In the healing narrative recorded in Mark 1:40-45, a man with leprosy says to Jesus, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Jesus does so choose and makes him well. In one of the healing stories in the Gospel of John (5:2-9), Jesus initiates the conversation with a man who had been ill for thirty-eight years, asking him, “Do you want to be made well?” This man never says he wants to be made well; he just says he has no one to put him into the pool of Bethesda, known for its healing powers. Jesus heals him anyway.
In I Kings 5:1-14, this week’s lectionary passage from the Hebrew Bible, we find another man with leprosy, Naaman, an important military leader. At first he thought he was too good to wash in the Jordan River, as Elisha had instructed him to do if he wanted to be healed. But Naaman finally did wash seven times in the Jordan, and he was healed. It seems that he had a choice, and he chose to do what was necessary for healing.
So does God choose to heal some people and not others? Does healing depend on something the person has to do—like want to be healed, choose to be healed, wash in a river, eat the right foods, exercise, etc.? As a chaplain with cancer patients, I have wrestled with these questions for many years. These are some of the questions we’ll explore on Sunday.
Cancer is like leprosy in some ways. It has social as well as physical consequences. Even though most people no longer have rational beliefs that cancer is contagious, they may withdraw from their ill friends because of their own fears of illness and mortality. People with HIV/AIDS, mental illness, and other illnesses may also experience social ostracism because of people’s fears and ignorance about the diseases.
So maybe we’re not so far removed from these biblical stories about lepers. And even if we don’t believe illness is caused by sin, a common assumption in the first century, our modern “health and fitness” culture often suggests that our wellness and healing are in our own hands. We need to eat right, exercise, meditate, pray, manage stress, have faith, think positively, etc., to prevent cancer and other illnesses, and then if we become ill, to cure those illnesses. And if we become ill or don’t get a cure, we may feel guilty or feel that others blame us because we didn’t have enough faith and/or the best lifestyle. What complicates things is that some lifestyle behaviors, like smoking, may cause illnesses. Also, some people may want to hold on to illness because of the secondary gains they get from it, like special treatment from family and friends or exemption from demanding responsibilities and expectations. So do we have a choice in our healing?
In my experience as a chaplain, I’ve prayed with people who desperately want to be physically healed and are not, and others who don’t want to survive but who do. I’ve also seen prayers answered the way people want them to be answered. Although some progressive Christians don’t believe that Jesus actually performed miracles of healing and that supernatural healing does not happen today either, I do believe in healing miracles. I’ve seen them in my ministry as a chaplain, miraculous healings of many kinds—body, mind, spirit, social.
Another important question is this: How will we as a faith community choose to relate to people with disabilities and illnesses? In the passage for this week from the Gospel of Mark, we see that Jesus was moved with compassion for the leper and reached out to one of the most excluded members of the community. By touching this “social outcast,” Jesus restored him to the community. This social healing may have been as dramatic as the physical healing.
Do we have choices in healing, as individuals and as a faith community?