Faith and healing
June 2, 2013 – the 3rd Sunday of Ordinary Time
Roy W. Howard
What is the relationship between faith and healing?
As Luke tells it, Jesus is astonished at the faith of the military officer who from a distance cries out to Jesus on behalf of his servant and as a result the servant is healed; without Jesus even seeing him much less touching him. The key to the healing appears to be the faith of the centurion. There’s more to the story. This centurion is a military officer of an occupying army who is not a member of the Jewish community. He is an “outsider” known at the time as a God-fearer, among those Gentiles who admired Judaism, lived virtuous lives, followed the law and occasionally attended Jewish liturgical services, but never converted. This man even provided the funds to build the synagogue. They said of him, “he loves our people.” Clearly he is embedded in this community and well respected. Nevertheless, he is not one of them. He is a religious outsider yet like all Gentile God fearers, attracted to Jesus because he sees in him the widening of the promise by Israel’s Messiah to include all the nations. The centurion – a man with power, influence and respect, who is nevertheless excluded from the community – perceives with the eyes of faith that in this Jesus something is different: no one is every outside the pale, beyond redemption, forsaken forever.
All of this is part of the response to our question: What is the relationship between faith and healing?
There is more. This man perceives Jesus not only as the Jewish Messiah that he is, but as the Anointed One for all people in all places, including the lowest of the lowly: a slave who is sick unto death. One might question whether the centurion “highly valued” his slave simply because of his economic worth but the text seems to indicate that he was capable of truly caring for this desperately sick servant. What we do know is that he cared enough to bring this lowly desperately ill man, on the bottom rung of social status, to the attention of Jesus whom he perceived to be capable of bringing the slave from the brink of death to the center of life. The centurion’s faith is in Jesus for sure, but it is on behalf of the least of the lowest.
This too is a part of the response to our question: What is the relationship between faith and healing? Faith in this instance is expressed for the sake of one without has no status, power or place within the community. In short, faith is for the sake of the other. In the end, Luke tells us that Jesus is amazed – the Greek word here is thaumazo – and is translated elsewhere as “astonished” and “filled with wonderment.”
What exactly is it that so fills Jesus with astonishment and leads to the restoration of the slave’s health? In his amazement he lifts up the outsider as an exemplar for the insiders. Is this the real reason for the healing; to signal that the wide embrace of God is getting wider and wider with the presence of Jesus? One commentator says: “Jesus, through his healing of the centurion’s slave through faith, extended God’s graciousness to the least member of this culture. By doing so he taught the disciples and the elders that God’s saving grace extends to the uninvited guest.”
In this way of reading, Jesus’ healing is for a specific purpose that is much larger than the good health of the slave or the faith of the centurion. It is a signal that the kingdom of God will exclude no one from its boundaries; that the light has truly come to all the nations, from the highest of the high, to the lowest of the low. Jesus seems to be saying, let everyone note: the centurion has perceived rightly the promise of God in my presence. Can we then say that the centurion’s perception of the wider purpose of God – beyond only the individual – is also part of the relationship between faith and healing?
Here is my confession: I am reluctant to make a direct one-to-one correspondence between one person’s faith and another person’s healing. I’ve experienced remarkable, even astonishing testimonies of people who are capable of making this direct correspondence. I am not one of them. I often come away bewildered from such testimonies, carrying the weight of those I know living with incurable cancer, debilitating diseases that relentlessly mock their prayers and shatter their lives. The whole subject is fraught with peril and I tread carefully into this dangerous terrain of the human heart holding no assumption that God will appear in just the way I would like for the person who is suffering unto death; or in many cases even worse: their loved one is suffering. Some prayers for healing are answered differently than anyone of us might expect and often the unexpected, even unwanted answer is the one that is ignored or rejected, simply because it is unwanted.
I aspire to the faith of the centurion with all the dimensions mentioned in our story: the perception of Jesus as the kingdom of God, humbly submitting my life to him while lifting up the most vulnerable for his tender care. This is the faith side of the relationship. It is all that you or I can manage and even that is dependent upon the sustaining Spirit.
Healing on the other hand is caught up in much larger holy divine mystery than we can fully understand at any given moment. It does occur in myriad ways not always visible and not always in a cure; but always beyond our understanding.
Our calling is a life of faith. It is enough. The centurion understands this. We can learn from him.