Sunday, July 1, 2012

Jesus the Healer


Mark 5:21-43        

              It is pretty hard to deny the prominence of healing in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. The theme is especially prominent in Mark’s gospel – considered by many to be the earliest. Over and over again we are told how the sick and afflicted came to Jesus and were healed by him. Even the most skeptical critics and historians are forced to acknowledge this fact. For instance, Marcus Borg—one of the scholars associated with the Jesus Seminar who notoriously dismisses most of the material is the Gospel as later, non-historical, accretions— on the basis of the evidence concludes that Jesus must have been a remarkable healer. More healing stories are told about Jesus than any other figure in Jewish tradition, and the earliest historical sources connected to Jesus testify widely to Jesus’ remarkable ability to heal the sick and exorcise demons. Moreover, even Jesus’ fiercest opponents did not deny the fact that Jesus performed miracles of healing, but instead attributed his power to demonic forces (Mark 3:22-27, Matthew 12:22-29, Luke 11:14-23). Despite this fact, even for committed Christians, it seems easier and far more comfortable, to relegate Jesus’ remarkable healing to the ancient past. Recently, I spoke with a group of inmates at our local jail about the topic of healing prayer. When I asked the men whether or not they believed that Jesus performed miracles of healing they all enthusiastically agreed, but when I turned the conversation to whether or not similar miracles could occur today, many of them became visibly uncomfortable. I completely understand this reaction. Healing prayer in our day has become so closely aligned with the spectacle of faith-healers and manipulative TV evangelists that many people don’t want to have anything to do with it. In some cases, faith-healing encourages a dangerous disregard for medical treatment resulting in deaths or complications that otherwise could have been avoided. The grossest faith-healers often protect themselves from charges of fraud through the use of guilt. “If only you had enough faith,” they say, “your loved one might have been healed.” People have an understandably strong reaction against such charlatans and a great reluctance to embrace anything that might be associated with such antics, and yet when we are gravely ill, or someone we love is suffering, the natural reaction—even for the not especially religious—is to pray for healing. There is a longing in the human heart that searches for hope even in the midst of the most seemingly hopeless situations. As long as this human longing persist there will be prayers for healing. This week’s gospel recounts two instances of healing in the ministry of Jesus, one more remarkable than the next. Both stand as a testimony to the truth that God hears the desperate cries of those reach out to him when all hope seems lost. They testify to the fact that Jesus has the authority to banish disease and even death itself. Our Lord, in his great compassion, is not only able but also willing and eager to make us whole.
            One of the striking things about this passage from Mark is the vividness of the narrative. Many commentators have pointed out that this story has the distinct character of a reminiscence from an eyewitness. One can easily envision the desperate father Jairus throwing himself at the feet of Jesus and begging him to come and lay hands on his little girl. Jairus was an important man in the community, one of the rulers in the synagogue we are told. Jesus was not well loved by the religious establishment of his day, and so this was an extremely risky move on his part.  In coming to Jesus he was putting his reputation at stake by aligning himself with someone who was seen as a dangerous radical and—as we said above—whose miracles were suspected of being demonic. Jairus, however, had reached a place of absolute desperation. His beloved little girl was on the brink of death and there didn’t seem to be anything anyone could do for her. Jairus knew about Jesus, he had heard about, and perhaps even witnessed his amazing works. Jesus was his last hope.
            Jairus was not unique in seeking aid from Jesus, because of his reputation as a healer, Jesus was swarmed everywhere he went by the sick, the afflicted, and the wounded. Yet Mark tells us that when Jairus came to him, Jesus went with him. Jesus saw his broken heart and took pity on him. We are not told how far Jairus’ house was, but the crowds that surrounded Jesus no doubt made it difficult for him to go anywhere. Just imagine the mayhem that must have broken out whenever people heard that Jesus was in the neighborhood.  No wonder the authorities disliked him. A helpful comparison might be the crowds of hysterical screaming fans surrounding Elvis or the Beatles in old television footage. There was a chaotic mass of people shouting his name, grabbing at his clothes, scrambling just to touch him.  In the middle of all this confusion Jesus stops and turns to his disciples and asks, “Who touched me?” How would you respond? Probably much the same way they did. One can imagine the disciples glancing at one another and smirking, before one says, “Seriously? There are hundreds of people pressing in on you!” There was one individual in that excited mob of people, however, that touched Jesus in a unique way, because she reached out in faith that God saw and honored. Saint Augustine said, “Few are they who by faith touch him; multitudes are they who throng about him” (Sermon 62.4). Despite the hectic scene, his urgent mission, and no doubt the great frustration of Jairus, Jesus stops to call this one person out of the crowd. Like Jairus, the woman came to Jesus at some risk. According to the standards of Leviticus 15:19, this woman would have been considered unclean due to her continuous flow of blood. She would have been a social outcast because everyone and everything that came into contact with her would also be rendered unclean. She had suffered like this for twelve years and no doctor could help her. In fact her condition was just getting worse. Just like Jairus, she was desperate. Jesus was her only hope. She had heard about Jesus and believed that he could make her well. She came secretly, in fear that she would be turned away. If her condition were known, no one would let her get close, but such was her faith that she believed that merely touching the cloak of Jesus would heal her. For this reason she comes forward with fear and trembling, only reluctantly revealing that it was she who touched him. Jesus doesn’t rebuke her or get angry at her for rendering him unclean.  Instead, he addresses her in a remarkably tender way, calling her “Daughter” and telling her to go in peace because her faith has healed her.
