Proper 13B Sermon 2006
As the Gospel for today provides not one but two stories about Jesus as Healer, this seems like an appropriate time to pause and reflect on our understanding of illness and disease, and what difference our faith makes when we find ourselves - or those close to us - struggling with sickness.
Healing - sometimes described as "faith healing" - has been a dimension of the Christian experience since the days of Jesus, but our own attitudes towards the Christian ministry of healing have been complicated by advances in medical practice and especially the stunning achievements of biomedical research in our own times.
Not only has medical science sometimes seemed close to offering a cure for all diseases, but at the other end of the spectrum we may have been embarassed by the activities of pentecostal faith healers.
When serious illness strikes close to us we can find ourselves no longer sure just how to hold all the elements together as people of faith.
Jesus as a healer of the sick
Jesus is remembered as a teacher (famous for his aphorisms and parables) and as a healer. There were other attributes, of course, but these tend not to be so well remembered:
- prophet and social critic
- spiritual master and Jewish mystic
- founder of a religious renewal movement
For a helpful overview of these five key characteristics, see A Portrait of Jesus  that features the work of Marcus Borg.
Leaving aside the other 4 characteristics for now, let's focus today on the memory of Jesus as a healer.
When we check the data, it is surprising how few healings Jesus actually is said to have performed:
- we have 6 exorcisms - none of them in the Gospel of John, so that alerts us to the possibility that the lists are selective and may reflect the bias of the people gathering the material
- there are 19 healings - some of which are described in more than one gospel
Those 19 healings are distributed across the gospels in some interesting ways:
- Mark (the earliest gospel) has 9 healings
- Matthew has 10 healings: all but one of the 9 from Mark, 1 found only in Matthew, and another shared with Luke and John (but not found in Mark)
- John has just 4: three that occur nowhere else, plus the one shared with Matthew and Luke
- Luke has 12 healings: 7 from Mark's set (all of which also occur in Matthew), 1 shared with Matthew and John (but not found in Mark) and 4 others that occur nowhere else.
We can probably boil all that down to a short list of 6 healing stories that represent the earliest core of the tradition about Jesus as a healer:
- Peter's mother-in-law
- a leper
- the paralysed man at Capernaum
- the woman with the hemorrhage
- a blind man at Bethsaida
- blind Bartimaeus at Jericho
Hopes for healing
The list of healings attributed to Jesus is a bit disappointing if we were hoping for a long list of miracles or even some healings that were especially impressive.
The miracles expected to occur in the messianic age are outlined in Isaiah 35:
Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
âBe strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
He will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense.
He will come and save you.â
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool,
and the thirsty ground springs of water;
the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp,
the grass shall become reeds and rushes.
A highway shall be there,
and it shall be called the Holy Way;
the unclean shall not travel on it,
but it shall be for Godâs people;
no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.
No lion shall be there,
nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it;
they shall not be found there,
but the redeemed shall walk there.
And the ransomed of the LORD shall return,
and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
(Is 35:3-10 NRSV)
When we realise how much healing was expected to be a sign of the Messiah's presence, it is reassuring to see how restrained the earliest Christians were in their descriptions of Jesus as a healer. As time passed, the tradition begins to address the ancient expectations, as we see in both Matthew and Luke (presumably drawing on the Sayings Gospel Q):
The disciples of John reported all these things to him. So John summoned two of his disciples and sent them to the Lord to ask, "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?" When the men had come to him, they said, "John the Baptist has sent us to you to ask, 'Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?'" Jesus had just then cured many people of diseases, plagues, and evil spirits, and had given sight to many who were blind. And he answered them, "Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me." [Luke 7:18-23 = Matt 11:2-6]
Despite the pressure to make Jesus conform with the ancient prophecies, the earliest stories about Jesus as a healer represent him healing people who do not fit the prophetic stereotype:
- a housewife with a fever
- a leper
- a paralysed man
- a woman with a bleeding problem
- two blind men
Of all these, only Bartimaeus is remembered by name. The list hardly qualifies as a set of messianic credentials. Instead, we have a memory of Jesus as a holy man whose compassion touched and healed ordinary people with everyday complaints.
That also fits with the universal human expectation that healings can be expected when one visits a holy place or a holy person.
In ancient times as in our own times, and in all cultures and religions, it has been assumed that prayers for healing are a natural part of one's faith.
Indeed, one of the traditional roles for a priest was to treat the sick and to certify their cure. This was especially important in cases where those suffering from a contagious complaint might infect others if they returned to normal life too soon.
Jesus crossed ancient social boundaries when he accepted requests to heal, and when he told people they were free to resume their normal lives.
As best we can tell, Jesus consistently practised this active inclusion of people who would have been excluded from the Temple or from a pious household when he welcomed the broken and the poor to share food with him and his disciples.
Jesus seems not to have been following a script to impress his audience. Rather, he seems to have engaged in almost random acts of compassion when confronted with the debilitating effects of illness and disease; and especially in the social context of Second Temple Judaism.
Thinking about illness and healing
In the time available in this service we cannot explore any of this in great depth, but let me list some of the considerations that strike me as significant when we reflect on our own attitudes to sickness and healing:
- First of all, the human person has an impressive capacity for self-healing - both in body and in mind. We may carry some scars, but a healthy person can absorb injury or illness and regain their physical and mental wellbeing.
- Some strategies promote our capacity to heal - and religion may well be one of those.
- It can be helpful to note the distinction (made by Crossan) between illness (an underlying malady) and disease (some expression of the illness detracts from our full enjoyment of life). Not every illness causes disease, but unless a disease is addressed we find it hard to accept that the illness is gone.
- The desire for divine intervention in the event of serious illness is universal. There are times when we need, and look for, a strength beyond ourselves to deal with adversity, heal some disease or face death with equanimity.
- Some people recover from their illnesses, and some do not. Some diseases (e.g., pain) can be treated even when the underlying illness continues.
- No one escapes death. We shall all die, and we need to come to terms with that reality. In the end, no religion will prevent death from claiming us.
- Illness and disease can evoke a response of compassion and courage from others, including research into health issues and action for justice to eliminate unnecessary suffering.
- Living with compassion is more important than evading disease or delaying death.
As people of faith, our faith should make a difference to the way we handle illness and mortality.
It seems to me that the key notes are found in ideas such as compassion, trust, wholeness, and wellbeing.
I was deeply touched earlier this when talking with someone living with a significant physical impairment. This person described the moment of realisation that there was nothing wrong with her life. She did not need healing, as pressed upon her by well-meaning Christians over many years, but simply the grace to live fully as a person whose "disability" was visible when so many others have illnesses and disabilities that are not visible.
I am fascinated by the interplay in the terms "salve", "salvage" and "salvation."
And I reminded of the words of a senior priest and sometime hospital chaplain, who said to me many years ago that "something good always happens" when he anointed someone in the sacrament of healing. They did not always recover, but there was a gift of grace in the sacrament.
May we know that grace, may we overcome our diseases, may we live beyond the constraints of our illnesses, may we work for justice and peace in the world, and may we die holy deaths at the end of lives marked by wholeness and wellbeing.
Â©2006 Greg Jenks