Thursday, June 30, 2011

Healing the Inside by Healing the Outside

My father's mother was raised in an extremely religious family. Her father, a minister in a Pentecostal church that I would best describe as Holy Roller, believed in demonic possession. Sadly, my Grandmother was stricken with a variety of physical maladies that left her constantly ill and often bedridden. Following the teachings of her upbringing, his mother dragged my father to one church after another, all in the hopes that someone could cure her. Taking the miracles of Jesus as literally true, she was certain that someone out there possessed the ability. This belief was so strong that she sometimes gave money to televangelists who promised to do the very same thing.

I've never known quite what to make of these frequent anecdotes about Jesus' healing powers. Though I do not believe in an interpretation of Christianity that, to me, seems excessive and illogical, there would have been times in my own life that I would have wanted someone to cast out the demons inside of me, too. Living in the Twenty-First Century, I know too much about medical science and body processes to put much stock in the idea that evil forces are occupying my body. Reading the scriptural passages describing physical illness now, I usually translate them into modern day terminology. Mental illness seems to have plagued several who desperately reached out for Jesus' healing touch. Seizures were the scourge of another. No effective treatment for leprosy existed back then. The list goes on and on.

It seems that the followers of Jesus were often among those who had been healed by this charismatic young religious leader. It is interesting to note that the author of the Gospel account I will cite below, Luke, was himself a physician. Perhaps this is why he notes the details of Jesus' ministry in such precise detail and is careful to always specify ailment and symptom.

Soon afterward Jesus began a tour of the nearby towns and villages, preaching and announcing the Good News about the Kingdom of God. He took his twelve disciples with him, as well as some women who had been healed of evil spirits and illnesses: Mary, also called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out; Joanna, the wife of Herod's household manager Chuza; Susanna; and many others. These women continued to support them out of their personal resources.

In a very Patriarchal text like the Bible, it is rare that names of women are mentioned in this fashion, or at all, really. Christian Feminists like myself are given a tantalizing view at an aspect of the life of Jesus that is almost completely ignored by those who wrote the original texts. Who were these other women? What about the message advanced by this radical rabbi did they find so compelling? This passage lifts the veil just long enough for us to see some of what lies beneath, before slamming shut. The final verse is especially revealing. The ministry of Jesus and his twelve disciples owes its success, at least in part, to the financial support and also time commitment of women. Their income must have been a fraction of what it was for most men and yet they gave of it unselfishly.

Jesus raised women from degradation and servitude to fellowship and service. The interpretations vary, but many of these women were drawn from parts of society perceived as low class and shameful. Depending on the scholarly interpretation, some of these women may have been sex workers. Some of them may have been shamed and ostracized from society for a variety of different reasons. Yet, this wasn't always the case. Joanna was the wife of King Herod Antipas' household manager, making her a person of great authority, and also great wealth. For whatever reason, having women present and actively involved was problematic enough. In Jewish culture of the time, women, for whatever reason, were not supposed to learn from rabbis. But by allowing these women to travel with him, Jesus was showing that all people are equal under God.

Returning to how I began this post, to view things through modern eyes, we may need to interpret these miracles in a different perspective. In my own life, leaders to whom I am drawn possess specific attractive qualities. At times in my life, I have given them my fullest measure of devotion and loyalty. The best leaders of people radiate a kind of superhuman power and strength that is intensely appealing. Within Quaker gatherings, should someone else vocally summarize the whole of one's perspective and belief, he or she often rises to speak, saying, "Friend speaks my mind." Empowering others, giving all a voice at the table, and making everyone feel appreciated and acknowledged could well resemble a miracle, especially in a time when it was exceedingly rare and violated every rule and custom in the book.

Those who reached out for Jesus' healing touch were women as much as men. He could have restricted the reach of his powers only to men. But he did not. In instance after instance, he speaks directly to women on equal footing. Violating Jewish custom, he speaks to a Samaritan woman with a bad reputation. In addition to being a member of what was seen as a half-breed race, men would have had every legal right to ignore approaching her altogether. Reflecting this, her first question to Jesus is, "Why are you even talking to me?" The attitudes of his disciples are, having being told of this interaction, "Why were you talking to her?"

Another woman whose constant bleeding made her ceremonial unclean, according to Jewish law, grabbed hold of Jesus' clothing, hoping to be healed. Through her faith, her disease was removed, though Jesus could have made a great show of how disgusted he was by her act of belief. To protect himself from defilement, he would have been entirely justified in not touching, speaking to, or even looking at women. But he made a very visible point in letting the crowd know that his interpretation of the law could not be more different. To him, women were human beings who deserved recognition and respect. He made this plainly visible while in the middle of a group of hundreds.

I think God looks at each of us the same way. His love is boundless and eternal. While we might draw distinctions between one group or another, I believe we are called to resist these urges and impulses. What many forget is that religion is predicated on the idealistic ideal that we will be brought together as one people. The Kingdom of God is within each of us. In every activist, regardless of cause, the perfect solution is sought. No one seeks to change the world for the better intending to fail. And as we do so, we seek to be healed from our own limitations as we expect the same outcome in others. The cynics and the pessimists among us are only disappointed and discouraged optimists. It is only through honest belief that we are not hamstrung by our shortcomings. In time, should we have faith, we will conquer our problems.

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