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The Gospel and Your Health

Mark 5: 21-43

Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time/ 27th July 2003

© Reverend Kenneth E. Kovacs
Catonsville Presbyterian Church
Catonsville,  Maryland

Long before the expansive extensions at the Johns Hopkins Medical Center, the primary way of entering the hospital was through the western doors, into that great space underneath the dome.  If you walk through that space you will be greeted by a massive, towering statue of Jesus, made of white marble.  Most visitors to the hospital these days never get to see the statue.  If you enter through the parking deck to the south, a new hallway completely bypasses the great hall.  In order for me to find the statue of Jesus, I had to go looking for it.

From the early days of the church there has always been a strong connection between Jesus and healing, between faith and health.  It’s not surprising that hospitals were places of healing and refuge established by Roman Catholic monks and nuns, just one more way of expressing the hospitality of Jesus.  The death of Sister Mary Thomas this weekend is a case in point.  As a Roman Catholic sister, she was responsible for building Mercy Medical Center downtown into the renowned center of healing it is today; it was extension of her service to Jesus Christ.

But I find it striking that the great statue of Jesus has a commanding presence in such a secular, non-sectarian hospital, like Hopkins.[1]  About a year ago, I saw a documentary on public television about faith and healing that focused upon Hopkins.  The producers placed a camera in the great hall and kept it there for more than twenty-four hours, directed at the big right toe of the Jesus statue.  Watching those who passed by (mostly doctors, nurses, and support staff) it was amazing to see how many brushed up against the statue just to touch it, sometimes casually brushing their hands over his big toe as they walked by – superstitious, perhaps – yet, reaching out for a source beyond their own resources to do the work set before them.  The connection remains between Jesus and health.

It’s not unlike this story in Mark.  What we have here is an account of two miracles that come immediately after the exorcism of the Gerasene Demoniac, possessed by a whole legion of demons.  Here, one of the leaders of the synagogue, named Jairus, who at the first sight of Jesus falls to his feet and explains that his daughter is close to death.  “Come lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well and live.”  On the way to Jairus’ home, the crowd gathers around him.  In the crowd is a woman who has been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years.  She says to herself, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.”  She grabs hold of his cloak and immediately the bleeding stops.  Sensing that power had flowed from him, Jesus seeks out the woman and once found, assures her that she is healed.  By the time Jesus reaches Jairus’ home the girl has died.  The mourners are already there weeping.  But Jesus takes no notice of them, especially the ones mocking Jesus for trying to do something.  “Who do you think you are? God or something?”  Well…Yes.  Jesus goes into the room of the dead girl.  Her parents are there, too, and some disciples.  Jesus picks up the girls hand and says quite tenderly, “Talitha cum.”  “Little girl – literally, little lamb -- get up!”  And immediately, she get ups, begins to walk, and has a bite to eat.

There’s a whole lot of gospel goin’ on in these two stories.  In order to see it, we need to know a few things first.  Mark is a gifted storyteller.  This is an intentionally crafted narrative.  There’s a reason why Mark includes this story.  Nothing is here by chance.  The text is coded, as it were, and it means little if you don’t understand the codes and interpret them.  What we have here is a healing story within a story:  one is the daughter of a rich man, part of the establishment, yet his status and wealth could not save his daughter; the other woman is nameless, poor, she has spent all her savings searching for a cure, victim of a failing health system.  Mark writes, “She endured much under many physicians.” (It is curious that in the gospel according to Luke we find this same story, but Luke, who was a physician, deletes this sentence from the account.)  Both the rich and the poor suffer and both are intricately related.

Jairus and this unknown woman both seek out Jesus for healing.  This is obvious from a surface reading of the text.  Jesus is a miracle worker. This isn’t anything new.  But, actually, Mark wants us to turn our heads away from the miracle.  There were many other spiritual folks performing miracles in Jesus time.  The miracles don’t prove very much.  What the miracles do convey in Mark’s gospel is a message to all those experiencing and witnessing healing:  through an unknown woman and a dead, little girl Jesus uses this occasion to show us the inbreaking of God’s kingdom.

We need to remember something about Judaism at this time.  We learn from Leviticus 15: 19-30, that Judaism had a fear of blood.  The presence of blood made one ritually unclean, therefore unacceptable to God.  This was generally true for women on a monthly basis, but this poor unnamed woman had been unclean for twelve years.  Judaism was obsessed with ritual purity.  Impurity of any kind was not acceptable within the community, or the temple, and therefore with God.  Leviticus offers rituals that allowed one to become clean and then welcomed back into the community.  These laws were in effect in Jesus’ time.  Not only is this poor woman unclean, everything she touches become unclean, too.  Would you have reached out to her?  Would you?    She stands condemned, alone, rejected by her community and by her faith for something she has no control over.  She is a desperate woman, caught in a living hell and therefore has nothing to lose by being there, polluting the crowd.  She attempts one last grasp for anything, even the garment of this man she hardly knows.  She reaches out to Jesus’ cloak, almost superstitiously, and is healed.

We learn from Numbers 19: 11-13, similar laws apply when it comes to touching a corpse.  “Those who touch the dead body of any human being shall be unclean seven days.”  Already impure by having been touched by the woman, Jesus becomes further impure by touching the dead girl and invites her back to life.

In both healings Jesus effectively ignores the purity laws.  They don’t faze him.  His words and actions reveal something far more important than purity.   More important than purity is the kingdom of God.  Jesus embodies the way God breaks into our mundane, death-producing lives with the life-giving way of God, the way of God ushers in a new world where people are more important than laws, where justice, and healing, and restoration are the norm, the way of God that is willing to undergo suffering and death for the sake of a fallen creation, it’s the way of God that undermines and calls into question the status quo of political, economic, and even religious institutions that sanction death and offers instead the way toward salvation.

