Monday, February 25, 2013

Lent Reflection: Jesus the Healer

One of my favorite healing narratives from the Gospels is found in Mark 5:21-43, where we find Jesus healing two different people. As we read the two stories, we should notice that these two stories are set in juxtaposition with one another, and they have become, in the hands of the author, intertwined into one story. This is intentional and leads us to some very important theological emphases that the author of Mark wants to bring out.

In fact, scholars of Mark have called the structure of these two stories a Markan Sandwich, one of a few that we find in the second Gospel. The Markan Sandwich is when the author tells a story, but that story is interrupted by another story, which is then told in its entirety, before the first story is finished. 

In the narrative of Mark 5, Jairus’ story begins, but is interrupted by the story of the bleeding woman, whose story is told in completion before the rest of Jairus’ story is told.  The two stories are intertwined into the sandwich to give meaning to both.

Yet, when we read the stories together, as we should, we also come away with the idea that the two individuals that come to Jesus could not be more different. Jairus, whose name we know, is a male.  The woman, who remains nameless, and therefore insignificant, is a female. 

Moreover, Jairus is a leader in the synagogue, a man of great religious and political stature and influence. The unnamed woman, who has been bleeding for 12 years, is an outcast, who has been shunned by her community because of her disease. Jairus can come to Jesus expecting to seek healing for his daughter, but the woman must approach Jesus from behind, hoping not to be noticed by him.

Perhaps one of the reasons these two stories are told together is so that all of us can face the reality that in our human existence none of us are free from the pain of sickness and death. Sickness and death, viewed as enemies of God’s good creation by the biblical authors, do not respect people of importance or sympathize with people of weakness and need. At some point in our lives we will all seek healing.

But what exactly is healing? 

The great founder of Methodism, John Wesley, described the intervention of sin into God’s creation as that which brought disease and death to humanity. He preached that healing was holistic union of a person’s body, mind, and soul that returned us to the unity and peace of the original creation

When we consider the plight of the woman who has bled for twelve years, and despite spending money on doctors and cures, she has not found healing from her disease, we find her seeking this kind of healing. Yes, she was tired of living with this disease that was making her feel sick and weak. She was tired of waking up each day having to deal with this sickness.  But she was seeking something more than physical healing.

Remember who this woman is. She is an unnamed, and therefore, insignificant, female. In fact, when Jesus says, who touched me, the disciples question him, “How can you say who touched me?”  The crowd was pressing in on them, and they simply were not aware that this woman even existed. And for that matter, no one else knew she existed.

Her physical ailment of bleeding was a social, and indeed, a religious stigma that caused her to be ostracized from her community. She had no purpose for living, no real connection to others, not much self-respect, and little, if any, control over her life. She was not only disheartened by the physical state of her illness, she was perhaps more troubled by the mental and social state of her existence.

It may be true that she comes to Jesus primarily for physical healing; something she desperately needed, but which she had not found from other healers. But it is conceivable that this woman approaches Jesus knowing that he can offer her more than the absence of a disease.  He can offer her more than physical healing. He can give her wholeness.

The clue to Jesus’ holistic healing of this woman, which leads to her full restoration as one of God’s children, is found in the way Jesus responds to her act of faith. When hearing the woman tell him that she is the one who touched him, Jesus replies, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

In calling this unnamed and ostracized woman, “daughter”, Jesus affirms her place in the people of Israel, as a daughter of Abraham. No longer is she to be cut off from her community, from her connection to significant others. Rather, she is restored to her community in which she can find love, acceptance, and self-worth.

Moreover, Jesus tells her that her faith has made her well. The word well used in the New Revised Standard Version is actually the word often translated as “saved”.  The salvation of which Jesus speaks is more than the “get me to heaven salvation”. The salvation Jesus offers affirms her holistic healing. Not only is she cured of her physical ailment, she is restored to full health in which she can find purpose and meaning. Her days of hopelessness have now changed to days of purpose and fulfillment as God’s child.

The same may be said for the daughter of Jairus. The death of innocence is a mockery of God’s goodness and blessing for life. Jesus knows this, and in raising this young girl to life, Jesus is not simply restoring physical existence to her. He is affirming the goodness and blessings of life. “Give her something to eat,” he tells those around him. She is alive; let her live life as God intends.

But there is something more this story tells us about healing. Jesus offers no preferential treatment to Jairus. Rather, he acknowledges the dignity of every human. In a market driven system of health care, Jesus would have passed by the unnamed woman and gone to assist the synagogue ruler in a home visit.  Instead, Jesus stops to recognize the stranger and outcast, not as a number among numbers, but as a person in need.

These two stories, intertwined into one narrative, tell us not only of the healing power of Jesus as a miracle worker; they also tell us what healing really is. It is the restoration of the whole person to the full potential of God’s gift of life, in which we find purpose and meaning, loving relationships in community, and self-love and respect.

