LENT TALK #2 JESUS THE HEALER
We noted in the first talk that Jesus the Teacher and Jesus the Healer in Mark’s gospel, indeed in the other gospels, go hand in hand. As he proclaimed and taught so his healing ministry took place. So it was a regular part of Jesus ministry. Healing happened all the way through and Mark makes that very clear by some summaries. Here are a couple of the summaries. This is Mark 1:32 ‘That evening, at sunset, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered together at the door. And he healed many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.’ Mark 3:10 ‘for Jesus had healed many, so that all who had diseases pressed around him to touch him.’ And the last one for this evening Mark 6:53 ‘When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored to the shore. When they got out of the boat, the people immediately recognised him, and ran about that whole region and began to bring the sick people on their beds to wherever they heard he was. And wherever he came, in villages, cities or countryside, they laid the sick in the market-places, and implored him that they might touch even the fringe of his garment; and as many as touched it were made well.’ So it was a hugely significant part, particularly in these early days of Jesus ministry, and lots and lots and lots of people were healed. But it’s worth noting that not everyone was healed as Mark notes in 6:5 ‘He could do no mighty works there, except that He laid His hands upon a few sick people, and healed them.’ Even in Nazareth, where not much could happen, he did still heal some, but not all.
Here I think is the first thing we need to note. Part and parcel of what is going on in Jesus healing ministry is clearly revealing who he is. There is something unique about Jesus coming into the world, and the healing miracles are part of displaying his divine nature. There is something about the fact that he was a healer and apparently the fairly prolific nature of that healing which marks him out. Therefore it should be understood as marking him out once and for all. It’s part of the uniqueness of the incarnation, of the becoming human of God in Jesus Christ. So we should expect that there is something different about this healing ministry from any other healing ministry that had ever taken place or would ever take place afterwards. We should not expect a repeat. Because this is the Son of God.
The other thing to note is that what Jesus is doing is healing for these people’s wholeness. It’s not simply a matter of making people well. There’s much more going on than simply a physical fact.
Healing the body
First, unquestionably, what’s going on in these healing miracles is there’s a healing of the body. In some cases it is of sickness and that sickness is very vaguely described, which may not be surprising for the first century. ‘And he came and took her by the hand; Simon Peter’s mother-in-law, and lifted her up and the fever left her and she began to serve them’. Or, ‘A leper came to him imploring him and kneeling said to him if you will you can make me clean. Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand and touched him and said to him I will be clean and immediately the leprosy left him and he was made clean.’ So there is a healing of the body of the sicknesses and a whole variety of sicknesses, apparently, and those general statements also pick up that. But then some of the healings are of what we would describe now as disability. We had one read to us from Mark 7 about the deaf and the mute man, or Mark 10:46 is about a blind man. Jesus heals people from deafness, from not being to speak, from blindness. That’s quite different actually, from healing someone from a fever. They are different kinds of healing. But the body is being made whole.
Healing from evil forces
That’s some of the miracles but some of them are not described as simply that. Some are described as healing from evil forces; demons or unclean spirits. Both those words are used. So here’s the very first miracle that Mark records, in Chapter 1:23 ‘immediately there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit and he cried out what have you to with us Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are the Holy One of God. But Jesus rebuked him saying ‘Be silent and come out of him’ and the unclean spirit convulsing him and crying out with a loud voice came out of him.’
