Working in Health Care

Jesus' Healing Ministry

2 ten-minute video clips on Jesus' Healing Ministry on the Catholic Health Australia website. For Part 1 click HERE. For Part 2 click HERE.

I put these reflections together in June 2012 in preparation for a video presentation for Catholic Health Australia. Our hope was to contribute to a resource intended for Christians working in Health and Aged Care. Two 10-minute video clips can be found on their website.

Christians ministering to people who are suffering find their inspiration in Jesus, especially through contemplating his own suffering and the manner in which he carried out his healing ministry.

If we are going to identify with the situations described in the Gospels it is essential that we do not think of these scenes as snap-shots recording events just as they happened. Reading the Gospels is much more like walking through an art gallery. The Gospel writers are keen to share with the reader the meaning Jesus came to have for them. The scenes they present are based on what they saw and what they heard, but they are also the fruit of reflection as life experiences gave them further insight into Jesus, and as they found ways of communicating this to people who had never known Jesus personally. Reading a Gospel is much more like reading Shakespeare than like reading someone’s diary entries. Only a lover could write a Gospel, and if we are going to read the Gospels fruitfully we must be open to let their inspired words invite us into our own hearts as well as into the heart of Jesus.

I want to focus on Mark’s Gospel, because it is probably the earliest, and because a very ancient tradition describes it as inspired by the memories and reflections of Peter. Mark was writing shortly after the dreadful persecution of the Christians in Rome instigated by the Emperor Nero. Peter was killed during that persecution, as were Paul and many of the members of the Christian community in Rome. Understandably the community was bewildered, discouraged and tempted to let go of the hopes that first brought them to join the community. So it was that Mark, drawing on what he had heard from any number of those who knew Jesus, and significantly from Peter, composed what he calls a ‘Gospel’(‘Good News’). In it he invites the Christians of Rome and beyond to look at Jesus’ life and to listen to his teaching, to renew their courage in the knowledge that the meaning Jesus offered them transcended difficulties and disappointments, even the frightful persecution they had just endured.

The first thing we need to be clear about is that Mark is not setting out to tell his readers that Jesus will eliminate all suffering from their lives.  The Christian community in Rome had suffered too much as had Jesus himself, and Peter knew that Jesus did not promise to remove the cross from our lives. What he did was to show us how to live in the midst of suffering with peace and hope. He was about inviting people into a place of healing love where they could experience communion, where they could experience being at home with God, and so with themselves, and with others. By the caring and compassionate way he met people, he encouraged them to believe that they could live well their pain, as well as their joy, and ultimately their dying .

The second point takes us to the very heart of Jesus’ healing ministry. When people in pain encountered Jesus they were drawn into the intimacy of his personal communion with God. At the heart of everything Jesus said and did was his conviction that God is love. It was the way he talked about and showed God’s love to those who were struggling that brought healing to their spirits. Mark makes this point very clearly the first time he describes Jesus’ healing ministry (Mark 1:21-28).  We are invited into a synagogue. We meet a very disturbed man and Jesus helps him find peace. Mark tells us that the people in the synagogue were astounded. Note carefully Mark’s words: ‘They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes’. As Mark describes the scene the question they ask is not ‘How did Jesus heal? but ‘What is this? A new teaching – with authority!’ Later in the Gospel Mark describes a scene in which ‘Jesus saw a great crowd, and he was moved with compassion for them because they were like sheep without a shepherd’. And what did Jesus do? ‘He began to teach them at some length’(Mark 6:34). The teaching that offered healing was that God is love, and that God is offering to everyone the grace to live whatever experiences life might throw up against them. Love has extraordinary healing qualities. It is not surprising that the purity of Jesus’ love healed people’s spirits, and that this healing sometimes showed itself in psychological and physical healing. The key to the healing, however, is clearly Jesus personal communion with God, a communion that radiated from his whole person.

There is another element in the scene in the synagogue that is important if we are to be able to relate to Jesus as portrayed by Mark, and by the other Gospel writers. Mark describes the man as having ‘an unclean spirit’, and he has Jesus rebuking the spirit and ordering the spirit to leave the suffering man. If we are not careful these words will get in the way of our grasping the point Mark is making. However evil was imagined in first century Palestine, Mark found evil as mysterious and incomprehensible as we do, though we use different words to speak of it. He knew that evil was a power bigger than Pilate and the Jewish leadership that had Jesus crucified. It was bigger than the terrible persecution the Roman community had just been through. Mark speaks of unclean spirits and demons, His focus, however, is on Jesus and on a power present in Jesus that was stronger than evil: the power of divine love. He knew that Jesus’ ministry was about liberating people from the power of evil even when they, like Jesus himself, like Mark’s community, and like us, continued to face the mysterious negative forces that confront us, from within as well as from the circumstances in which we find ourselves.

Jesus said that he came that we might ‘live and live to the full’(John 10:10). Mark goes on to highlight other dimensions of suffering to which Jesus brought his healing love. Peter’s mother-in-law has a fever that cuts her off from her family. Jesus enables her to take up her role again (Mark 1:29-31). A man is suffering from a skin complaint that causes him to be ostracised from the community (Mark 1:4-45). Jesus risks himself, breaks the social taboos, even though they claimed to express God’s will. Jesus embraces him and sees that he is welcomed back into the community. He is about restoring relationships. Another man is unable to break free from his past behaviour. His past is paralysing him (Mark 2:1-12). He can’t move. Jesus responds to his longing and assures him that his sins are forgiven, and he walks free again. Others are so locked into the ritual requirements of their culture that they can’t enjoy life. Jesus tells them that life is meant to be like a wedding banquet. God is their bridegroom and is calling them to love (Mark 2:18-22).

