Healing the sick is my title, and we’re looking at Luke 5.12-32.
I have three headings descriptive of what’s going on here. First, a leper comes to Jesus. That’s verses 12-16. Secondly, a paralytic is brought to Jesus. That’s 17-26. And thirdly, a tax-collector is called by Jesus – 27-32.
But let me begin by drawing your attention to something that Jesus says right at the end of this section, down there in verses 31-32. As so often, Jesus is getting a tongue-lashing from the self-righteous, holier-than-thou religious types who regularly found reasons to object to the good that he did. Why, they were jibing, did Jesus have anything to do with a nasty piece of work like this tax-collector? Look at his reaction. Verse 31:
31 Jesus answered them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. 32 I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”
Jesus draws a parallel between what he does with people, and what a doctor does with people. Sick people need attention from a doctor. Sinful people need attention from him. And that’s everyone. We’re not all sick. Yet. But we are all sinful, and we all need Jesus. These three stories are like big, bold, visual aids displaying before our eyes that truth. We all need Jesus.
And there’s more than just a parallel between what Jesus does and what a doctor does. There’s an overlap as well, in the sense that Jesus does also deal with physically sick people. Now I realise that his methods are not what you get on the NHS. But Jesus is not only interested in the souls and spirits of people. He cares about their bodies and their sicknesses and diseases as well. After all, he is the Son of God. He made us, body, soul and spirit. He cares about the whole of us.
And that means he cares about the work that’s done by those of you involved in medicine in one capacity or another. Which, of course, is not just doctors. I need to be clear about that if I’m not to get into serious trouble with our twin daughters, one of whom is a paediatric staff nurse, and the other of whom is in the middle of her training in adult nursing.
So as we take a look at these three incidents, I’d like us to be thinking about Jesus the doctor. We can have two questions in mind. What can learn from Jesus? And what can we learn about Jesus? That is, what can we learn from Jesus that we can apply to the care that we give to others? And what can we learn about Jesus as we look at how he treats people and how he does his ‘doctoring’? So:
First, A LEPER COMES TO JESUS
This is Luke 5.12-16. Here are verses 12-13:
12 While Jesus was in one of the towns, a man came along who was covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he fell with his face to the ground and begged him, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.” 13 Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” And immediately the leprosy left him.
Now straight away there are things we can learn from the way Jesus deals with this leper. They’re basic, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t need to learn them and relearn them.
Jesus does care. He cares about this suffering man. The leper approaches him tentatively, unsure of the reception that he’s going to get: “Lord, if you are willing…” “I am willing,” says Jesus. Jesus wants to help him. When we come to him in need he’s not reluctant. He’s not preoccupied with more important matters than our little concerns. He loves us. He cares about us. He’s willing to help. And he’s an example to all medics.
Of course medical work is supposed to be all about caring for people in need. But you don’t need me to tell you that it doesn’t always work like that. Just like that rest of us, it’s perfectly possible for medical workers to be more concerned with their own needs than with the needs of those who come to them for help.
Sometimes that’s understandable, if not good. The other day I heard a doctor describing the far off days when she was a junior doctor on a seemingly endless shift. She hadn’t slept for about two and half days and nights. She was called to help someone who had just had a cardiac arrest. And she said that after a while of intense work, she found herself thinking about her patient: “Either get better or die. I need some sleep.”
It’s a striking fact that Jesus himself needed time away from the pressures and demands that piled in upon him. Verses 15-16:
15 Yet the news about him spread all the more, so that crowds of people came to hear him and to be healed of their sicknesses. 16 But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.
Jesus needed that time apart – and not just on his own, but with God his heavenly Father. That relationship with God his Father was the wellspring of his loving care for others. If even Jesus needed that, how much more do we. And if Jesus needed to give time to that relationship with his heavenly Father, how much more do we.
Often, though, our excuses for lack of care are not so good – as recent publicity about the Care Quality Commission’s review of dignity and nutrition for older people has drawn to national attention. They carried out unannounced visits to 100 hospitals to assess care of the elderly, and found cause for concern in 55 out of those 100, describing their findings as ‘alarming’. There is, of course, much excellent care. But some of us, no doubt, could throw our own anecdotal evidence of inadequate care onto the heap.