The longest story that involves this kind of healing and deliverance comes in Chapter 5 and there’s a whole host of things about this story that need to be thought about. ‘for they came to the other side of the sea to the country of the Gerasenes and when Jesus stepped out of the boat immediately they him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit. He lives among the tombs. No one could bind him anymore not even with a chain for he had often been bound with shackles and chains but he wrenched the chains apart and he broke the shackles in pieces. No one had the strength to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs on the mountains he was always crying out and bruising himself with stones. And when he saw Jesus from afar he ran and fell down before him and crying out with a loud voice he said ‘What have you to do with me Son of the Most High God. I adjure you by God do not torment me’. For Jesus was saying ‘come out of the man you unclean spirit’ and Jesus asked him ‘What’s your name?’ and he replied ‘My name is Legion for we are many. He begged him earnestly not to send him out to the country’ and there was this herd of pigs and they go over the cliff but what happens to the man is that he is found ‘in his right mind’. Now this incident actually happens outside Jewish territory. It is in the country of the Gerasenes. It’s in gentile territory. You can tell that because there is a herd of pigs there. You would not find a herd of pigs in Jewish places. So there’s a healing going on here of someone who is not Jewish and clearly a man hugely disturbed. The whole of this dealing with unclean spirits and so on is described as the activity of God’s kingdom by Jesus himself. This is back in Chapter 3 ‘how can Satan cast out Satan if a kingdom is divided against itself that kingdom cannot stand. If a house is divided against itself that house will not be able to stand. If Satan has risen up against himself and is divided he cannot stand and it is coming to an end. No one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods unless he first binds the strong man, then indeed he may plunder his house. Truly I say to you, all sins will be forgiven. The children of man and whatsoever blasphemies they utter but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness but is guilty of eternal sin for they had said he Jesus has an unclean spirit.’ It’s all about the kingdom of God happening.
Now these stories cause quite a lot of questions for us and quite a lot of difficulties because we struggle in our contemporary world with the idea of unclean spirits and demons.. Might it be that this man whom Jesus heals that we read about in chapter 5, we would now understand as someone deeply, deeply, psychiatrically disturbed? We now might help find ways of controlling because of our understanding about the chemical imbalances in the brain and so on and so forth, but in first century Palestine was completely simply uncontrollable. He didn’t know how it was happening himself, nobody could understand it so it’s put down to unclean spirits.
Or if we take the story which is in Chapter 9 that’s a story of a father with a boy and the description of the boy reads very like the way you would describe a child having an epileptic fit. So are we in the position where we read the gospels and say, is that simply their understanding of something that we now understand differently? To a large extent I am quite prepared to say that is probably the case, that the description we have in Chapter 5 does read like someone who has serious manic psychiatric issues. That the child does appear to be a child who has serious epileptic problems, that we might now have medical ways of handling. But in Jesus day this was absolutely not understood and there were no means of controlling or responding to it. Even if that is the case the reality is Jesus deals with it. So even if the description of unclean spirits and demons we might struggle with, the fact is that Jesus was able to deal with this serious psychiatric disturbance, this reality of epilepsy in the child, if that’s what it is, and it might be different language but we still end up with a story where Jesus deals with them and heals them in a remarkably miraculous way.
But, and there is a but, the notion of evil spirits and demons and so on is not unique to Christian thinking or Christian theology. It already existed in Jesus day in Judaism. Although it hardly occurs in the Old Testament it actually emerges in Judaism in the periods between the end of the Old Testament and Jesus day. But it was also talked about in the Roman world and in the Greek world. But if you talk to Muslim friends and neighbours you will find that they also have a theology of evil spirits. If you go to India you will find Hindus talking of evil spirits. When I go to east Africa and I talk with some of my friends they will talk of people who are into Ancestor Worship and so on and they will talk about the reality of evil spirits. So I now find myself trying to hold these two together. I genuinely think that its highly likely that the description that we have here in Chapter 5 and in Chapter 9 certainly, is of something which we would now be able to diagnose medically and may well be able to have some kind of medical answer to but I do not wish to throw out the notion or the New Testament teaching that there is the reality of unclean spirits that can actually effect people and that’s partly out of being faithful to scripture but it’s also out of the reality of experience. So I’ve talked to senior psychiatrists who’ve said to me ‘ please never publish my name against this but there are moments where I have become convinced that the only explanation for his persons behaviour is some kind of evil force that I might want to call demonic. But I can’t own up to that in the medical world because it kind of is slightly outside it’. So if you deal with somebody who has got themselves deeply, deeply into witchcraft, for example, their lives have become absolutely messed up and the only way they seemed to get out of it is by claiming in Christ, freedom and being quite radically transformed quite quickly as they are prayed for. So I live with the 2 realities but I have to say that in discerning really weird behaviour my first advice is always ‘is there a physical or medical explanation for this’ and if there is, then the answer is to treat it physically and medically appropriately. Only as a last resort do I go down the unclean spirit route. That’s one reason why as a diocese we have a team of people who are involved in deliverance ministry who have particular gifts at discerning what is going on.
