Luke 13: 10-17
Two thousand years ago, they were everywhere! In the streets, around the baths, at the city gates, in the market, around the synagogue. It was hard to go anywhere without having to step around them, hear their cries, dodge their outstretched hands. The crippled, the paralyzed, the blind, the mute, the old widows, the mentally deranged. There was, of course, no welfare programs, no social security, no hospitals, no nursing homes. Joseph Lister would not develop the antiseptic for 1800 years; aspirin would not be available until 1889, insulin until 1921, modern surgery and workable prosthetic devices not until World War I.
In Jesus’ day, babies born prematurely or with obvious defects – cleft palates, open spines, even birthmarks and crossed eyes– were abandoned by the road; life spans were short and many did not live long enough to develop the infirmities now associated with old age. Severed limbs resulted in death, as did diabetes, pneumonia, ulcers, burns, strep throat, infected cuts. But those hardy enough to live, lived lives of suffering abated only by herbal remedies and superstition.
And, so, wherever Christ went – wherever!—he was followed by the sick. “Jesus, over here. Come heal my daughter!” “Lord, have mercy on me, I cannot walk.” “Have mercy on us, Son of David, we have been blind since birth!” “Jesus, Jesus of Nazareth, my daughter is at home, near death.” I can’t imagine how overwhelming it must have been for Jesus!
And in today’s lesson, Christ is teaching in one of the synagogues he sometimes frequented. On the way in, he had likely threaded his way through a swarm of sick and poor in the courtyard. And here, inside, he sees another one– a woman—who is so crippled she is forked at the waist. Christ is so moved that he pauses in his lecture to call her over.
And then he heals her. He heals her! She straightens her spine and stands erect. She begins to laugh and cry and praise God. The priests are stunned. This isn’t something they see every day. In fact, this isn’t something they have ever seen! Then a stern voice breaks the silence: “Young man, have you forgotten that this is the Sabbath? You have broken the law by working on the Sabbath! And you people, why have you crowded in here on the Lord’s day to be healed? Go away! We cure Monday through Saturday, not on the Sabbath! Come back later!
Jesus must surely have thought this ludicrous! Laughable! How classic! This religious leader could not deny what had happened! So his only recourse was to catch Christ on some minor legal detail. But Jesus maintains composure and turns the pharisee’s argument on itself: “If the law says we may untie and water our livestock on the Sabbath, how much more worthy is it to unbind this woman from her suffering!” And, for once, the priest was silenced. Luke says that Christ’s opponents were put to shame, and the entire crowd rejoiced at the wonderful things Christ was doing!
I want to talk a little about this healing. We don’t know what the woman’s affliction was – the text says she had been crippled “with a spirit” for 18 years. Was it demonic, psychological? Had she been abused, devalued? Or was it physical – a stroke, arthritis, a fractured spine? Whatever it was, she had lived with it for almost two decades. It made walking torturous and exhausting. For 18 years, she had looked down at the ground, unable to raise her face to the sun, unable to see the moon, to sleep on her back, to scan the horizon, to look into faces, to exchange smiles, to look beyond her own shadow puddled at her feet. And yet, she probably made the slow round trip to the synagogue weekly.
Always before she had been disappointed, no one looked her way, spoke her name, or acknowledged her suffering. But she clung to the tiny hope that this Sabbath would be different.
And it was! This young rabbi was different. He spoke of Yahweh with such easy knowledge, emanated some unmistakable life force, a positive glow, he smiled with his whole being. And then he called her over. Yes (gesture), he was looking at her, gesturing toward her. Kneeling down, he looked up into her eyes, and put his hands on her shoulders. “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” //
You know, throughout the gospels, Jesus repeats this pattern of healing: looking at the person, touching, and saying the word. When he healed the blind, he looked into their faces, touched their eyes, and said, by faith you are healed (Matthew 9: 27-31). Jesus knelt beside an “unclean” leper, stretched out his hand and touched him, and said, “Be made clean.” (Mark 1: 40-41) To the leader’s child who had died, Christ knelt down, took her little hand, and said, “Little girl, get up.” (Mark 5: 41) For the woman who had suffered prolonged bleeding, all it took was to touch Christ’s clothing and hear him say, “Go in peace, and be healed.” (Mark 5:34) In each case, the Healer bends down to really look at the suffering, gives healing tough, and declares, in faith, their healing.
The question is always, could we heal like that? Would the formula work for us? I believe that God, working through those of great faith, still can and still does perform complete and miraculous healings! On a smaller scale, I believe that Jesus’ method of seeing, touching, and speaking healing words still has profound benefits for the sick.
But many of our health professionals don’t do it. “Basic things make a difference in patient outcomes and they’re not being done to the extent they should be,” says Leonard S. Feldman, assistant professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and an associate director of the hospital’s internal medicine residency program. The five key strategies basic to patient etiquette are (1) introducing oneself, (2) explaining one’s role in the patient’s care, (3) sitting down with the patient, (4) touching the patient, and (5) asking open-ended questions such as “How are you feeling today?” “What is the outcome you want from your care?”
Sadly, a study of Intern behavior found that interns touched their patients) during 65 percent of visits and asked open-ended questions 75 percent of the time. But sat down with the patient during only 9 percent of visits. Increasingly, those who do sit down spend the majority of their time keying information into their computers rather than making eye contact with the patient. And the majority of touch is clinical i.e. listening to the heart or palpating the body. There were far fewer instances of shaking hands, putting a hand on the shoulder, or patting a knee.
The classic textbook study on the healing benefits of touch was conducted by Harry Harlow in the 1940s. Infant monkeys when separated from their mothers, were given a choice of two surrogates. One was a wire frame monkey that dispensed milk, the other a soft, cloth-covered monkey that did not provide milk. The monkeys uniformly preferred the cloth monkey over the food, because it offered comfort. In human infants, researchers now know that human touch is so critical that its absence retards growth. Certain brain chemicals released by touch determine whether an infant will thrive or languish and die.
In some of the most dramatic new findings, premature infants in hospitals who were gently massaged for 15 minutes three times a day gained weight 47 percent faster than others who were left alone in their incubators. Their nervous systems matured more rapidly: they became more active and more responsive than the other babies.
The benefits of touch are not limited to infants. The elderly – especially those who live alone — also benefit. Just as they/we/all of us benefit from healing words. “Keep going.” “You are looking brighter today.” “Your walking has improved so much.” “We are praying for you!” “How fortunate that you have such good care providers!” “Your positive spirit is an inspiration to me!” These words – so simple, so easy, and yet so powerful—may be the only personal message they receive all day or week. When the visit is over, the positive thoughts remain. Sitting down with someone, looking at them, touching them, speaking words of affirmation and healing. This is Jesus’ formula. When we go out to minister to the sick, this is our handbook.
And –remember– Jesus still heals. Truth is, we are– all of us– bent over. We mortals limit our view to what is safe, secure, and known. We spend our lives looking at our feet, rooted where we stand, unable to look up at all that would astound and inspire! We walk through the rituals of our faith, but perhaps we have given up hope that God will call us out, and free us of our limitations. But Jesus is still very much about the work of healing. He heals our bodies, minds, and spirits so that we can go out in His name, look into weak eyes, sit down at the bedside, put an arm around someone’s shoulder, and speak the healing words: “Dear one, don’t despair, Christ knows your affliction and he does not want that anyone should suffer. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, AMEN.”