There was an interesting discussion about this on the Today Programme on Radio 4 last Friday morning. In the course of it, Dame Joan Bakewell, one time Government tsar for the elderly, made these remarks:
On the whole our society is quite cruel. We care about money, we care about success. I think… religious commitment to charity and kindness has declined and nobody learns that. They don’t learn it in the home; they don’t learn it in their school. It’s seen as soft and it’s not what you’re about. You’re meant to stand up for your own individual personality, make your way in the world and good luck to you. Kindness, empathy, generosity are all in short supply and people used to learn it from the churches. I learnt it at Sunday School. Where do you learn it now? I don’t know.
What does it mean to learn it at Sunday School? At Sunday School they teach you about Jesus. It means learning it from Jesus. Knowing Jesus teaches us to care for one another.
It has to be said there’s terrible irony in what Joan Bakewell said. Elsewhere she’s written about her own experience in these terms:
I had a thoroughly Christian upbringing: church primary school, Sunday school, daily assembly with prayers at my grammar school… Student days blew this away. … basically, I gave the whole thing up. I simply ceased to believe… It is merely a timid temperament that inhibits me from declaring a bold, defiant atheism.
In fact she describes herself as an ‘unbelieving Anglican’, and a supporter of euthanasia, as if society can have the benefits that come from knowing and learning from Jesus without the substance. But you can’t. It’s a bit like saying that you love Formula One; you love those Grand Prix races; but you think the cars should have their engines removed. If you take the guts out of Christianity, all you end up with is a rotting carcass. And it’s not surprising if you get a generation of young men and women many of whom just don’t care. We need to learn care from Jesus.
We also need to learn care for the whole person and not just for the condition. Notice how the leper doesn’t only ask to be healed. He asks to be made clean. And Jesus responds in kind: “I am willing. Be clean!” In Judaism, the leper’s condition wasn’t just a physical disaster. It was a spiritual and social disaster as well. A leper became ritually unclean and socially outcast – untouchable in every way.
And Jesus deals with the leper’s predicament in all its dimensions. He reaches out his hand and touches the man. Untouchable no more. He heals his disease. He makes sure that the leper goes and gets the certificate from the priests to say that his spiritual and social isolation is over. He opens the way for him back into society. He sees him not only as a disease but as a man. He cares for the whole person. That, too, is a strong reminder to us in our dealings with others.
But we’re not just to see in Jesus here an example to follow, important though that is. We are to see a King before whom we need to bow down in worship and submission. This healing is yet another demonstration of the power of Jesus. And it’s a power that only God has. This is God in person, walking among us.
And take heart from the wonderful responsiveness of Jesus to those who come to him for help. Because sometimes we’re carers – but always we too need care. We too need to come to Jesus and say to him “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.” And we too can hear his loving response ringing in our joyful ears: “I am willing. Be clean!”
That’s the first incident. A leper comes to Jesus.
Secondly, A PARALYTIC IS BROUGHT TO JESUS
Now we’re on to verses 17-26. Jesus is teaching. A paralysed man has some good friends. They believe that Jesus can heal him. That’s real faith. With good reason they have serious confidence in the power of Jesus. And they’re not just talk. Their faith goes into action. They can’t get near Jesus because of the crowd, so up they go onto the roof. They rip a hole in the roof. They lower the man down through the hole on his mat – a pretty hair-raising experience in itself I imagine. The paralysed man lands on the floor in the middle of the crowd right in front of Jesus.
Then what? Jesus heals him? No. Not yet. Things take an unexpected turn. Listen to this. Verses 20-25:
20 When Jesus saw their faith, he said, “Friend, your sins are forgiven.” 21 The Pharisees and the teachers of the law began thinking to themselves, “Who is this fellow who speaks blasphemy? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” 22 Jesus knew what they were thinking and asked, “Why are you thinking these things in your hearts? 23 Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’? 24 But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins…” He said to the paralyzed man, “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.” 25 Immediately he stood up in front of them, took what he had been lying on and went home praising God.
Jesus is a good doctor. He sees the presenting problem – physical paralysis. Serious enough, you might think. But Jesus sees behind the physical issue to a yet more serious issue – what we might call spiritual paralysis caused by sin. This man’s relationship with God is dead. And that is potentially fatal for all eternity. That is the priority. So Jesus deals with that first. “Friend, your sins are forgiven.” Those self-righteous holier-than-thou religious types get one thing right at this point. Their hostile reaction is to think: “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” In other words, who does this man think he is? God? Yes. Exactly.