Healing from death
So there are also stories which are about healing from death. Jairus’ daughter is the most obvious in Mark’s gospel. There are 13 specific healing stories in Mark’s gospel plus all these generalised ones. Remember Jairus is a ruler of a synagogue and his daughter is seriously ill but by the time Jesus reaches her she has died and Jesus goes and prays for her and she comes to life again. There are other stories of Jesus raising from death; there’s the widow of Nain’s son, that’s in Luke’s gospel and there’s Lazarus in John’s gospel. But there are these instances of Jesus raising from death, showing that he is ultimately the one who defeats and destroyed death. This is done supremely at the cross.
Healing from sin
Then there’s also healing from sin. I’m quite often asked which is my favourite story in the bible and my answer always is ‘It depends on what day of the week you ask me’ because it changes from time to time but actually this story, Mark 2, the healing of the paralytic is one of those I do return to again and again and again. I think it’s partly because I just love the drama of four friends carrying the man through the streets to a house that they found is so packed that they can’t actually get him physically inside to go to Jesus. So they climb up the stairs on the outside of the house and they have the temerity to start ripping the roof apart and making a hole big enough to lower a man on a stretcher down in the middle. My imagination starts to wonder what on earth was it like to be in that house as bits were falling on top of you and you’ve begun to see fingers and hands appearing through the roof and Jesus apparently just carried on teaching. He just let them get on with it until the hole was big enough and the stretcher was lowered down. So it’s an extraordinary, dramatic story. But it has in this, where they lowered him down, and in my mind I imagine Jesus looking up at the four friends who are looking down at Jesus and their friend and looking down at their friend and you know exactly why they’ve brought him. He can’t walk. Jesus is a healer. And Jesus looks at him and says ‘my son your sins are forgiven’. The disappointment of the four on the roof must have been huge. Then Jesus gets into this conversation about saying that he can forgive sins. One of the difficulties about doing this sweep is then I have to stop myself from going into a more detailed explanation of every story. But what Jesus is saying and what Mark is getting across very early on in his gospel is that the healing that Jesus comes to bring is much deeper that simply healing the body. It goes much deeper because it goes to the need for forgiveness at the heart of a person’s being. That the healing he comes to bring is from sin as well as sickness. In this story it’s not that the man is sick because of sin. Jesus is actually dealing with them as separate items and it’s much more clearly spelt out in one of the stories of John, where the disciples actually ask Jesus of the blind man ‘Who sinned? This man or his parents?’ and Jesus says ‘Neither, you’ve misunderstood it. Don’t connect sin and sickness in that way.’ So this story is getting right at the heart of our need for healing from sin. A need of forgiveness and in that sense this story is also pointing to what the cross is all about.
Healing from social exclusion
Then something else is going on in Jesus’ healing ministry. Because he is healing people from social exclusion. So the leper, because he was a leper couldn’t go to worship, he wasn’t allowed to because he was unclean. He couldn’t mix with the community because he was unclean and people had some reason to fear that they would catch the leprosy themselves. So you had these leper communities which developed out on the edges of town and people left food out for them and they rang bells. The whole thing with leprosy went on for a very long time. But to be a leper meant you were excluded from worship and you were excluded from the community so when Jesus heals the leper in Mark Chapter 1 what does Jesus say to him to do, he says ’go show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded for a proof to them’. He is sending him back to the place of worship, not only to have his healing ratified, it effectively meant that the leper was allowed back into the worshipping community. He’s restored into that worshipping community.
