Jesus, The Healer
Fr. Donald J. Goergen, OP, Ph.D.
St. Dominic's Priory
Most of us probably picture Jesus as quite different from ourselves. He was divine and we are only human. Yet He, too, was completely human even while being Son of God. There was this profound, almost incomprehensible, integration in His life between divinity and humanity, an unsurpassable integrity. The Scriptures speak of Him as like us in all ways but without sin (Heb 4: 15). In His humanity, however, during His earthly sojourn so to speak, how did He come across to those who followed Him as well as to those who opposed Him? What values loomed large? In our reading today it says, "Many who heard Him were astonished" and they asked, "Where did this man get all this?" (Mk 6: 2). But what astonished them?
Certainly, from what we can tell, His wisdom, His authoritative way of speaking, as if what He taught was from God Himself. In that image of Jesus we see Him as a preacher and teacher par excellence. Early in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus says, "Let us go to the neighboring villages so that I can preach there also, for that is why I have come" (Mk 1: 38). In our reading today we find Him teaching in the synagogue. But did His teaching and preaching primarily consist of spoken words? This is a man who lived what He preached and preached what He lived. So there is more to His life and mission on earth than what we might ordinarily think of as preaching. His words were accompanied by deeds and prophetic actions: once again that incredible integrity of life. These "works" of the Lord, if we may call them that, were predominantly healings. For Jesus, to be a preacher was to be a healer and vice-versa. Sometimes the healing required the right word, saying the right thing, a word of compassion or forgiveness, especially when it might have involved emotional healing. Other times it took a gentle touch, a compassionate reaching out, an exchange of energy.
It has often been said that Jesus' earthly ministry was threefold. He was preacher, healer, and exorcist, that is, one who drove out demons. These three, however, were in fact one, at least for Jesus. Driving out demons was one form of healing, as is the healing of memories, or emotional wounds or psychic trauma today. Much healing always remains in the psychological and spiritual realms where wounds can remain deeply hidden, sometimes for a lifetime. Yet there is also the more obvious need for physical healing as well, whether the diseases are old or new… leprosy then or HIV now, a withered hand then or a cancerous growth now. For Jesus, the healing was always a form of preaching, a way of proclaiming God, God's love and God's presence. Nor was it simply of a way of providing an example. It was what it was all about in the first place. God heals. God does not want us to suffer pain, no matter how mysterious the fact is that He allows it. God desires our wholeness but accepts our woundedness. The "little ones," those most in need, the hungry and the poor, are the ones to whom He especially reached out.
This is our Jesus. He fed the hungry. He healed those afflicted with disease. Early in the Gospel of Mark, from which our reading today comes, upon His arrival in Capernaum, in the context of teaching in the synagogue, Jesus heals a man with an unclean spirit (Mk 1: 21-26). He then heals Simon's mother-in-law of a fever (Mk 1: 30-31). That evening, they brought to Him all who were sick and He healed many of various diseases and cast out many demons (Mk 1: 32-34). The next day a leper came to Him (Mk 1:40-44). All of these are in the very first chapter of the Gospel of Mark.
Chapter two begins with Jesus' return to Capernaum after several days and the community bringing Him the paralytic whom they had to lower through the roof since the crowds had become so great (Mk 2: 1: 1-12). In that same chapter, Jesus describes Himself as a physician: "Those who are well have no need of a physician but those who are sick" (Mk 2: 17) as He had earlier in chapter one thought of Himself as a preacher. Clearly for Jesus,these are not unrelated ministries but simply different manifestations of revealing God's love. Between the healing of the paralytic and the reading we have for today, there is the healing of a man with a withered hand (Mk 3: 1-6), many others so that all with diseases pressed in upon him (Mk 3: 9-10), Jairus' daughter who was at the point of death (Mk 5: 22-24, 35-42), and a hemorrhaging woman (Mk 5: 25-34). In these first chapters of Mark the image that comes through is that of Jesus the Healer and the importance of the healing ministry in the life and works of Jesus. As Jesus says in the Gospel of John, "I have come that you may have life and have it to the full" (Jn 10:10).
It is no surprise then, in our reading today, that people are astonished at all His mighty works. They are even quite aware that He does not come from a privileged background. "Is this not the carpenter, the son of Mary?" Given their astonishment, their recognition of all that He has done, what is surprising is that they take offense at Him. Jesus recognizes this reluctance, even resistance on their part, when one might expect quite the opposite response given the overwhelming outpouring of pleas for His help. But there can be that ambivalence in all of us towards someone who seems not to know his place, whose notoriety exceeds what his background suggests he deserves. Anyway, given their lack of receptivity, their non-affirming attitude, their mistrust or unbelief, Jesus' capacity to heal is itself affected. "He could do no mighty work there except that He laid his hands on a few sick people and healed them." (Mk 6: 5).
What might our text have to teach us today? There is nothing more important in the ministry of Jesus than healing. Jesus just loves to heal. His preaching itself has both a palliative and a curative effect and cannot be separated from His work as a physician — a physician we might say of body, mind and spirit — a holistic approach to medicine we would say today — and an approach within the context of the need for a healing of society itself, for social context cannot be separated out from the woundedness of individuals. Is not universal health care and its availability something that a follower of Jesus supports? Do we as Jesus' disciples walk the talk, so to speak? Can the healing ministry be effective where there is a lack of openness on the part of an individual or society as a whole? Do we see the healing of society and the ministry of healing itself as the practice of our faith? The question ultimately emerges, what about me? What can I do? I may not be a physician or therapist or social worker or possess expertise in some specialization within modern medicine. But cannot my sense of presence to the sick and the poor have a powerful impact? Can I support our health care professionals? Can I work for insurance coverage for all God's children? Do I see making the benefits of medicine and health care available to all a part of God's plan for God's people?
Would not the response to this last question flow naturally from our understanding of Jesus and his ministry? Healing takes place today in ways different from those in Jesus' day. But would He not want a Christian community, those who follow Him, to make health care available to all His people? What can one say of a system that makes the benefits of medicine available only to those who can afford it? In the reading we have today, Jesus was able to heal only a few sick people due to the peoples' own lack of faith. We take that as unfortunate. Given the power and desire He had so often manifested, was it not tremendously sad that He was not able to do more simply because the peoples' hardness of heart prevented it? The text concludes saying that Jesus marveled at their incapacity to embrace His mission and what it was about. But do we still have that incapacity today when our capacity to provide health care, at least here in our own country, is so much greater? Would Jesus today not be saddened at our failure to sense the goodness that He was simply attempting to communicate? For with Jesus, it was not about Jesus, it was about those in need, the poor, the hungry, the widow, the blind, the lame, the paralyzed, the spiritually paralyzed and possessed, the emotionally traumatized and depressed. And it is in our capacity to care for them. We are tempted to hold back, yet for Jesus the response was spontaneous. Where there is need, there God is found. His proclamation of the Gospel of God was of one piece with His making God's will manifest in what He chose. We can extend the reign of God on earth by embracing within our care all human lives from conception to death, caring for them from the beginning of their lives as well as throughout. God's love is not stingy. Neither can ours be.