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“So That All May Be Made Well”
Sermon on Matthew 9:9-13, 18-29
Three miracles of healing: a dead girl raised to life, a woman cured of an affliction that made her an outcast, sight restored to two blind men. Three events Matthew recounts to us in quick succession to let us know that Jesus Christ is the channel of God’s healing power.
These are wonderful and wondrous stories, but sometimes I wish Matthew hadn’t reported the words of Jesus that went with them: “Your faith has made you well.” I say this only because I’ve seen these and similar words used in ways more harmful than helpful. We so easily get them turned around: Jesus commends a person’s faith, and it is taken as a formula for healing.
In truth, these stories are as much about how Jesus responded to human need as they are about miraculous healing. Jesus has interrupted his teaching ministry to attend to the needs of the moment; not only that, he interrupts his attention to one needy person to attend to yet another. He’s like a busy doctor who has to circulate among the patients as they stack up in the examining rooms and reception area. As we see him today, he is on his way to take care of the daughter of a very important man, a leader of the synagogue, when he is petitioned by an anonymous woman in the crowd.
If Jesus had ignored this woman, he would not have been criticized. From most people’s perspective, she is a nobody. To begin with, she is a woman; moreover, she is probably broke (two other Gospels tell us she has exhausted her funds in medical expenses); and perhaps worst of all, she is ritually unclean because of the nature of her illness. That makes her a social and religious outcast – people may have sympathy for her, but they won’t have anything to do with her. She has no power to command anyone’s attention and she knows that her predicament is beyond human help – and that is what makes her a perfect candidate for the healing Jesus brings. Jairus, on the other hand, an important, respected man, could get any doctor he wanted, but a doctor can no longer help his daughter – and that is what makes him a perfect candidate for Jesus’s attention.
On one level, these stories are about faith: the woman’s faith that if she could touch Jesus’s clothes, come into contact with him, she could be healed; the synagogue leader’s faith that Jesus could do something for his daughter; and the blind men’s faith that he could restore their sight. Jesus pronounces his judgment on the faithless by kicking out the professional mourners outside Jairus’s house, who took time out from their weeping and wailing to laugh at him. But the stories are less about the faith of human beings than about God’s desire to heal. God’s intention for humanity is health and wholeness.
When the Bible talks about healing, it is in many dimensions: physical, social, emotional, and spiritual. When distressed, afflicted people came to Jesus he addressed their bodily needs first. If they were sick, he healed them. If they were hungry, he fed them. If they were dead, he raised them. All of these actions also had social and spiritual dimensions. The people Jesus healed were restored to their rightful place in society, no longer ostracized and cut off from human company. They were assured of the forgiveness of their sins. They were given hope and a sense of purpose. Healing and renewal started with bodies, but didn’t end with them. People were changed forever by their encounter with Jesus. In our Gospel passage today, the hemorrhaging woman knows Jesus can “make [her] well” and Jairus asks him to “make [his] daughter well”; but the Greek word that has been translated that way, “make well,” is sozo, which means “save.” “Save me,” the woman says. “Save my child,” Jairus says.
Salvation has many dimensions. Physical, emotional, and spiritual healing are intertwined in the ministry of Jesus. It is a ministry of both liberation and health, and all who follow him are called to participate in some way in this ministry.
I have been thinking about the doctors, nurses, and paramedics who have been caring for the hundreds of thousands of coronavirus patients since last winter. It is clear that they see their patients as more than just bodies to be healed or, where healing fails, to be discarded and forgotten. I think of all the ways they have tried to connect their patients’ family members to their sick and dying loved ones through FaceTime and other electronic media, and all the times they themselves have had to be the last human connection for the dying, holding their hands and talking or singing to them.
What a tremendous physical, emotional, and spiritual toll this has taken on our medical professionals. They are the publicly acclaimed “superheroes” of the pandemic, but many of them don’t feel so heroic – according to a recent Post article, they feel lost, alone, and unable to sleep. One doctor quoted in the story said, “I spent years training to help people, but I have never felt so helpless in my life.”[i] It is like practicing medicine in a war zone, so there is also moral injury, caused by having to make excruciating decisions about who to treat first in the midst of chaos. Many of these doctors and nurses have seen their own colleagues die. So beyond the fear they have for their own health and safety, and that of their families, they must also do the work of mourning -- but there are always new patients to treat and they have to just keep moving from crisis to crisis. So as we offer our prayers for healing during this pandemic, as we have been doing routinely for months now, let’s never forget to include the doctors and nurses, not just that they can use their skills well to help others heal, but that they may know healing themselves – salvation, in biblical terms -- in their deepest places of hurt and fear. And, of course, we can help them the most by taking precautions ourselves so that we don’t contract and then spread the disease.
There is a story in Matthew, just a couple of chapters after our reading today, about a question John the Baptist put to Jesus. John was in prison, and probably already knew he would not leave the prison alive and in one piece. John looked at all the awful things that were going on in the world, all the injustice and poverty and sickness and suffering, and wondered if his friend Jesus really was God’s Messiah. So John sent a question to Jesus through his disciples: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Here is the reply Jesus sent back: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”
Poverty, injustice, sickness and suffering still go on. The world will not be rid of them until God’s promised reign of peace and wholeness, embodied in Jesus Christ, is finally established. There are still many things that are beyond human help. But everywhere human beings are engaged in efforts to alleviate suffering, relieve the burdens of poverty, and help create the conditions that lead to health, we are engaged in a “saving” enterprise and joined to the ministry of Jesus Christ – who came so that all may be made well.
Manassas Presbyterian Church
June 28, 2020
[i] Ariana Eunjung Cha, Ben Guarino, and William Wan, “ ‘I have never felt so helpless’, “ The Washington Post, Sunday, June 14, 2020, A1.