. The initial stage of Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom, having announced the call to repentance, was the signs he performed in the presence of others. The point of this, however, was not to draw a crowd or make a show of his divinity, as is evident from the “messianic secret” (Mark 1:44; Luke 5:14).
As much as he could, Jesus tried to keep his identity somewhat inconspicuous. His purpose, rather, was to demonstrate the authority and power of God over all that afflicts humanity. He acted in the name of the Father and not his own name. Later his disciples acted in his name, and not their own. “Peter said, ‘I have no silver and gold, but I give you what I have; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.’ And he took him by the right hand and raised him up; and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong. (Acts 3:6-7).
Jesus performed his miracles for the sake of meeting the most basic human needs present in the people he encountered, as did the apostles in Acts. This was his lead strategy of evangelization—to reveal the mercy of His Father. Without establishing his authority over human need and over evil, it would have been difficult to get people’s attention or for him to establish his credibility, as one who acted and spoke on behalf of the Father. By his miraculous interventions, Jesus was able to awaken spiritual curiosity in those who experienced his power and bring people to faith in him.
Not long after Jesus launched his public ministry, from the Gospel of Luke we hear, “But so much the more the report went abroad concerning him; and great multitudes gathered to hear and to be healed of their infirmities” (Luke 5:15). And again, after healing the paralytic, “And amazement seized them all, and they glorified God and were filled with awe, saying, “We have seen strange things today” (Luke 5:26). After Peter heals the cripple, Luke tells us, “And all the people saw him walking and praising God, and recognized him as the one who sat for alms at the Beautiful Gate of the temple; and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him (Acts 3-10).
Notice that Jesus’ authority is not first established by his teaching but in the power and Spirit of proclamation and miracle working. Jesus appears as a Charismatic-evangelical leader. Yet notice also that Jesus directs his charismatic authority at “releasing captives” as he had announced in the synagogue (Luke 4:18-19). It was not for making a spectacle that he was so public. Jesus’ authority over evil is essential in the face of human need because release from the curse of original sin is the one thing no human being, even the greatest of the prophets, had been able to do. He does not show up principally as a philosopher or theologian, a therapist, a confessor, a teacher or lawyer.
He shows up as a provocative wonder worker and liberator capable of crippling the power of evil in the world. He struck awe in the hearts of the people, making them deeply curious about his origins, a question that quickly became a major point of dispute and contention among the religious leaders of Israel. Before Jesus healed the paralytic, Matthew writes this: “And the scribes and the Pharisees began to question, saying, “Who is this that speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God only?” (Matthew 9:3). Ironically, though, the question of his origins was at the very heart of his mission. He came from the Father to shower mercy upon humanity. This was the basis of his authority and the foundation of his entire proclamation.
As Jesus’ formation of the apostles commenced, he made it abundantly clear that healings and exorcisms were to accompany their preaching. The Gospels describe both the signs and the preaching as gifts of the Spirit. In fact, when he first sends the apostles out to proclaim that the Kingdom of God was at hand, he instructed them to go forth in the Spirit to heal the sick and cast out demons (Mark 6:7). He assured them that they would perform greater signs than he had (John 14:12-14). Once even, after an unsuccessful attempt to cast out a demon, he chastises them for their lack of faith, telling them that if they had faith the size of a mustard seed they would move mountains, telling them that “nothing will be impossible for you” (Matthew 17:14-20). In the Acts of the Apostles, we see the apostles doing just what Jesus had instructed them to do—manifesting the power of the Spirit to conquer evil and proclaiming the coming of the Kingdom.
If we look at Jesus’ discipling of Peter, notice the effect the unprecedented catch of fish has on Peter’s faith (Luke 5:8-9). In this miraculous sign, we see Jesus providing an abundance of food. The surprising act and display of authority humbles Peter, leading him immediately to acknowledge himself as an unworthy and sinful man. Prior to the miracle Peter was self-assured but not finding much success on that day. Jesus also healed Peter’s mother-in-law prior to the great catch of fish (Luke 4:38-39). Take note of the fact that Jesus had been hanging about for some time prior to this; evidently, he was building a relationship with Peter who would become the chief of his apostles.
Yet the decisive moment when Jesus begins to call Peter into deeper fellowship with him, by calling him to be a fisher of men, is the miracle of the great catch of fish. He repeats the miracle after the resurrection. By this sign, Jesus speaks directly into the heart of Peter’s personal experience. He meets Peter at the threshold of Peter’s most immanent concern, his livelihood, and reveals by this sign that there is something much grander that God has in mind for him. Jesus meets one of the most basic needs that Peter has, catching fish, or at least believes that he has. As we know from the Gospel account, Peter responds in faith and follows Jesus.
The call to repentance would have rung hollow had Jesus not performed his miracles. The miracles provided hope that the God of mercy is alive and among them. For the apostles, too, the message would not have travelled far. We might ask ourselves today, are we afraid to let loose the gifts of the Holy Spirit? Perhaps we lack the faith we need to manifest the Kingdom as the authority of Jesus Christ over human affliction. Jesus seems to assure the Apostles that they would do greater feats if they had faith. Yet let us imagine for a minute that God has suspended the Church’s authority to perform healing miracles for some reason. What should be evident from Jesus’ example is that the first movement in the work of disciple-making is to overwhelm people with the works of mercy and alleviate their suffering. This includes bringing the Lordship of Jesus to people and helping them come to faith in him. This ought to be the commitment of every member of the Church and not only the specialty of a small handful of religious or lay volunteers.
The main point I would stress, therefore, is that the immediate purpose of Jesus’ initial encounters with people—the first step in the work of evangelization—was to eliminate human suffering in the power of the Spirit and to affirm people’s faith in him through the assurance of God’s forgiveness. The gift of the Father’s mercy was the most distinctive aspect of Jesus’ witness to the Kingdom. Jesus liberated people from bondage precisely by means of the mercy he gave on a personal level. Jesus did not seem to have an agenda in meeting people’s basic human needs, as is evident in the fact that not everyone he helped ended up becoming a follower. He could thus have chosen not to extend himself in this way. Nevertheless, he seemed committed to making a point, that mercy in the face of evil is an essential quality of the Father’s love for humanity. Reaching out to satisfy basic human need through proclamation and mercy thus serves as the essential character of a disciple’s initial witness to the Kingdom.
The point of Jesus’ ministry, however, is to facilitate an explicit and personal encounter with God’s mercy. The message of this witness is clear: God loves every person regardless of his or her current state of belief or moral condition, but desires deeply to have a relationship with anyone who will respond to his invitation of love. An important first step in imitating Jesus’ method of disciple-making is for Catholics to focus their efforts on transforming their parishes into centers of missionary outreach for both the members of the Church and the wider community. To do this effectively, our parishioners must be equipped and encouraged to manifest their spiritual gifts and to be involved in some form of merciful outreach. The Church cannot become an evangelizing community if we are not leading by the combined charismatic ministries of proclamation, healing and liberation.