What stands out to me is both the faith and determination of those who seek Jesus out in this Gospel story. “If you choose to,” boldly proclaims the man with leprosy, “you can make me clean”. Unable to bring the paralyzed man in at Jesus’ feet due to the crowd, the man’s friends begin to rip off the thatch roof.
I have to admit I no longer see these stories as easy or simple. I hear the man’s certainty that Jesus can heal and wonder about my own lack of certainty. Sitting beside sick beds, with grieving families, and the dying as a minister extending comfort, I have to admit a part of me does wonder – Can Jesus truly just say the word and they be healed? And if he can today, then why does he allow this suffering? This death? This heartache. To me those words, brimming with hope and determination when ushered from the mouth of the paralyzed man, are to me a cause of pain, wonder, and uncertainty. If Jesus can if he choose, why does not?
Yet I encounter Jesus as loving, compassionate, present, when I sit beside the sick, hurting, and suffering. Joining them in prayer I do see Jesus become visible as comfort and healer, felt tangibly as the One alleviating pain, helping those needing comfort, giving courage to speak the words that are needed to bridge the gulf that separates them in their final moments. At times I do see healing but it comes as a gift yet also a mystery. I do not know why Jesus heals some and not others. I wish I had the answers to why some experience physical healing and others do not.
What I do notice, though, on looking at this passage a second time, is what this healing by Jesus does for them. In the case of the man with leprosy, he not only had an illness. He had an illness which was socially isolating. The Levitical code in Scripture called for those with leprosy and skin diseases to be kept out of camp, so that the disease did not spread. By Jesus’ day, a command aimed at disease prevention had come to take on a spiritual component in the eyes of the people. If one had to be removed from the worshipping community, surely they or someone in their life was suspect. They had committed some sin deserving their rejection. Even God did not smile upon them.
In healing the man with leprosy Jesus not only was removing physical disease but tearing down the barriers that stood in the way of true community.
Such is also true with Jesus’ healing of the man who was paralyzed. In the same Levitical code in Scripture that called for those with leprosy to be kept out of camp until it passed in order to present the spread of disease, we are told that those with physical disabilities of any kind could not go into the temple to offer sacrifice. This was about the symbolism of only sending persons and gifts without blemish to God, a symbolic way of saying “give of the best to the master”.
Yet, as with leprosy, by Jesus’ day this command had come to be connected with a sense that those with physical disabilities were somehow spiritually damaged. As was asked of Jesus in John 9 about a man born blind, the assumption was that one with a disability had either sinned, or their parents had sinned. Physical disability was viewed as punishment for sin.
This is why Jesus’ first word is not you are healed but rather you have been released from sin. Jesus’ physical healings were object lessons demonstrating that God did not intend anyone to be cut off from God’s love, or from the embrace of the community of God’s children. Jesus’ healings were aimed at tearing down walls of separation, and creating reconciliation.
I do not always know where God is and what God is doing in the midst of sickness and disease, but one thing I have found to be true: wherever barriers of exclusion are torn down and people are welcomed into community, God is present. Wherever reconciliation where barriers of racism, sexism, homophobia, family discord, have torn people are apart in the past, Jesus is at work. Wherever injustices that keep humanity divided and at odds fall aside, Christ has stretched out his healing hands. Just as I’ve seen Jesus show up in deep and healing ways as a living source of comfort for those facing illness whether their physical situation improved or not, so I have seen Jesus present in the struggle for inclusion, equality, reconciliation, and freedom.
For some, feeling outcast and forgotten, this text is calling you to know that you are not. Christ stand with you. Christ is the One at work in your community and life to tear down every barrier and bring freedom. Trust that loving presence.
For many who like me do not face much in the ways of barriers or prejudice, I think you need to hear what I do from this text: a call to be a friend of those your community has deemed outcaste. One willing to push through the resistance of the crowd, and if need be tear down walls yourself so that those on the outside can be brought in and welcomed at the feet of Jesus. Ultimately it is this desire and calling that was at the root of so much good done by people of faith in the fight for women’s suffrage, abolition of slavery, Civil Rights, and now through those speaking up for issues like GLBT inclusion and immigrant rights.
Let’s hear that call and say yes.