12 Once, when Yeshua was in one of the towns, there came a man completely covered with leprosy. On seeing Yeshua, he fell on his face and begged him, “Sir, if you are willing, you can make me clean.” 13 Yeshua reached out his hand and touched him, saying, “I am willing! Be cleansed!” Immediately the leprosy left him. 14 Then Yeshua warned him not to tell anyone. “Instead, as a testimony to the people, go straight to the priest and make an offering for your cleansing, as Moshe commanded.” 15 But the news about Yeshua kept spreading all the more, so that huge crowds would gather to listen and be healed of their sicknesses. 16 However, he made a practice of withdrawing to remote places in order to pray.
Again I invite readers to compare Luke’s account wuth his main source, the Gospel of Mark Chapter 1 verse 40 onwards, to see for themselves a) Luke’s basic faithfulness to his source and b) the small but significant changes he makes.
Mark depicts Jesus as an explosion of life in Galilee. He is always on the move to the next encounter, “immediately” and his bodily presence is in itself a source of healing. He is at war with the power of evil which keeps people captive in disease and sin. Mark tells us that when the man with leprosy made his pathetic plea “If you are willing”, Jesus was “roused by anger” at what the man’s isolation from the community had done to him, giving him such little trust in his fellow human beings. Luke ingores this as he wants to present Jesus as a calm and compassionate healer who sees healing as just one part of his calling as a prophetic messiah. He does however keep the crucial gesture that Mark had given of Jesus’ touching the diseased man, along with healing words in the form of a command. In Mark’s narrative this expresses Jesus engagement with the power of evil, in Luke it seems to express compassion, but in both it is as creative as God’s gesture to Adam in Michelangelo’s fresco, crossing the gap between heaven and humanity, accompanied by a command that gives life. The Christian community is meant to understand that although this command can be issued by human beings, it is a divine command, and can only be given by disciples in the name of Jesus, who trusted that God had authorised him to speak it.
The gospels depict Jesus as utterly opposed to any miracle-working dramas – he is always telling his patients not to tell anyone – for they want the reader to take with absolute seriousness that a man with his feet on the ground nevertheless commanded people to be whole! The command is issued to the sufferer as a summons to life. The patient is left in do doubt that the diminishing of his life is an insult to the Creator who intends that he should be whole. This is an astonishing act of healing which contradicts the teaching of religous people everywhere that we must accept disease and other life-diminishing conditions as the will of God. The Jesus of the Gospels is utterly impatient with the sort of piety that excuses needless suffering.
David Cairns in a splendid book now out of print, the “Faith that Rebels” made this divine impatience the leading characteristc of Christian faith, showing how it had determined Christian attitudes to the healing arts and to scientific medicine. It should in my opinion challenge the Christian churches in the UK to oppose the rationing of free medical care, and to argue boldly for higher taxation for this purpose. They should also publicise the irony that a Government which admits the shortage of funds for medical care wants to continue to apply vast sums to the renewal of a completely useless weapon of mass desctruction.
Jesus tells the healed man to have his healing approved by the priest as the Torah specifies, so that he will be officially restored to full community life. The aim of the healing is this restoration: he does not want the man to become a freak-show advertising the power of Jesus the Healer. Mark says that Jesus avoided the crowds of miracle tourists by going into desert places, but Luke adds that he prayed. Luke wants the reader to see that Jesus’ ministry flows from his human intimacy with God.
There s no doubt that the Gospels depict Jesus as a healer who cures partly by exorcism, and partly the assurance of God’s creative love, often expressed in a command. The different gospel writers give their own interpretations of Jesus’ healing, but the modern reader has to accept that some form of “faith healing” is a major part of the church’s memory of Jesus of Nazareth. What are we to make of this?
- I do not believe that God ever suspends the laws of nature to cure a person. I have seen too many people die of cancer to consider such a notion as other than an insult to the credibility of God. (Disease itself, as I noted above, seemed to Jesus to be enough of an insult.)
- In a scientific culture we may have had a mechanical view of the laws of nature; and have paid insufficient attention to the achievements of so-called non- scientific systems of therapy.
- Jesus’ contempoiraries would have been familiar with village healers on the one hand, with their traditional methods and materials, and faith healers on the other, many of whom may have been charlatans. The gospels present Jesus as unlike the traditional healers, in using no herbs or roots or other concoctions, but also unlike faith-healers in using no impressive pantomime. Nevertheless he does specify faith or trust as a precondition for his healing.
- The tradition shows that most of his reported healings are of conditions that might respond to “persuasion.” My friend, Dr. Audrey Dawson,has written a dissertation on this topic for her doctorate at Aberdeen University Faculty of Divinity, in which she notes that there is no record of Jesus healing a broken leg! The variety of skin diseases known as leprosy, various sorts of paralysis, epilepsy, fever, menstrual problems and some forms of coma, may well respond to the kind of loving assurance that Jesus communicated, although perhaps not with the speed indicated in the typical gospel account.
- Whatever the physical disease, sufferers were also afflicted by pycho-social powers of fear, rejection, blame and supertsition, which were part of the way in which traditional societies dealt with illness. These may well be seen as the “evil spirits” with which Jesus dealt with by exorcism. The breaking of these binding forces will have been liberating to the sufferers and allowed their bodily systems of self-healing to work again.
- Doubtless the Gospel tradition has exaggerated the healing ministry of Jesus. I don’t believe that there is any reality in the reported “healings at a distance” or in Jesus’ ability to raise people from real death. The tradition also packaged these stories in a number of standard forms that expressed their significance for Christian communities, so that most “historical details” are lost. Nevertheless I consider that the church’s memory of Jesus as a healer reflects historical reality and endeavours to represent it to subsequent generations.