Proper 18 / Year B
School is back in session and with it comes… as every student will tell you… homework. Years ago one of the first assignments given to my older daughter was to interview me. I recall how, after a series introductory questions, she started to probe the topic of religion. “Do you believe God has the power to heal people?” she asked. “Yes, I do.” “Well then, why do you think God doesn’t do it all the time?” “That,” I remember answering, “is a very good question.”
It is a good question. I have to admit it crosses my mind every time I prepare a sermon on one of the healing stories in the Gospels. If Jesus had the ability to restore hearing and to remove speech impediments, as our reading this morning asserts, and if Jesus had the power to perform all other sorts of healings, then why is there suffering? Why is there sickness? Why is there disease? Why is Covid lingering? Why is there death? These are the questions I want to help us think through this morning.
Most people, whether or not they believe in God, have an idea of God which tends to center on power: God is omnipotent… all-powerful; God is in charge of everything; God is like a king or a domineering father or the Lord of all. This is how most people tend to think of God. And if this is who God is then our dismay at God’s unwillingness to use this power for our benefit and well-being is all the more justified.
The Christian Gospel starts its understanding of God at a very different place than this. To read the biblical narratives is to encounter a God who is first and foremost characterized by love. And love involves not power, but a willingness to risk because when you reach out in love the other’s response is not guaranteed. Love offered may be met, matched, returned, and cherished. It can also be rejected, abused, betrayed, and taken for granted. To risk love is to be vulnerable… even to the point of suffering. The suffering may come from rejection or it may take the form of witnessing the pain of another. To love is to be vulnerable, not powerful.
Because God is love, God must allow for freedom. If the person who loves can compel the object of love to love in return, then the response is not true love. A response that is coerced or compelled is not love. So each one of us is free to respond to God’s love however we see fit. One theologian describes God as being “weak in power but strong in love” because God is willing to be vulnerable to pain in the freedom of love. Allowing for freedom limits power and implies even greater vulnerability.
What does all of this say to us about Jesus? To be sure, Jesus heals and performs other signs of power, but he silences those he has healed, almost as if the act were one of shame. But why? A professional wonder worker should know how to milk the dramatic moment, but Jesus seems to keep undercutting the impact of his actions.
How basic is this to Jesus’ ministry? Well, the Gospel writer Mark never even uses the Greek word for “miracle” to describe even one of these events. In fact he often portrays these episodes as doing more harm than good to Jesus’ mission. They prohibit his ability to move freely throughout a town. They raise the ire of the authorities. They motivate people to focus only on satisfying their physical needs while ignoring their spiritual hunger. And perhaps most important, if God is indeed primarily love offering relationship, then the miracles distort the true nature of God by focusing people’s attention on God’s power rather than on God’s love.
It is as if Jesus is trying to get us to shift our focus on these stories from what they say about his power to what they reveal about his love. It is tempting to try to frame this love in nice, comforting, benign images… such as Jesus tending to the dainty needs of his wounded sheep. But the narratives paint for us a very different picture. Jesus does not heal from a distance, but in the most intimate ways imaginable. He touches lepers and spits on the tongue of a deaf man. In the eyes of his contemporaries, the very forms these healings take are both ritually polluting and physically disgusting.
When an important leader of a synagogue begs Jesus to heal his daughter, Jesus delays in order to tend to a nameless women suffering from menstrual hemorrhaging; thereby transgressing important cultural and religious taboos related to gender and status. If the miracles are intended to show off power, it would have been better to emphasize raising from the dead the daughter of a local dignitary. But since they are demonstrations of love, the healing of the anonymous woman provides an even more accurate rendering of God’s nature.
Perhaps the healing stories confuse us because we focus on the outcome and lose sight of the risk, the vulnerability, and the love evidenced in and through them. These stories point not to power, but to compassion. The Greek word for compassion is used just 12 times in the Gospels and refers exclusively either to God or Jesus. The root part of the word compassion is the same word used to describe the part of our anatomy we refer to as our “guts”… the place where we feel most intensely the physical symptoms of emotion. One theologian says this:
…the Hebrew word for compassion… refers to the womb of Yahweh. Indeed, compassion is such a deep, central, and powerful emotion in Jesus that it can only be described as a movement in the womb of God… When Jesus was moved to compassion, the source of all life trembled, the ground of all love burst open, and the abyss of God’s immense, inexhaustible, and unfathomable tenderness revealed itself.
My experience, both as a person and through my pastoral ministry, has been when a person comes before God demanding a cure, the outcome is uncertain. A cure… the complete restoration of health… may happen or it may not. When it happens the person may give credit to God… but somehow is never moved closer to God through it all. But when a person opens him/herself to the immense, unfathomable love God risks to offer, some kind of healing always happens. Keep in mind a healing is not always the same thing as a cure. But to know God’s love for you is to be healed. This I believe is the point of the healing stories. They are invitations not so much to turn to God when we are in need of a physical cure, but to seek God in all times in order to be in a relationship of love.