All of these stories of Jesus healing and casting out evil spirits are wonderful. They can also be hard to understand. Even the words can be hard to understand.
Another pastor got a sense of how foreign leprosy is to Americans. A child in his congregation presented him with an illustrated storyboard of the passage we just read.
In the first frame, with a simple line drawing, a man is shown kneeling before Jesus, hands folded in a petition. “I am a leprechaun,” he confesses to Jesus.
Next frame, just as in scripture, “poof.” The man is healed.
Next frame, just as in scripture, Jesus says to the once-a-leprechaun, “Don’t tell?” “I will try,” says the healed man.
Next frame, just as in scripture, the man can’t keep it to himself. He proudly announces to a gathering crowd of stick figure people, “He said I’m healed.” One onlooker points and announces loudly, “That leprechaun is healed by Jesus!”
It’s impressive, really! The child got so much of the story right. But there is a lot that is hard to understand. Everything from leprosy to evil spirits, ritual uncleanness, and Jesus’ request for silence.
There are several ways to understand the healing stories of Jesus.
First is the obvious point. Jesus healed real people of real calamity. Jesus doesn’t come down to earth to generally mix and mingle with the people on earth – exploring the landscape, striking up conversations. No, Jesus has gut-level reactions to people and their circumstances. Jesus sees hurting people, hungry people, oppressed people, people who are excluded. Then he chooses – he chooses – to make them well, to feed them, to touch them, to set them free. The miraculous healings show us that Jesus is about the work of completely transforming people’s lives.
In addition, these healing stories are part of Jesus’ larger work of religious and cultural change. Jesus is deeply concerned with the systems and structures which add to the burden and suffering of people. You may notice the first exorcism takes place within the synagogue. Jesus is teaching about the work of God when a worshipper cries out – from an ungodly place – “I know you are the Holy One of God, but what have you to do with us?” The spirit that possesses the man recognizes Jesus as holy but does not like what he is up to. And that, of course, is only the beginning. Jesus will always be challenging the religious authorities to care for those who are uncared for. He goes to the excluded and the burdened. He is always casting out the evil, casting down the mighty. The host of healings and exorcisms might even be a metaphor for Jesus’ desire for religion itself to be cleansed, so it can begin a new life.
Finally, there is a very personal aspect to these stories. They aren’t just about people who lived long ago. They aren’t just about structures and systems. They are about you and me. They are about our personal encounters with Jesus today. So many people who are healed by Jesus in these stories remain nameless. The gospel writer is allowing us to see ourselves – to feel ourselves – in the same situation. We can hear this story and see ourselves as one with a grievous condition coming before Jesus, pleading with confidence for his cleansing. We can know that Jesus is moved at the very core of his being for our situation. We can have changed lives because of Jesus.
I don’t know. Maybe like the child, we can understand this better if we don’t think of our infirmity as leprosy. Perhaps we need to get in touch with being a leprechaun.
Leprechauns haven’t always been the happy go lucky creature of General Mills Cereal Fame. They may be able to make marshmallows magically delicious – how hard is that? – but they do not lead magically delightful lives. In mythology, leprechauns have a human form, but they have been changed – we don’t know why. Like lepers of Jesus’ times, their condition forces them to be solitary and hang out almost exclusively with others who are like them. They are described as small, lustful, nasty, capricious creatures. You might think you want their magical powers, but they are deceitful and cannot be trusted. They hide away in cellars where they work too much and drink too much. They accumulate the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, yet they have no good use for it. They hoard it away, becoming crankier with each year.
There is probably a little bit of leprechaun in all of us.
But whatever it is that ails you – leprosy or leprechaunism – the healing stories show us we can come to Jesus. Whatever ails us – diseases of the body or mind, participating in broken structures or being burdened by them, ungodly behavior or a gulf of grief – whatever it is, whoever you are – we ought to be compelled like the man of our scripture to come before Jesus. Come before him with everything that shuts us out and shuts us down, with our moral diseases and our hurting bodies. We don’t need to hide our faults or justify our situation. We need to say what we believe. “Jesus, I know that if it is your will, you can heal me. You can change my life.”
Then we wait for Jesus to touch us. To tell us he chooses. He chooses to give us new life.
Here’s something I think we all understand. When that happens to us, there isn’t anything that can keep us quiet. When we see and feel that Jesus has changed our lives, no religious or cultural standards, not even Jesus can keep us quiet.