Or take the story of the man that we read about earlier from the Gerasenes he’d been excluded, they’d tried to chain him up. He was out in the graveyard and he says ‘he wants to follow Jesus.’ He wants to leave the area of the Gerasenes and go with Jesus and Jesus says no, ‘You go back into the community and be a part of that and share with them what God has done for you’. By healing him Jesus removes the social exclusion and puts him back into the community from which he had been excluded. He’s restored to society.
Or if you take the woman in Chapter 5, the way the story is told in Mark 5:21 – 43 is extraordinary. You have Jairus coming about his daughter. Jairus is a ruler of the synagogue and his daughter is at the point of death and a great crowd is following. Largely because its Jesus there but possibly also because Jairus is a ruler of the synagogue. Then you have this ‘woman who had had a discharge of blood for 12 years who had suffered much under the many physicians and had spent all that she had and was no better but rather grew worse, she’d heard the reports about Jesus, came up behind him in the crowd and touched his garment, for she said ‘if I touch even his garment I will be made well’ then immediately the flow of blood dried up and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. Jesus proceeding in himself that power had gone out from him immediately turned about and said ‘who touched my garment?’ and his disciples said to him, you see the crowd pressing around you yet you say who touched me. And he looked around to see who had done it but the woman knowing what had happened to her came in fear and trembling and fell before him and told him the whole truth. And he said to her daughter your faith has made you well, go in peace and be healed of your decease. While he was still speaking there came from the rulers house some who said your daughter id dead.’ And the rest of the story of Jairus’ daughter being healed. What’s happening here is that the very man who would have been responsible for excluding the woman from entry ever into the synagogue because she was now deemed unclean because of the haemorrhaging from the womb is being put alongside her. And Jesus is taking someone who is regarded as unclean, outcast, excluded from everywhere and is accepting her, welcoming her offering her healing. When it says ‘told him the whole truth’ imagine; we have already been told that she has had this health issue for 12 years; that she’d suffered much under many physicians; had spent all she had and had only got worse, how long did it take her to tell him the whole truth? When she hadn’t been able to tell this story to anybody. How long I wonder is Jairus standing there thinking ‘how dare this woman stop Jesus coming to my house’. Just use your imagination. But Jesus is deliberately putting the ruler of the synagogue and the woman who he would have nothing to do with and he’s putting them on an equal footing and she is being restored because next Sabbath day Jairus is not going to be able to exclude her from the women’s section of the synagogue because Jesus has healed her. He’s going to put them together. So Jesus is doing a huge amount of healing people from social exclusion and restoring them into society.
Healing from or Healing for?
All of that leaves me to this conclusion about Jesus’ healing ministry. That Jesus’ healing ministry is less about what people are healed from and more about what they are healed for. They are healed for forgiveness. They are healed for freedom from evil forces. They are healed for worship. They are healed for inclusion in society. They are healed for their participation in society. They are healed for the community, they are brought back into it. Every act and story of healing of Jesus which is specifically detailed and told is as much about what they come back into and what will life be like now they have experienced the healing of Jesus as it is about the impact of the event itself. And that becomes very important as we think about that for ourselves so I shall finish and come back to this point.
Disciples and Healing
Also within this gospel we have Jesus sending the disciples out and when they are sent out they are sent out to preach and to teach, to proclaim the kingdom but they are also given authority to cast out and to heal. And we are told that that is exactly what they did. In Jesus’ time and in the resurrection story at the end of Mark, which is the bit which is uncertain, which probably wasn’t original to Mark but got added on to Mark’s gospel, but they are sent out to proclaim, to cast out and signs follow. That’s their mission. Healing is part and parcel of the mission of the disciples of Jesus because they’re mirroring what their master has done himself. He taught. They taught. He healed. They healed. The church is still sent to teach and to heal. There continues to be a key place for the ministry of healing today.
Jesus the Healer
So what, in summary, do I think we learn about Jesus the healer? He heals out of compassion for peoples need. It’s the compassionate heart in response to people’s need which drives a lot of Jesus’ healing ministry. But he also heals in response to people coming to him. It doesn’t automatically happen simply because Jesus walks by, people are brought to him. They come to him. There is a deliberate act of coming to Jesus to seek healing and he responds to that act of coming to him.