            I’d like to make a couple points about the healing the woman with the flow of blood. The first is in response to a question. Does this imply that anyone who comes to Jesus in prayer to be healed and continues to be sick is somehow lacking in faith? Isn’t this the same kind of guilt mongering discussed above in connection with phony faith-healers? It is undeniable that Jesus taught that one’s faith plays a role in healing. He even rebukes his disciples for their lack of faith when they fail to heal an epileptic (Mt.17:14-21). It does not then follow, however, that all unanswered prayer is a result of lack of faith. There may be any number of reasons why God chooses not to respond in the way we want him to. We should remember that although God loves us and desires our health and joy; sickness, suffering, and death are still very much a reality in this age. When miraculous healing does occur, it is a sign of things to come and a token of God’s love received by faith (more on this later). It would be wrong to think that we could somehow manipulate God into granting our wishes by mustering enough faith. Faith is not a work that we can perform to earn God’s love or indebt him to us.
            The second point I’d like to make about this episode concerns the scope of Jesus’ healing. Jesus does not only heal this woman physically. In liberating this woman from her condition, Jesus also reconciles her to the community and restores her to full participation in the people of God. The Old Testament purity code was meant to teach God’s people about his holiness. God is so holy that no unclean thing can be in his presence, but despite the sin that makes us unholy, he has made us pure and holy through Jesus Christ. It is through faith that we receive God’s grace through Jesus Christ, are reconciled to him, and restored to fellowship with his people. Reconciliation is available to all those who reach out to Jesus, believing in his power to save.
            The interlude with the woman with a flow of blood ends when messengers push through the crowd to tell Jairus not to bother bringing Jesus. He is too late. His daughter has died. Jesus’ response is shocking in the confidence it shows. He turns to Jairus and says simply, “Do not fear, only believe.” What must have been going through Jairus’ mind at this point? Dare he believe that even now there is reason to hope? He chooses to trust Jesus and, together with a select group of Jesus’ followers, they press on even past the scorn and disbelief of the mourners gathered outside his home.  What follows is one of the most vivid and remarkable of all the accounts of Jesus’ many miracles. Jesus takes the little girl by the hand and says. “Talitha cumi,” a transliteration of an Aramaic phrase that means, “Little girl, I say to you, arise!” Although the Gospels are written in Koine Greek, it is generally believed that Jesus spoke primarily in Aramaic. This is one of the very few instances that the Biblical authors give us Jesus’ exact words. What is significant about this scene that the author should preserve Jesus’ precise words? Here is the place in the account that it becomes most clear that we are dealing with an eyewitness account. Perhaps it was because of how memorable and dramatic the moment was, or the tenderness and authority with which Jesus spoke. His words must have seemed almost like magic words, because no sooner does he command her, then does the little girl get up and begin walking around! Was this young girl actually dead, or only sleeping as Jesus suggests? Could it be a diabetic coma that we are dealing with? Mark is somewhat ambiguous, but the other accounts of this story clearly state that the girl was dead before Jesus arrived. The people are absolutely overcome with amazement. The word that the author of Mark uses to describe the people’s reaction is ekstasis. The only other place where this word is used in the Gospel of Mark is to describe the reaction of the women after they hear the news of Jesus’ resurrection. It appears that the author of Mark is creating a literary link between these two events through his description. The Gospel suggests that we read this particular act of Jesus as a foreshadowing of his resurrection. In raising the girl from death to life, Jesus demonstrates to his disciples that he is lord even of death. In Jesus’ life and ministry the long awaited Kingdom of God is being inaugurated and the reign of sin and death is being overturned. Jesus’ acts of healing and restoration should be understood as previews of the final victory that will be accomplished through his most amazing miracle of all, his atoning death on the cross and his glorious resurrection. Through his death and resurrection, Jesus restores our broken world, beginning a glorious new creation.
            What then does this have to do with how we should understand healing prayer? In the fallen world, the world that is perishing, there is disease, death, pain and suffering, but in the age to come, there will be no disease or death. For us who have put our faith in Jesus, all our wounds and infirmities will be at last be healed when Jesus raises us to new life. That new creation has already begun in Jesus’ resurrection, but we still live in the overlap of the age where all things are not yet new. It is not God’s desire that we be sick or in pain. God desires our health and endless joy, and has acted to accomplish this through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In those remarkable times when incurable disease or irredeemable brokenness are miraculously and inexplicably healed through faith and the intervention of prayer, we are given a glimpse of what is to come. Whether we are healed in this time or in the age to come, we will be healed. When God shows us signs and wonders, it is as if he is calling to us from the future, “Do not fear, only believe.” 

Below is a beautiful song by the great Sam Cooke inspired by the story of the woman with a flow of blood.