Jesus isn’t just a good doctor. He is the divine doctor. This is God himself holding a clinic. This is where Jesus goes way beyond being an example to follow. He is our Lord to trust and obey. Look at the signs of his divinity here.
He sees right into the hearts not only of the paralysed man but also of his own enemies.
He exercises the divine prerogative to forgive sins. The consequence of sin is a debt owed to God. Only the creditor can forgive a debt owed to him. When he does that, the cost falls on him. Only God can wipe away the debt of sin. When Jesus forgives sin, he is deliberately setting himself up for that day when the cost of sin will fall on him as hangs dying on that cross. He pays for us.
The Eurozone is in trouble because of potentially unpayable debt. The debt of sin is way beyond us. We can’t pay it. Only Jesus can. And he has. That’s why he can say, with divine authority, “Your sins are forgiven”.
As the icing on the cake, if I can say that reverently, Jesus heals the man’s physical paralysis as well – demonstrating his awe-inspiring divine power over disease.
And finally don’t miss the divine gift of joy that Jesus gives to that man previously burdened by guilt and disease.
My own father is a paralytic. About 18 months ago he lost the use of his legs as the result of damage to his spine. He’s getting old. He is at the moment undergoing some rehabilitation and training at the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital in Stanmore. He loves going there because the care is so good. Over the last few months my dad’s slowly been getting a little bit of movement and strength back in his legs. It’s minimal but it’s there. A few weeks ago he was able briefly to stand unaided for the first time since the collapse of his legs. Then just the other day I had a phone call from my mum. She said she’d just heard from my dad that they had him standing with parallel bars, and he’d been able to walk from one end of the parallel bars to the other. He was completely exhausted. But he was over the moon. My mum said she just had to tell someone, so she’d picked up the phone to me. Imagine that multiplied a thousand times, and you’re getting towards the joy of that paralytic instantly and totally healed and forgiven by Jesus.
When we see Jesus at work like this, even if we are the most eminent medical person in the world in our field, then we need to realise that we become the patient and not the doctor. Jesus is the doctor. We are all his patients. We all need his ministrations. We need to accept his divine authority. We need to listen to his diagnosis. We need to submit to his treatment.
Thirdly, A TAX-COLLECTOR IS CALLED BY JESUS
We come to the third encounter, and it’s there in verses 27-32. Verses 27-28:
27 After this, Jesus went out and saw a tax collector by the name of Levi sitting at his tax booth. “Follow me,” Jesus said to him, 28 and Levi got up, left everything and followed him.
In that society, the tax-collectors were the moral sewer rats, collaborating with the occupation forces of the enemy and extorting money from their countrymen to fill their own bank accounts.
Just think about how Jesus might have treated this tax-collector. Jesus, remember, is the Son of God. Wherever he goes he sees this pitiful collection of humanity pressing in on him – with this tax-collector at the back of the queue. Think about how Jesus could have reacted – and, indeed, how he could react to the crowds of humanity now – how he could react to us.
Jesus could have been contemptuous. Confident of his own superiority, he could have looked down his nose with contempt.
He could have been condemnatory. He could look at our spiritually and physically diseased frames, fully aware of how much of our trouble we’ve caused ourselves, and he could condemn us to the consequences of our own folly. We could have no complaint. That tax-collector could have had no complaint.
Jesus could be contemptuous, or condemnatory. But, thank God, he isn’t. Instead, he is compassionate. He calls Levi to himself. “Follow me.” He knows what’s wrong with Levi. He knows what it’s going to cost him to put it right – he’s already living under the shadow the coming cross. In the same way, he knows us. And he calls us.
We need to recognise our own spirit-sickness and submit to the doctoring of Jesus. Only then will we be able to serve others with the Spirit of Jesus and with the endless reserves that limitless need demands.
We need to be on the receiving end of the love of Christ to fuel that care. Without that, it will run dry, as our society is painfully rediscovering. Without that, we soon find ourselves running on empty. Formula 1 racing cars don’t just need engines. They need fuel. They get through fuel like nobody’s business, because what they have to do is so demanding and sapping of energy. So they need regular pitstops – when those huge hoses are jammed onto their fuel tanks and a new load of fuel is pumped into their tanks, for the coming laps.
I have at least some insight into the demands on those involved in medicine as a result of seeing my children at work, and being part of a church that has more than its fair share of medical people. Medics need doctoring too. Jesus is our doctor. Submit to his care. And let him fuel your care of others.