Last week, we looked at how healing is about wholeness, that is, including, accepting and connecting all parts of ourselves. However, healing is even bigger than this. It is also about wholeness in a wider sense, bringing people into healthy relationship with other people and with the wider creation. We’ll look at creation next week; this week, we’ll focus on communities.
The first stories of Jesus healing people happened in a first century Jewish context, and so our understanding of these stories is enriched when we learn more about this context. At that time, sickness was intimately linked with the concept of impurity. Someone who was sick or bleeding, or who had a disability or a missing body part, was generally believed to be impure, and this impurity contaminated the wider community. Therefore, they were excluded from full participation in communal life.
How this played out depended on the condition. Menstruating women could not be touched from the time they started bleeding until several days after they had stopped, and had then undergone ritual purification. Eunuchs could be in town but not worship at the temple, whereas people with leprosy were thrown out of town altogether. To maintain ritual purity was almost impossible for poor people, and absolutely impossible for people with particular conditions; thus many people were effectively excluded from full participation in religious and social life.
In each healing story, then, Jesus is doing much more than curing a physical symptom: he is rejecting the idea of ritual purity as a condition of participation in communal life. In place of purity, Jesus offers holiness: the state of being integrated and whole, in right relationship with God and other people. Thus his physical healings affect relationships. Sure, some healed people head straight back to oppressive institutions (and I’m thinking here of nine lepers), but others (e.g. the tenth leper) are more completely healed. The blind see what is going on, the deaf hear, the mute are given voice, the paralyzed are filled with energy, as they walk away from the institutions which oppress them and form a healthy new community around Christ.
Of course, this is why, so often, healing leads to conflict. Both by his healing and also simply by his social intercourse with otherwise marginalized people, Jesus disrupts the idea of contamination, and shows that his healing presence is more powerful than any sickness or sin. This makes those who want to enforce the boundaries between insiders and outsiders (with themselves patrolling the boundaries, of course) absolutely furious.
These dynamics continue to play out in churches and social groups today. I am thinking here of people I know who have spent years praying, fasting, and even undergoing exorcisms in their desperate efforts to be ‘healed’ of their sexuality or gender; whose healing really began once they accepted their sexuality or gender and integrated it into their identity; but who were then shunned by family, friends and even churches when they came out. It is a terrible irony that Jesus did everything he could to highlight, undermine and challenge religious and social rejection of vulnerable people, and yet it is often now done in his name. So healing makes participation in communal life possible; yet this communal life often has to be renegotiated.
Have you ever witnessed healing which has enriched relationships and drawn people into community? And have you ever witnessed healing which has led to backlash, even rejection, of the person being healed? Have you ever seen someone turn from healing because they are comfortable in their role as a wounded person, or are reluctant to risk relationships as they stand? Pray for these people; and pray also that we ourselves can be a community which includes, accepts and connects not just ‘healthy’ people (are there any?), but all of us in all our mess and pain, and yet also allows each of us to grow and change as we are being healed of all that harms us.
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