As we move through Mark’s gallery we come to three powerful scenes. They form a triptych. We can relate to them all. The first panel depicts a storm which threatens to swamp the boat (Mark 4:35-41). How often do we find ourselves in a situation where everything around us appears to be collapsing. We are tempted to despair. In describing Jesus as stilling the storm Mark is drawing on Peter’s memories of the many times when Jesus supported them through situation that threatened to overwhelm them.  This is the situation of the Roman community for whom Mark is writing. When people crucified Jesus they couldn’t stop him loving. They couldn’t take away the peace that came from his communion with the One he called ‘My Father’. Those martyred in the persecutions, including Peter himself, found the courage to persevere in faith, hope and love. 

In the second panel the threat comes from inside: a man’s psyche is shattered (Mark 5:1-20). His inner world is shattered. In his agony he approaches Jesus and finds peace.

In the third panel a young girl appears to be dead (Mark 5:21-43). Jesus takes her by the hand and raises her up (the word is used later for Jesus’ resurrection from death). This scene is not there to give us hope that God will bring those we love who have died back to this life. It is to assure us that when we die Jesus will be there to take us by the hand and raise us into the eternal embrace of God, into a life that knows no end. In his Letter to the Roman community Paul claims that nothing, not even death, can separate us from the love of God in Jesus (Romans 8:31-39). Mark is making the same point.

Before looking more closely at two healing scenes from Mark, I want to stress again that the Gospel writers want us to understand that what brought healing was Jesus himself, his presence, his compassion, and his conviction that God loves each person who is caught up, in whatever way, in suffering. This point is clear in all four of the Gospels. Matthew portrays Jesus as the new Moses on the mountain bringing the new revelation of God’s love to the people. In chapters 5-7 we see Jesus the teacher. Then Matthew copies the healing scenes from Mark and adds some of his own, showing the liberating power that the Good News can have in people’s lives. He tells us that Jesus ‘was moved with compassion for the crowds, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd’(Matthew 9:36).  Elsewhere he states: ‘He took to himself our infirmities and bore our diseases’(Matthew 8:17). Jesus shows us how to bear suffering. He shows us also how to relate to those who are suffering.

Let us focus now on two scenes of healing. The first is from Mark’s opening chapter. We touched on it earlier. A man with some kind of skin complaint approaches Jesus (Mark 1:40-45). In obedience to what the community understood to be God’s Law (see Leviticus 13:45-46) he had been banished from the community. Trusting his attraction to Jesus, and in doing so disregarding the social taboos that he had been taught were an expression of God’s will, he approaches Jesus and says: ‘If you want to you could make me clean’. Mark tells us that Jesus was profoundly affected by the man’s condition and by the way in which he had been treated. He responded to the man with the words: ‘Of course I want to’. Then he embraced him and told him to go to the authorities to be restored to the community. Notice Jesus’ trust in God as he knew God to be, even when this involved him in going against the will of God as understood in the community. Notice his touch and his concern to restore broken relationships. Jesus suffered because of what he had done. Mark concludes the scene by telling us that Jesus ‘could no longer go into a town openly, but had to stay outside in places where nobody lived’. This was the situation of the ‘leper’ before Jesus healed him.

Our second scene is Mark’s last portrait of Jesus’ healing (Mark 10:46-52).  Jesus and his disciples are leaving Jericho on the last leg of their journey to Jerusalem. There is a blind man sitting by the side of the road begging. He is a powerful symbol for the disciples that have been following Jesus all the way from Galilee but still fail to see. He is a powerful image for us all. Hearing that Jesus is passing by the blind beggar cries out for mercy. Jesus hears his cry, and sends people to bring the man to him. Then Jesus, with the most beautiful sensitivity, asks him: ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ He doesn’t presume to know. He respects the man and waits on his reply. The man tells Jesus that he wants to see again. Like us all, he did see once, but things have happened in his life, and he has forgotten what he once saw. He wants to see again. Jesus touches the man’s eyes and he sees again. He sees so well that, as Mark tells us, he followed Jesus along the way to Jerusalem. How often in caring for the suffering do we meet people who, for whatever reason, have let go of a faith that once gave meaning to their lives. Sometimes the experience of fragility evokes a longing to see again. Is that not a profound part of ministry to the suffering?

These and other Gospel stories show us what is distinctive about Christian healing ministry. Alongside our professional obligations and responsibilities it is about creating a space where people can find themselves surrounded by a loving community of care. We are privileged to be Jesus’ eyes, Jesus’ lips and Jesus’ heart to those who are suffering.  Our presence and our willingness to enter the world of those who are suffering, can offer them an experience that assures them that they are not alone, that Jesus is holding them in their struggle and even in the midst of suffering they can experience the peace that comes from being at home with themselves.

One of the biggest challenges for anyone working in health care is to have the courage to resist the superficiality of a too busy culture and come home to our own hearts.  Only by doing this can we help those who are suffering and in our care do the same. Good, holistic medical and nursing care can encourage those who are sick and the dying to think deeply about their lives and their relationships, to open themselves to the mysterious depths of their own heart and to experience the good news: the news that they are overwhelmingly held in love where they are, in their living and in their dying. Whatever the prognosis we are never alone. God is with us in ways we cannot comprehend. Each person working in Health Care has his or her special way of making Jesus’ love present and tangible, something that happens when heart speaks to heart.