One of my favorite parts of being a pastor is the conversations that often begin in the pulpit and continue through email. Think, engage the text, wonder about your faith . . . and let’s talk about it! Here’s an email conversation from this week.
I was talking with a friend after church today and wanted some clarification so she said i should email you. It’s not about John the Baptist but about the miracles of Jesus. I suspect one answer is if I knew the bible, since when i searched for the story (bc of course i dont know it by heart) about Jesus making the blind man see, it’s apparently because he requested it, and the deaf man essentially too. Making the deaf hear and the blind see comes across like all differences should be corrected, like it’s bad to be deaf or blind, but wasn’t it God who was responsible for those differences in the first place? Celebrating the fact that Jesus corrected peoples’ disabilities makes it sound like we should all strive to be the same, to be perfect physically. It would be different if Jesus had made all blind people able to see, across the board, but it still comes across like Jesus is going around fixing what God screwed up. So, yea Jesus is the Messiah bc he performs such miracles, but can’t we stick to the miracles where he makes arrogant bastards into kind-hearted souls, or would it just not have the necessary power of a Messiah without some impossible physical healing miracles? Can’t we still be whole while being disabled or different?
Does that make sense?
I was glad to get your email—I love conversations like this. I think this would be a great conversation to continue in person. But here are some thoughts off the top of my head:
First, there is a very specific societal context in which all of this is unfolding. People really do themselves a disservice not to think long and hard about that context when they read the text. Specifically with regard to the issue of physical healing, the way the community in which Jesus lived worked, physical disability was seen—always, without exception—as a sign of God’s disfavor. Someone must have done something wrong, in other words, for you to be blind or lame or whatever. Also, this was an agrarian society in which families depended on each other just to even have enough to eat—they needed everyone pulling their weight, and someone with a disability, someone unable to support the family—that person was a terrible burden on the rest. In fact, the only thing someone like that could do to survive was to beg at the city gate—this was the only form of social support or assistance that existed. And, you might imagine, it was not cool to be a beggar. The spiritual stigma of a physical disability along with the material burden of feeding someone who could not work all combined to, in effect, stigmatize a disabled person and exclude them from the life of the community in many ways. So…when Jesus healed someone’s physical disability, there was a lot more going on than just, say, making the person able to see again. There were bigger realms, ideas of spiritual fitness, God’s blessing and approval, the inclusion in the community—Jesus was, in effect, fixing many of those things and welcoming someone back into the safe circle of the community.
You’re right, though, to suspect that physical healing was just a side issue for Jesus. If Jesus came to heal everyone who was sick, he certainly didn’t accomplish his goal, right? There were tons of people who never got healed, then and now. It’s helpful to remember that Jesus often made a distinction between being “healed” and being “made whole.” For Jesus, there was a much bigger spiritual healing that needed to take place in the lives of those he encountered—those with disabilities and those without. Very often in addition to healing someone’s physical infirmity, Jesus would tell them their sins were forgiven. For Jesus it all seemed to be about opportunities to demonstrate the inbreaking of God’s kingdom, God’s hopes and dreams for all kinds of healing—of the whole entire world. If healing someone’s blindness, or telling a story, or calming a storm helped him communicate this Gospel message, I think Jesus readily used these strategies.
All of that is to say, in my humble opinion, that healing miracles don’t make a Messiah. We get into wandering, unfruitful arguments if we think of healing miracles as the substance of what Jesus came to do. How can we know what happened? We weren’t there; there are years and years and cultures and miles between the people Jesus encountered and us. And, whether Jesus restored a blind man’s sight doesn’t really substantively affect you and me, does it? The real miracle of Messiah, of Jesus’ Gospel message, is that the transforming power and healing love and grace-filled salvation that Jesus offered the blind man and the woman with the issue of blood and the paralyzed man lowered through the roof and everybody else, physically disabled or not, was the promise of relationship and reconciliation with God. And that healing applies now, as it did then.
I am quite sure there is extensive academic work around this topic, and I would be interested to know what other people think, so I’m going to post this conversation on my blog and see what turns up!