In the time that Jesus was on earth, and for many centuries, leprosy was a disastrous disease for those who contracted it, and their families. Even if you didn’t have leprosy, but just something that looked like it might be leprosy, you were in trouble. Social distancing, self isolating, shielding, are nothing compared to what people with leprosy had to do. Go and live in leper colonies far from other human habitation. Cover every bit of skin. Ring a bell and shout unclean as they walked, begging, through the streets. No one understood how you caught it, and there was no treatment.
That is why, amongst all the illnesses and diseases that Jesus healed, it is singled out as the only one named in this passage as a specific malady that the disciples were to cleanse people of. It is why the times that Jesus healed those with leprosy are mentioned so often in the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry. Leprosy was one of the scourges of the time, and Jesus demonstrated his own power and authority to deal with it, and gave his followers the same power and authority.
So, how do we feel when we read a passage like this, which is all about healing, when we’re living through a time of pandemic, of people we love dying, of people suffering physically, emotionally, and psychologically? We read about Jesus healing ministry, and his compassion on those who are hurting and are like sheep without a shepherd. How do we feel about this? What do we think about it?
Perhaps we don’t believe that it actually happened. It’s a nice story, that it is a metaphor for Jesus making people feel better, bringing inner wholeness, and bringing them into a new way of living, saving them from spiritual death.
Perhaps we think, “that was then, this is now”. Jesus and those he sent did do those miracles, they did heal people, and free them from spiritual oppression, but that was a long time ago, in a different place, and we don’t expect to see the same things happen now.
Perhaps it makes us angry. We believe that Jesus did heal those people then, and could heal people now but we don’t see it happening, and it upsets us. Angry with ourselves for not having the faith to pray for healing for people. Angry with God for not healing those that we love and see hurting everyday.
In summary, I wonder if it leaves us with the question, “If Jesus could deal with leprosy, why isn’t he dealing with Covid-19?”
I have to say that I don’t have a gold plated, answer to this question that I’m 100% sure about. But, I do have a few suggestions that might help us get to a place of at least being able to face the question.
I guess, for me, there are a few things that I am convinced of, that mark start me off on a road towards getting my head round this.
Firstly, Jesus still has compassion, he still looks on the sheep without a shepherd and cares deeply- he finds the pain and suffering in the world gut-wrenching. It is his desire and intent that all of creation should come to be free of pain and hurt, and to be whole.
Secondly, Jesus did heal people then, so did his followers, and, by the gift and power of the Holy Spirit, people are still healed today, miraculously. I have seen it, I have heard people I trust tell me about healings that they have been part of, or witnessed.
Thirdly, even then Jesus did not heal everyone, or heal them permanently. There were still people living with leprosy in that time and place who Jesus did not get to. There were many people who died who were not raised to life. Even those Jesus did heal and raised to life, died eventually of something else. This life ends for everyone – everyone dies. Even Jesus died.
So, if healing isn’t permanent, or universal – even in Jesus’ ministry, what is it all about?
To understand that, it seems to me that we need to look at what the acts of healing accompany. They aren’t just done, either by Jesus or his disciples, on their own. They come as a package with something. Jesus proclaimed the good news of the kingdom and healed every disease and illness. The disciples were told, “As you go, proclaim this message: “The Kingdom of heaven has come near.” Heal those who are ill, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy”.
In both cases, the preaching of the Kingdom comes first, and the healings come second.
The healings and miracles are signs that the Kingdom has come near. The Kingdom of heaven in which peace with justice is made real. The Kingdom of heaven in which God’s rule and reign are acknowledged by all people and the whole of creation. The kingdom of heaven in which broken lives and hearts are healed and made whole. And while Matthew calls it the kingdom of heaven, that shouldn’t lead us to think that is just about what happens after we die. The whole point is that the kingdom has come near – the rule and reign of God is breaking through in power on earth, as it is in heaven. A process we pray for the fulfilment of every time we pray the Lord’s prayer.
Jesus told people about this kingdom, and then he showed them what it is like. He sent his followers to tell people about his kingdom, and to show them what it is like. Later on he told these same apostles to teach others to follow him, as they did. So, we are sent to tell people about the kingdom and to show them what it is like. Freely you have received, freely give.
It seems to me that we are living in a difficult time, but also one of opportunity. Many of the “kingdoms” of the world are being shaken, their foundations being revealed to be made of sand. The future is uncertain, and there is the opportunity to build in a new way. There’s a lot of talk about rebuilding happening with investment in renewable energy rather than carbon based. Which I think is a good thing, but I think that we have something deeper to offer than that. We can proclaim the kingdom of God, we can be a sign of the kingdom of God in the way that we live, in the way that we love, in the way that we serve, and in the way that we pray for people.
I do believe that we can pray for healing for people, and sometimes we will see God working supernaturally to bring about restoration of physical, mental, or emotional health. We can be bolder in our proclamation and are actions.
Jesus still looks on the world with compassion, on the sheep without a shepherd: lost, confused, and vulnerable. And then Jesus mixes his agricultural metaphors a bit. The sheep are without a shepherd, so send the workers into the harvest field. I’m not a farmer, but even I know that’s not right!
But the point stands. See the community and its people through Jesus eyes, with love and compassion. Proclaim and heal – word and deed. Do stuff and tell people why. Point to Jesus and his coming kingdom and invite people to experience if for themselves. That’s how Jesus deals with Covid-19.