Monday, January 17, 2011

Why Did Jesus Heal?

One way in which Jesus' mighty works were evidently understood by some was that they were the signs of the long-awaited fulfillment of prophecy. For a first century Jew, most if not all the works of healing, which form the bulk of Jesus' mighty works, could be seen as a restoration to membership in Israel to those who, through sickness or whatever, had been excluded as ritually unclean. The healings thus function in exact parallel with the welcome of sinners, and this, we may be quite sure, was what Jesus himself intended. (JVG 191).
I think that this is one of the best observations Wright makes in the first third of JVG and I'd like to develop it a little bit. Several months ago, when reading the opening chapters of Mark's gospel, I noticed something striking. Right after the temptation, Jesus is said to go around proclaiming the good news but what Mark writes about is the calling of the disciples and a series of healings and exorcisms. We don't get any teachings of Jesus until the middle of chapter two (the contrast with Matthew - who mentions the healings and gives us the Sermon on the Mount - is striking).

What is Mark's point? I think it's twofold. One, it's very important to make the observation that Wright does above. Jesus didn't heal just for the sake of healing people. He healed with a purpose, the purpose of including the outsider, the marginalized. It symbolized his restoration of the lost sheep of Israel.

There's another important facet, however (and Wright does point out something along these lines later on in JVG). Mark seems to have a particular interest in Jesus' exorcisms. By doing these healing and exorcisms, Jesus was showing that the kingdom of God was breaking in right then, that he was destroying the hold that satan had over these people. By adding in this point we see how in a very full sense Jesus healings are an exact parallel with his welcome of sinners. In their case, and in the case of all who are saved, Jesus had to break the power of sin, death and the devil. Jesus' healings prefigured the healing of the nations that he performed on the cross. By a mighty act he defeated satan and allowed outsiders into the family of God.

The question that this drives me to ask is this: How do we walk in Jesus' footsteps? I think that there are a lot of paths we could take, but I don't think that seeking the physical healing of others is the main one. That is not to say that we shouldn't pray for healings, I just don't think it's a primary way in which we imitate Christ, because in Jesus' ministry inclusion was primary, with breaking satan's power being a necessary condition.

However, I believe that we do have lepers in our day; people who are excluded because of the state of their physical bodies; the handicapped. Our job as the church is to reach out to those whom society has determined to be 'the least,' whether it be through advocacy or through inclusion in our church bodies. If the church could embrace the handicapped it would be a beautiful sign of the kingdom of God breaking in here and now.


  1. Interesting. I'm sure Wright is correct to see that there.

    Beyond that, though, I wonder what Wright would say about the early church (thinking, Acts) and healing. It would be harder to make that same point, in my opinion, when you start moving beyond Jewish communities.

  2. I wonder the same thing and that's why I tried to be careful in the way I worded things in the application at the end. Perhaps the healings in Acts were a bit different in purpose than Jesus' healings? If there's anyone out there reading this who's read Wright's Acts for Everyone, please chime in!

    The further I get into JVG the more and more trouble I have figuring out how certain aspects of his understanding Jesus mesh with the rest of the NT (e.g., forgiveness of sins=end of exile) and this isn't a new question for me about Wright (as I think we've discussed before). But(!) his presentation of Jesus is very compelling and makes a lot of sense at many points.

  3. Your last paragraph is dead on. I'm just not always sure how we're supposed to get from Wright's Jesus to Acts, the apostles or, ultimately, the final restoration of the Kingdom in Revelation.

    Some of it I can see. While I think he makes the end of exile theme too central, it's hard to argue with the evidence (especially at the beginnings Matthew and Luke). And I can see how we get from Israel's return from exile to the inclusion of Gentiles in Paul's mission, since the Gentiles coming to worship YHWH was prophesied as a result of the return. Mind you, I'm not sure Paul ever makes that connection, which sure would bolster Wright's case, but I can see it.

    But I can't figure out how we get from Jesus' healings to the apostles' if Wright's view exhausts the possibility. And I certainly can't see how we get the return of Christ if all Jesus cared about was the destruction of the temple.

    Going back to the healing point, I think it's a classic case of Wright limiting Jesus to speaking about Israel, when the Kingdom is much larger than that. If you see the problem of sickness, demon possession, etc., in the bigger picture of God's plan for the world, healings become much more important as God's kingdom (where there is no death or sickness or pain, etc) which will cover the whole earth. As both Justin Martyr and Jurgenn Moltmann have said, Jesus' healings point to the resurrection to come- which is the ultimate defeat of sickness and death.

    Interestingly, Wright is phenomenal at the big picture in so many places, but I can't figure out where his Jesus fits into it. Weird.