The Common Good
September-October 2002

Placebos of Power

by Sharon H. Ringe | September-October 2002

A Bible study on health, healing and justice.

The gospels all agree on two dimensions of Jesus' ministry: He proclaimed the reign of God, and he was known as a healer. We often refer to the healings he performed as "miracles." But "miracle," in the sense of an instance where natural laws are transcended, is a modern notion. Our questions to these accounts of healings often begin with skepticism that anything "really" happened. We then ask about the diagnosis and treatment by which the cure was effected. Did the blindness or paralysis have a physical cause or a psychological one? Was the apparent healing simply the result of a placebo effect in which the encounter did what was anticipated?

Ancient communities did not share our assumptions about natural laws and cause and effect and took for granted that the described transformation did occur. They asked only under whose power healing took place (Mark 3:21-27) and what other meanings it conveyed. Jesus' work of healing touched many dimensions of his life, ministry, and identity as God's Anointed One: the coming of the reign of God with its message of "good news to the poor," people's struggle to walk in covenant with God, and the meaning of "faith" itself. In short, Jesus' healing works involve divine power expressed on behalf of justice and wholeness and, ultimately, a life so authentic that death itself cannot end it.

HEALTH CARE IN the world of Jesus and of the gospel writers depended on economic status. If one were wealthy, one could hire a personal "physician" who knew the latest and best "science" about the human body, illness, and health. A wealthy person would be cared for at home and, if the treatment were successful, be restored to his or her rightful place in the household structure, which was the basis of the social order. If one were less wealthy, but still fairly well integrated into the economic and social order, one would probably go to one of the healing centers dedicated to various gods. Treatments included the use of herbs, sleep therapy, the arts (especially music, theater, and dance), and various prayers and religious offerings. Again, if healed, the person would be restored to his or her appropriate social status.

Illness or injury represented a temporary or aberrant interruption of the good order of society. For both the wealthy and those of more modest means, treatment was aimed at the restoration and continuity of that good order. The cost of such continuity was often heavy, and if the illness proved intransigent, the person or even the entire household might find their economic status drastically reduced.

The poor had no such options. The disabled or chronically ill would usually have had to subsist by begging. Families whose bread was won by day laborers barely able to gain the day's wage needed for survival would have had nothing left for medical expenses. They would have had to wait until an itinerant healer came through town. These healers were often herbalists and practitioners of other such forms of therapy, as well as invoking more explicitly religious cures.

Healers would address the overtly physical manifestations of the problem, as well as the understanding that disease or disability reflected something out of order between the person suffering and the divine powers. They often linked their work to a social critique and calls for reform that appealed to those who had little or no stake in the continuation of the existing social order. Some itinerant healers were legitimate and others were quacks. In any event, they were the medical care providers for the poor and also for the desperate—the well-to-do for whom other means had been unsuccessful.

Healing as good news to the poor. Apparently Jesus was recognized in his own day as one of these itinerant healers. Even though healing was not the basis for claims about his messianic role or divine identity, the gospels' interpretation of his identity and power include frequent references to that activity. It provided evidence of Jesus' power, but also an enacted word of God's grace and justice and the in-breaking of God's reign, the divine alternative to the Roman empire in which people were living.

In all arenas of life, Jesus' proclamation turned the imperial values upside down: the criteria by which goods, labor, and persons acquired value; the way the "leasts," the "lasts," and the "losts" became the most treasured; the identification of the poor as heirs of the royal power and the oppressed as heirs of the land (Matthew 5:3, 5). Jesus' work as a healer also announced that overturning of priorities and the reintegration into the very heart of God's redeeming love of those whose physical condition pushed them to the margins of society.

Healing and covenant holiness. In the time of Jesus and of the gospel writers, Judaism was a religion of rich diversity within a shared commitment to walk faithfully in covenant with God. The stories about Jesus' healing on the Sabbath need to be seen in the light of the question of what Sabbath-keeping—one of the commandments of the Decalogue—involved. Exodus 20:8 (and also Deuteronomy 5:12) gives the bottom line: "Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy." That was generally interpreted to mean refraining from work (Exodus 20:9-11: Deuteronomy 5:13-15). The question carried in the gaze of those watching Jesus in Mark 3:1-6 (presumably the Pharisees mentioned in 2:24) was whether Jesus would violate the Sabbath by doing work (curing the man) on that day, even though his condition was not life-threatening. (Life-threatening conditions could always be dealt with on the Sabbath—see Matthew 12:11-12; Luke 13:15). Jesus presumably could have told the man to come to him after sunset, and no question would have been raised.

As the story is told, Jesus is said to pose a new question that invokes the commandment of Exodus 20:8: What conveys the holiness appropriate to the Sabbath (Mark 3:4)? The answer implied in the narrative is that holiness is "doing good" by conveying the needed healing, and that withholding that "good" is the same as profaning the Sabbath. To make matters even more clear, Jesus is not described as doing any actual work but merely as telling the man to stretch out his (now healed) hand. The accent in the story is not on Jesus' powers, but on a refocused picture of behavior that hallows the day by action and not inaction, and by action aimed at life and wholeness in contrast to the death plot hatched by those who opposed Jesus (Mark 3:6).

Healing and faith. Jesus' work of healing is also linked to "faith," whether of the person healed (Mark 5:34), of family members (Mark 5:36), or of friends (Mark 2:5). Such passages pose pastoral problems for modern readers who wrestle with the converse question: If healing does not occur, does that mean that someone's faith was somehow inadequate? The biblical authors do not address that issue, though, and we spin out such corollaries at our own risk. Similarly, the biblical authors do not elaborate on what "faith" means. Modern interpreters often assume that it means recognizing Jesus' identity as the Christ, but often the narratives themselves posit faith as simply as in Matthew 9:28: "Do you believe that I am able to do this?"

The double narrative of Mark 5:21-43 is a good place to look at the link of faith and healing. The story of the woman with the hemorrhage is framed by the story of Jairus's daughter. In the framing story, the girl's father, a leader of the synagogue, turns to Jesus when the daughter seems at the point of death. During the delay caused by Jesus' interaction with the woman, the girl appears to have died (5:39), but Jesus takes the girl's hand and lifts her up, and she is restored to life (5:42). The faith at issue comes in Jesus' word to silence those who advise the parents to give up (5:36). In the woman's story (5:25-34), Jesus affirms that her faith has made her well (which the narrator tells us in 5:29), before he tells her to "go in peace and be healed of your disease" (5:34). The words said in the silence of her own heart (5:28) express only the confidence that to touch him will be sufficient for her healing, and her subsequent speech is said only to be "the whole truth" (5:33).

Neither story points to a Christological confession about Jesus, but rather to the simple confidence in a desperate moment to entrust one's own life or that of a loved one to someone who offers an alternative to the apparently dead-end place to which one has come. Intractable disease has a power to level social and economic differences, whether literally as in the woman's case (5:26) or in the relentless efforts evoked by a parent's love. Jesus' work of healing opens up a space where life seems to have closed, and makes a way out of no way, with faith as the only "fee" that is charged.

Healing in the gospels thus represents the good news of God's reign freely offered, with no cost beyond trust and literally embodied in human lives. Like all glimpses of God's will for life and for justice, this one too comes first to those society casts aside. Physical illness or disability is the criterion for exclusion in these stories. Along with gender, race, culture, and class, these factors challenge us to envision and commit ourselves to the new world glimpsed in the life and ministry of Jesus and still calling to us from the future of God's design.

Sharon H. Ringe was professor of New Testament at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C., when this article appeared.

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