This is the point.  Five times the phrase “be made well” and “healing” are used here.  You see the word used for “healing” and “wellness” in this text, and everywhere else it occurs in the New Testament, is the root for both savior and salvation.  From this we are forced to revise our understanding of “salvation;” from this we need to redefine the way we think about “health.”  Salvation is more than an experience of an individual soul divorced from the body entering through the Pearly Gates.  In these stories, this woman and this girl experienced salvation of both body and soul. You can’t have one without the other.  First century Jews did not speak of a separation of body and soul. The Greeks did and we’ve been more influenced by them (unfortunately).  Jesus never made this separation.  For the first Christians, Jesus was savior of people -- soul and body -- as well as the savior of the created order.  Salvation is comprehensive, all encompassing.  In fact, the Christian vision is not a resurrection of the soul, but a resurrection of the body which includes the soul – the total person.  This means that Christians can’t honestly talk about salvation or even claim that they’re saved, unless this new way of being is enfleshed, that is bodily expressed in the way we live our lives.  Salvation in the kingdom always has social, political, economic and religious consequences.  The gospel, the minister and prophet, George Macleod (1895-1991) used to say is “whole salvation, not soul salvation.”[2]  Grace must touch everything.

This is the biblical view of healing – it’s all connected.  We need to have a comprehensive view of health.  Only recently have health sciences begun to move closer to this view with the exploration of holistic medicine.  Doctors are looking at disease in terms of the larger system of the body, including a spirit or soul element.  Studies have shown that those who approach surgery with a positive frame of mind and with prayer heal faster.  We know the role negative stress can play in arthritis, multiple sclerosis, heart disease and some forms of cancer.  We’re beginning to see that our bodies communicate with us that all is not well with our soul.  And sometimes our souls can tell us all is not well with our bodies.  One cardiologist has done a study on the phrases we use to describe physical ailments.  People often refer to their bodies or organs as objectified things, referring to them as an it.  “It’s my heart, doctor, it’s giving me problems.”  This cardiologist suggests it might be more appropriate to say, “Doctor, a part of me is hurting.”  Hear the change?  The latter view point holds the body and soul together.  Some doctors like to treat the symptoms, whether through medicine or surgery, instead of treating the whole person.  Other doctors are now trying to healing the symptom by looking at the deep underlying cause of the disease, causes that might be psychological or even spiritual.  Indeed, some churches today have hired parish nurses who help the pastor care for the whole person.

The holistic approach is beautifully illustrated in the text.  The woman reaches out to be healed.  Power is released from Jesus.  But what does Jesus do?  He seeks her out; he goes looking for her.  She returns in fear and trembling.  Why does he do this?  The bleeding had stopped.  But this wasn’t enough.  Could it be that Jesus went searching for her because he knew that well-being, wholeness, true healing involved more than removing the symptom?  Was it because she needed a more comprehensive form of health, one that allowed her to be healed in body and in soul?  Healing requires more than just removing the symptom or disease.  She needed to be seen as a person who was suffering.  She was not the disease.  She was a person and part of her was hurting.  She needed to be seen as a person and it takes another person for us to be seen.  Deep healing takes place when she meets Jesus face-to-face.  It’s only then that Jesus grants her peace, free to go affirmed as a whole person, free to rejoin her family and community.

The will of God is a redeemed humanity.[3]  The work of God in Christ is the redemption of our humanity – so that we can become whole people, our brokenness restored.  The goal of creation is wholeness, our well-being, our health, our salvation – a healing that allows a woman who was formerly an outcast to enter back into society, affirmed as a person; a girl brought back to life, a twelve year old girl, invited to walk into adulthood.  That’s the gospel.

The work of the Holy Spirit is to move us to that place of healing.  This is what Jesus came announcing.  It’s as if when Jesus lifts the cup of wine at the Last Supper he effectively says, “To your health!”  It’s the health of your body and your soul, a salvation that is exhaustive and touches every aspect of our lives.

What a different place the church of Jesus Christ would be today if we both preached and practiced a holistic understanding of salvation. We would be more person-focused, more personal, more human, and more humane.  Maybe the church would be a healthier place.  Maybe the world would be healthier.  Lord, may it be so.


[1] The “Christus Consolator” or “The Divine Healer” statue was a gift to The Johns Hopkins Hospital by one of their trustees, William Wallace Spence.  It is a replica of an 1820 work by the Danish sculptor Bertel Thorwaldsen (1770-1844).  The original stands on the high altar of the Cathedral (Vor Frue Kirke – Danish National  Evangelical Lutheran Church) in Copenhagen.  It was unveiled at the hospital on 14th October 1889. Even though the hospital is nonsectarian and founded by the Quakers, it is believed the gift was sought to offset criticism from the more conservative element in late 19th century Baltimore that the Hospital had no religious affiliation. See www.hopkinsmedicine.org/spirituality.html#statue   for more information concerning the statue.

[2] Cited in Ron Ferguson’s biography  George Macleod:  Founder of the Iona Community (London:  HarperCollins, 1990), p. 190.

[3]Theologian Elizabeth Schussler-Fiorenza notes that Jesus’ vision of the kingdom “makes people whole, healthy, cleansed, and strong.  It restores people’s humanity and life.  The salvation of the kingdom is not confined to the soul but spells wholeness for the total person in her/his social relations.  The exorcisms of Jesus acknowledge that there are dehumanizing powers in the world that are not under our control.  However, Jesus is not so much concerned about polluting power as with their debilitating dehumanizing power.”  In Memory of Her:  A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins (New York:  Crossroad, 1988), p. 123.