Kyrie Eleison! God, make us well
Of all the miracles Jesus performed prior to His death, which are the ones that speak most to you personally? You can take a second to think about this, and you don’t have to respond out loud.
If I had to rank Jesus’s miracles in order of how much awe they inspire in me, the healing of the sick is definitely at the top of my list. That’s probably unsurprising, given that I’m a wannabe doctor, but it’s true: the instantaneous ability to end the physical suffering of others sounds like a really cool ability to me. In our Gospel reading for tonight, we see one of many Biblical examples in which Jesus uses that ability; ten men with leprosy approach Him and ask for His healing. He tells them to show themselves to the priests, and along the way, they are cleansed of their sickness. One man comes back to praise Jesus, and He tells the man that his faith has made him well. It is an uplifting story, and it’s one I have heard many times having grown up in the Church. But when I read it to prepare for tonight, I realized something that had never before occurred to me.
My realization was brought on by a discussion I had in one of my classes. This semester I’m in an English course called Writing and Medicine—some of you have heard me talk about it—and among the many topics we discuss is the definition of “healthy” and of someone being “healed.” Typically, most people think of being healed as a finite thing; you had this illness, but now you don’t, so you are healthy. You are well. People come to doctors to be healed, and doctors become doctors to make sure their patients stay healthy and can continue living their lives. But that’s the funny thing about health—no one stays well, ultimately. Modern medicine is about putting out fires, over and over again, and every patient eventually runs into an issue we cannot solve, whether it be an illness or just old age. Doctors exist to prolong people’s lives and to make quality of life better, but they are not granters of immortality. It may not be something we think about often, but it is true, and I think Jesus knew that when He told the healed man that his faith had made him well. Clearly the man was now healthy in a physical sense, but that is only a temporary solution, and I doubt Jesus was saying, “your faith has made it so that you will no longer age or ever get sick again.” Furthermore, Jesus only says this to the one man who returns to thank Him, not to the other nine who were also healed. So what does wellness mean in this particular context?
If Jesus is not talking only about physical health, He must also be talking about wellness in a spiritual sense. This makes sense; we nourish our souls when we have faith in God; our faith makes us well. But why does Jesus only make this statement to the man who returns to thank Him? Didn’t the other nine men have enough faith to be healed? Surely, then, they must have enough faith for Jesus to proclaim that they have been made spiritually well like the grateful man. Is Jesus just annoyed at the others? He did seem rather peeved at the 10% return rate. So what are we to take away from this passage? Maybe it’s just a friendly reminder that God likes it when we thank God for the good things in our life, and we should remember to add that to our checklist along with our English homework and our groceries?
Although that may be the case, I rather doubt it. I don’t think God wants our gratitude to be mechanical; God doesn’t want us to be thankful just because we are afraid we will stop receiving good things if we’re not. Instead, what we see over and over again in the Bible is that God wants a profound, loving, reciprocated relationship with us. And ultimately, I think that truth is also one of the main lessons of this passage. Let’s go back, for a moment, to the beginning of the story. Jesus goes to a village; ten men with leprosy meet Him. They stand at a distance and cry out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”
The word mercy here is interesting. In the original Greek, it is eleison, which is a very broad word that does a lot of heavy lifting in the Bible. When it is used to address God, it usually carries the connotation of Divine mercy. It is used to describe Jesus’s sacrifice on the Cross. On the other hand, when it is used in reference to a human person, it is a word that denotes “the kindness that we owe each other in mutual relationships”. The Bible uses eleison to describe the act of the Good Samaritan when he cares for the stranger he finds left for dead on the road. The New Testament uses this word to talk about our God-given obligation to treat each other with grace and kindness. So eleison means different things in different contexts; when we talk about God, it’s a one-sided term, but when we talk about humans, it connotes a kind of mutuality. Jesus, as it turns out, is both God and human, so when the ten men with leprosy ask him to have mercy on them, both senses of the term apply. From context, we can guess that they mostly meant it in the one-sided, God-save-us kind of way; they stand at a distance, not daring to come near because of the terrible stigma of their condition, and then when they receive their healing, nine of them just continue with their lives. But one man comes back. He draws physically near to Jesus, literally throwing himself at Christ’s feet, and praises God in a loud voice. Although he cannot ever pay Jesus back, there is a kind of reciprocation here, a mutuality that is absent in the case of the other nine men. He has closed the communication loop. His outpouring of gratitude is a reflection of his love, of his willingness to be in relationship with God. It’s this relationship, made possible through his faith, that is ultimately what makes him well—not only in a temporary physical sense but also in a more permanent spiritual one.
Of course, it’s all great for me to be able to say that this man was made well because of his faith. But what about those times when we feel like we don’t have enough faith in the first place? Are we just doomed to a life of spiritual illness? The good news here is that even when we struggle, God’s love and grace is big enough to sustain us. Our Jeremiah reading for today makes that clear. In God’s new covenant, God tells us, “I will put my law in their minds / and write it on their hearts. / I will be their God, / and they will be my people.” Even if it feels like we are sorely lacking, Jesus can work with whatever little we have. Jesus is willing to do the hard work necessary to build a relationship with us, as evidenced by His death on the Cross. The only thing He requires is that we be open to having that relationship, even and especially when we feel that we are not enough. And when we do that, God promises that God’s love is sufficient to make us well. Amen.