Almost exactly 9 years ago, I had to undergo surgery for a herniated disc in my lower back. I had the worst sciatica pain, which my doctors tried to treat in any way imaginable and manage with some hammer opioid pain killers, but in the end, a surgery seemed the only way to take care of the issue.
The surgery was a success in the sense that the excruciating pain I had experienced stopped. But the healing process was just starting: I had sustained major nerve damage all the way down my right leg, and it would take me some time to regain almost full strength and function of that leg. To help the process, I was sent to physical therapy. I have to say, I was quite shocked when my therapist put me on a stationary bike during our first session – and I just couldn’t do it. My right leg was too weak. And I had ridden bikes all my life!
It took several weeks and a gentle build-up of exercises to get me back to a point where I was at least approaching the normal use of that leg. And even that was not just a straight curve – one week, I was able to accomplish a certain feat, just to find that the next week, I couldn’t do it. It was almost literally two steps forward, one step back…
It took me a lot of patience to immerse myself in this healing, this therapeutic process. And, I have to be honest, it was hard for me.
But then, I also had to acknowledge: healing takes time. And that’s something that most, if not all of you, have probably experienced. I know some of you had to go through chemotherapy and radiation therapy to beat cancer. My mother is going through that right now. Healing takes time. Healing requires patience. Healing is not always easy, but sometimes requires sacrifices, more pain.
When I was going through all that therapy 9 years ago – as I am anxiously following the brutal therapeutic process my mom is going through – sometimes I wished that it was be easier. That there was a quick and clean fix, like in those days when Jesus roamed the earth and healed the blind, the lame, the lepers just like that: Go, your faith has made you well. And immediately, they were made well…
As we read today’s gospel lesson, we hear, ‘Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness.’ And I don’t know about you, but what I see in front of my inner eye when I hear that bit about Jesus curing people from any illness and disease are those quick and miraculous healings Jesus performed, people being made well in an instant.
However, if we look more closely, there is a difference between ‘being made well’ and ‘being cured’. Not only in English, but also in the original Greek of the New Testament we have two entirely different words. In today’s gospel, the Greek word ‘therapeuo’ is used for ‘curing’. And maybe you can draw the line to the words we still use in English or in German, for that matter: therapy. Therapie, therapieren. And to engage in therapy, and that was already the case in ancient, in Jesus’ days – to engage in therapy means to engage in a lengthy process that requires patience and maybe even sacrifice, more pain.
You don’t have just one session with a psychotherapist to help you with a trauma. You don’t just undergo one chemotherapy session, and your cancer is healed.
So apparently, looking at today’s gospel lesson, Jesus wasn’t just performing instant miracle healings, but also provided therapy, if you will, patiently engaging in the process of curing, of healing, and addressing issues that cannot be solved from one moment to the next.
In that context, let me also tell you that the Greek words for ‘disease’ and ‘sickness’ that are used in today’s gospel can also be understood in a figurative sense: moral weakness, the sickness of a system. This sentence from today’s gospel, that Jesus ‘cured every disease and every sickness’, could also be understood as Jesus patiently curing more than just physical ailments; and that, if you think about it, makes a lot of sense in the context of Jesus ‘proclaiming the good news of the kingdom.’ For what is the kingdom, God’s kingdom, the kingdom of heaven, other than a realm where all relationships are healed, where everyone is reconciled with God and their fellow human being? A kingdom of justice and peace for all?
Jesus came to turn the world around. And that involves the curing of moral weakness and decay – and the patient and tedious cure of sick systems – systems, in which the stronger dominates the weaker, the rich get richer at the expense of the poor, and certain groups of people are ostracized or even dehumanized. Jesus came to bring true healing – and not a quick fix for all that is broken – in us and in this world.
If Jesus had come to bring a quick fix, the kingdom of heaven would have been smack among us 2,000 years ago, no therapy, no hard work required.
But Jesus doesn’t let us off that easily. Going back to today’s gospel lesson, we hear how Jesus looks at the state of the world around him, how the people he sees are harassed and like a flock of sheep without a shepherd, without a true leader. And he turns to his disciples and, using the exact same words we heard just a few verses before about Jesus curing every disease and every sickness, tells them: Cure every disease and every sickness. Provide therapy for all that is weak and broken.
Which beckons the question: why would Jesus do this? Why would he tell his followers to continue the work he begun? Why doesn’t he just snap his fingers, and, boom, the world is healed? I don’t pretend to know the answer, but maybe it has something to do with the fact that someone needs to have the will to be healed in order to actually heal.
Going back to my surgery 9 years ago: I remember how the surgeon, before the surgery, talked to me about the process. And he was straightforward. He said, ‘If you feel sorry for yourself and dwell on your pain after the surgery or get too comfortable with all the care you receive, you’ll be in the hospital for 5 or 6 days. If you fight, if you cooperate with the therapists, you can go home after 2.’
Maybe Jesus knows that it takes our buy-in, our willingness to fight anything that is ill to be truly healed.
And so here we are, in the midst of a pandemic and grappling with some realities in our society that are very uncomfortable and show how broken and ill the system is – a system in which we have gotten used to racism in blatant and also very subtle forms, well, that’s just the way it is, and as long as it doesn’t affect me personally… A system in which we seem to think that excessive police force against protestors, the vast majority of them peaceful, is to be expected. How sick is a system, in which teens and preteens are teargassed without any provocation the moment a curfew starts, as happened in my own town of Walnut Creek? This is a system in which many long for ‘law and order’ and think that quick fixes are possible by those who talk tough and display a strong man attitude.
And we hear the words of Jesus: Proclaim the good news of the kingdom come near. Do so by curing all that is sick and broken and morally corrupt. Engage in this tedious and sometimes frustrating therapeutic process that requires a lot of patience and that may have side effect you don’t like, but that may be necessary. And know that you are sent like sheep among the wolves…
And I’m thinking, whoa! All this makes me extremely uneasy and uncomfortable, because I have the tendency to not want to offend anyone. Darn it Jesus, why can’t there be an easy fix, an instant cure that requires no effort on our, on my part? Why can’t I just be nice to others and live my life as inoffensively as I can, minding my own business?
And I can hear the answer: because, says Jesus, because there is no easy fix. If there was, I wouldn’t have had to die on the cross to show how much in need of healing you are, how much in need of healing the world is. My therapy for the world involves the severe and painful side effect of my death. This is how much I love you. This is how much I want for you and the world to truly be cured and healed. And now go as I told you: go in my peace and serve me.
Picture by Andrew Winkler on unsplash.com
This post is also available in: German