This is the kind of healing we all need.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Lent Reflection: Jesus the Teacher

The Gospels offer representations of Jesus in word pictures that heighten our imaginations to wonder about Jesus. Included in these narrative portraits of Jesus we find what we might call images of Jesus. That is, we find titles, metaphors, and even vocations that offer to our imaginations a bit of who Jesus was.

As we have entered into this season of Lent, I have been thinking on some of these images, and in doing so, I thought I might offer some thoughts on some of these images of Jesus and what they may say to us about Jesus. The first image is Jesus the teacher.

Good teachers do not simply spew out information to detached student. Effective teachers speak with authority and connect with their students. These kinds of teachers are those who transform the lives of their students and who send them down new paths of discovery.

Jesus was this kind of teacher. While he certainly spoke with knowledge, he also spoke from a point of caring for those who opened their ears and lives to his transformational teachings. Jesus’ teaching was not simply conveyance of information. He came proclaiming the coming of God’s rule over the world and he taught his followers how to experience and live in the rule of God.

But there is something that the Gospels tell us concerning Jesus as a teacher that demonstrates the power of Jesus’ teachings. The Gospel writers often tell us that Jesus spoke with authority, or that the crowds who heard him teach were amazed at his authority. For example, the last two verses of Matthew 7 that close the Sermon on the Mount represent what all of the Gospel writers believed about Jesus as teacher:

Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes. (Matthew 7:28-29)

Notice the contrast Matthew makes between Jesus’ teaching with authority and the authority of the scribes. Jesus teaches like no one else, exhibiting that his authority as teacher comes from God and is very different from the lawgivers known as the scribes. But, the question is, “Was Jesus simply a better teacher than the scribes, or was there something more?”

There is no doubt that Jesus was a gifted teacher, one who knew the value of communication. But this does not entirely explain his authority; an authority that surpasses all the religious authorities of Judaism.

What appears to make Matthew end the section we call the Sermon on the Mount with such a bold statement about Jesus’ authority is that Jesus’ teaching was a new teaching.

Yes, the Sermon on the Mount reiterates the Ten Commandments, as Jesus clearly states that he has not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. So, Jesus is not about changing the law. He is concerned that people do not transgress anything found in the Ten Commandments. But, Jesus is also concerned for something more.

Indeed, in each interpretation of the commandments, Jesus begins with, “You have heard it said”, followed by a statement from the commandments, which is followed by, “But I say to you.”

In adding “But I say to you,” Jesus was expressing his authority as God’s teacher of God’s law. In doing so, he was confronting his listeners with a deeper and more powerful understanding of the law forbidding the acts found in the Ten Commandments.

When addressing the commandment against killing, the motive behind the taking of a life is equated with the actual physical killing of another. Jesus does not make a distinction between the deep seeded anger one can feel toward another and the physical act of taking the life of another.

When addressing the sin of adultery, Jesus again speaks about the inward thoughts of a person as equal to the act of committing adultery. Jesus draws out the deeper significance of the law and widens the actions that lead to entrapment to include the lustful gazes and thoughts one has toward another.

With each rehearsal of these longstanding commandments, Jesus presses his audience to see the connection between attitude and action; a connection that is inseparable.

So, at one level, Jesus’ teaching affirmed the law that Israel was still to follow, but his authority as God’s teacher comes through as he calls his hearers to look deeper into the law, at the intent of the law, and at the sin that resides inside of us, in our thoughts and intentions.

But the Sermon on the Mount also brings out another aspect of why Jesus’ authority was greater than that of the scribes. His teachings here, and in other places in the Gospels, offered a new way of existing in the world; a very radical way of existing.

In the Beatitudes of Matthew 5:1-11, Jesus offers an upside down way of living. In these statements, Jesus just about mentions every group that is forgotten by the world, and certainly forgotten by the political and religious elites. These are not just statements about some sort of spiritual status. When he mentions the poor in spirit, he is also thinking of those who are really poor. When he speaks about those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, he also thinks of those who really hunger and thirst.

Jesus is telling his audience that those who are on the underside of society are truly those loved and blessed by God. Indeed, these are those who are a part of God’s kingdom. And, in an implicit way, Jesus is calling all his followers to take on these characteristics. Jesus the teacher calls us to radical living.

This new way of living radically also calls us to radical relationships of love. In the Sermon on the Mount, we also find those infamous words, “You have heard it said, ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’” And, yet again, Jesus follows this with a”but” statement: “But I say to you, when someone strikes you on the cheek, turn to him the other.”

But, perhaps one of Jesus’ most radical teachings in the Sermon digs deep inside everyone of us: “You have heard it said, ‘love your neighbor and hate your enemy’, but I say to you love your enemies.” There is probably no more radial a statement about how Christians ought to live than this one.

As the inaugurator of the reign of God, Jesus teaches a new approach to ethical living within God’s rule. He is the authoritative teacher who redefines the law in terms that reflect a deeper and more radical approach to the old standard of living. 

Have we committed ourselves to following the ways he teaches? This Lenten Season might be a good time to start.