Dianne Bergant, CSA, Ph.D.
Professor, Old Testament Studies
Catholic Theological Union
According to a recent article that appeared in Harvard Health Publications, some medical centers are integrating alternative treatments known as "touch therapies" into their cardiac care practices. Such treatments have shown remarkable positive results. The more promising approaches include a method known as "healing touch" and various forms of massage therapy. Many people question the reliability of such innovative techniques. However, regardless of what one thinks of such approaches to healing, the healing effect of normal, gentle, human touch cannot be denied.
The Gospel passage for this Sunday describes the healing touch of Jesus. The story itself is quite straightforward. Jesus encounters "a deaf man who had a speech impediment." Whether the man was actually doubly stricken or his speech impediment resulted from his inability to hear properly, Jesus, out of compassion for the man, performed two separate acts of healing. While we are aptly astounded by the marvel that is performed, the miraculous character of Jesus' action may cause us to overlook some very important human elements in the account. In the miracle story reported just before this account, Jesus healed the daughter of the Syrophoenician woman without touching or even seeing the girl (Mark 7:24-30). In this story the significance of Jesus' personal touch cannot be underestimated. He actually put his fingers in the man's ears, and with his own spit he touched his tongue. He could have cured that man at a distance. Instead, he chose to touch him, and to do so in two different ways.
Some understanding of the ancient perception of illness will throw light on the noteworthiness of Jesus' actions. Influenced by Persian thought, the Jews of the day believed that the world was engaged in a life-and-death battle between cosmic forces of good and cosmic forces of evil. Illness of any kind was seen as evidence of the grasp that evil power in the form of demons had over the world. This explains why many of the miracle stories include some element of exorcism. The story of the daughter of the Syrophoenician attests to this. Jesus' ability to cast out the demon or heal the illness with which the person was afflicted was seen as proof of his power over all forces of evil.
The poor man's suffering was compounded. Not only was he stricken with maladies that affected two of his senses, but his was an oral culture in which hearing and speech were essential for communication. Thus the man was both physically afflicted and in some way socially isolated. Furthermore, since illness of any form was considered "the work of the demons," he may have suffered some form of religious ostracism from the very pious in his community. This religious point of view also carried repercussions for Jesus the healer. According to strict Levitical law, certain physical disabilities made one unclean or impure, which meant unfit for full participation in ritual celebration. This impurity was considered contagious. In other words, to touch anything that was unclean made the one who did the touching unclean as well.
The event described in the Gospel passage took place on the eastern shore of the Jordan River in the area known as the Decapolis, the district of ten Gentile cities in which many Jews lived. Though the man could have been a Gentile, as was the Syrophoenician woman before him, the fact that Jesus spoke to him in Aramaic suggests that he was Jewish. Many question why a devout Jew would choose to live in the land of the unclean Gentiles. However, this may simply be another detail of the story meant to underscore Jesus' genuine concern for the needy, regardless of any possible social or religious recrimination. Jesus is not only in the land of the Gentiles, but he encounters a man whom society deems to be in the grasp of evil cosmic forces. Rather than simply heal him through the power of his words, Jesus ministers to him through healing touch.
One does not have to be at a sick bed long to realize the power of healing touch — not merely the alternative treatments discussed in Harvard Health Publications, but any genuine human touch. Patients are often comforted when a caring person holds their hand, gently rubs their arm, or tenderly caresses their brow. The illness may not miraculously disappear as in the biblical story. However, medical personnel assure us that the patient's systolic blood pressure sometimes drops significantly. And even if this does not occur, genuine healing touch promotes well-being in other ways as well.
First, illness often removes one from social involvement. In the Gospel story, the man was unable to communicate in a culture in which oral communication was not only essential but was most likely taken for granted. He may have been surrounded by friends and family, but his condition may have caused him to feel like an outcast. A gentle touch can reassure one that, though they seem to have faltered while life simply marches on without them, they have not really been left behind.
Second, though we today do not believe that illness is a manifestation of the hold that cosmic forces of evil have on the world, many people still subscribe to the notion that illness is somehow related to moral integrity. How many times have we not heard or said ourselves: "What did I do to deserve this?" In the ancient world, those who were ill or physically disadvantaged were not only burdened by their medical condition, but also carried a sense of guilt for having brought on the debilitating condition in the first place. A physical demonstration of genuine human compassion can often dissipate such feelings of guilt and can reassure the one who is ill that she or he is cherished regardless of the circumstances or duration of the illness.
Third, the intimacy of gentle human touch at times of illness or physical disability establishes a bond between people or strengthens an existing bond that is unlike human touch at other times. This is because the one suffering is in a recognized vulnerable situation, usually dependent upon others, unable to fend for oneself. In such circumstances, a sensitive touch is an acknowledgement of the vulnerability and an assurance of protection. It says: "You don't have to be strong. I am here for you in your weakness. I will be your strength, and I will protect you from what might harm you as best as I can."
Finally, as difficult to understand as it may be, people are still often ostracized when they become ill. This could be a reaction to some disagreeable circumstances that accompany the illness. Or it might occur because illness or physical disability reminds all of us that we are limited mortal beings who are prone to suffer and who will ultimately die. People seldom want to be reminded of this. It has been said that people seem better able to deal with the physical vulnerability of others when recovery appears to be in the near future. However, when it becomes apparent that there may be no recovery or that death is imminent, people seem to distance themselves from the one suffering. What a tragedy, for this is precisely when the one suffering needs the kind of touch that will calm the spirit and soothe the soul. Jesus never seemed to worry about how sick the people might have been. Nor did He ask: "If I touch you, will I be criticized or ostracized?' He simply allowed the power of His healing touch to surge through the body of the afflicted one.
We probably will not be able to work miracles as Jesus did. Nor will most of us engage in physical healing through the wonders of modern medicine. However, this does not prevent us from performing wonders through various forms of healing touch. We can comfort and console; we can strengthen and reassure. We can revive spirits and reintegrate people into the warmth of communal concern. We have all been given the power to heal through touch. It is one of the mysterious ways that the compassion of God is carried into our broken world. It is up to each of us to pass it on to those in need.