All the healing is a sign of the kingdom of God at work, overcoming evil. The emphasis is on healing the whole person not simply the immediate reality of the sickness or disease, it is healing for as much as healing from.
So let me go back to that point and to pick up the question asked about disability. Just as the question around the unclean spirits and so on, we are now in a different place from the world Jesus’ day. We are also in a very different place in our understanding of disability and indeed in our ability to respond to and help with disability. So you’ll get different views of people with disability. Some absolutely will say this is part of who I am. I don’t need healing from this, particularly for people born with disability, this is how I am, and this is who I am. My identity is tied up with my disability. A good friend of mine, a man called Alan who is now in glory, had cerebral palsy and he always said ‘I don’t want to be healed from my cerebral palsy, this is who I am. I want to use this for the glory of God’ that was his view. He said ‘I can do things for God because of my disability that you can’t, Paul.’ And he was right. So we do have a different understanding. Now that’s not the total story of course as there are those with disability who suffer deeply and many would actually seek ways out if they could. There will be different individual views. So one of the things I think we need to understand about what was happening in Jesus’ context is if you were deaf or mute or lame in that society you were utterly outcast. And the only way forward really, to be back into society, was to be released from that disability. So socially we are in a very different place and we need to live with the reality of that different place. And this is why I think the healing ‘for’ is really important. Because it’s not just around questions of disability but it’s actually a question around all sickness and illness and healing now. And I think one of the questions that Jesus asks us because of the way he operated is ‘what is healing for?’ Now we tend to focus heavily on the healing ‘from’. We do that as a society but perhaps we need to ask more questions about what is healing for. So someone who is severely disabled and who says ‘this is the way I was born, this is who I am, this is part of how I am, I don’t wish for any healing because this is part of my identity’, we have to simply say ‘yes, that’s absolutely right’. So how do we as a society help you be that person who you are? Healing would be for no purpose in that persons mind. So it wouldn’t fulfil a God-given reason. I think when we come to end of life issues, one of the questions that we need to ask ourselves is ‘if someone has had a long and very full life, what are we healing for?’ Rosemary had an aged aunt who had had an amazing life and was in her 80s and she had a brain clot and they decided to operate on her. I have to say we sat there and said ‘Why? What are you doing this for?’ and the only answer we were given was ‘we must, because you might sue us if we don’t’. However much the family said ‘Please let her go. She knows where she’s going, she wants to go to glory. She has served her Lord’ and there was no answer to the question, ‘What are you healing for?’ I think we need to go into debates around people healing for. Now that’s difficult and it takes us into difficult emotional territory if nothing else. Constantly we need to ask ourselves in helping people in healing processes, ‘for what are you being healed? What’s your life going to be? How, if you are made well through the miracles of science and medicine, how are you going to live well, because that’s what we’re all called to do is to live well for the glory of God. So how do we help that happen?
We need to remember that Jesus is the unique son of God and therefore there was a lot more of this healing stuff in his ministry, because of who he is and because of him telling us who he is. But now we might see fewer miraculous healings in the western world than we might see in some of the poorer parts of the world is because God has enabled us to discover extraordinary things as we have fulfilled our responsibility in exploring creation, exploring our understanding, so our medical stuff has developed and this is God’s gift to us. So the way that God does the healing most of the time now is through the gift he has given us of medicine and the skills and the knowledge that we have. And we keep going on exploring it. If I go to my friends in East Africa where access to medical care is much, much lower and where often it’s very poor even where it exists, they are much more likely still to pray for God’s healing and I hear more stories of it happening.
But to conclude when we look at Jesus’ healing ministry and reflect on how it impacts us today we need to explore the question, healing ‘from’ or healing ‘for’? It seems to me that Jesus’ ministry is primarily healing ‘for’.
The Rt Revd Paul Butler, Bishop of Durham