Today’s Gospel is interesting. It’s Luke 5:12-16, and there’s a fascinating contrast:
It happened that there was a man full of leprosy in one of the towns where Jesus was; and when he saw Jesus, he fell prostrate, pleaded with him, and said, “Lord, if you wish, you can make me clean.” Jesus stretched out his hand, touched him, and said, “I do will it. Be made clean.” And the leprosy left him immediately.
Then he ordered him not to tell anyone, but “Go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed; that will be proof for them.” The report about him spread all the more, and great crowds assembled to listen to him and to be cured of their ailments, but he would withdraw to deserted places to pray.
That last line is almost offensive. Luke’s just established once again that Jesus has the power to heal the sick, then he establishes that throngs of people are coming to be healed, but that Christ seemingly abandons them to go be by Himself (or more precisely, with His Father) in the desert. If you’ve ever prayed for something and felt like God ignored your prayer, just consider how these people must have felt. Jesus physically withdrew from them to go pray. The priest noticed this briefly during Mass, saying we might have expected Jesus to spend all day and all night healing the sick.
But Jesus’ model here is actually an important and instructive one. Think about someone with a beautiful singing voice, for example. At every Mass, people will want him to sing in the choir – after all, he’s got this gift from God, so wouldn’t it be a travesty to let that go to waste? And there’s a degree to which this is true. We should be using our gifts to the fullest for the glory of God. But it’s possible to let that get out of control, and let it become something destructive. In the example of the singer, it may get to the point where he never has any time to quietly pray in Mass, no time to recharge his own spiritual batteries. And in this way, talented people often get worn down in the service of God, and can even become bitter and spiritually dry. Jesus reminds us that service to our fellow man is pleasing to God, but that it flows from a right relationship with God first. We shouldn’t let service to others get in the way of our relationship with the Father. If we find that happening, chances are, we’re putting our trust in ourselves and our gifts, rather than Him. Personally, I know that there have been times where I’ve missed midday Mass to write posts for this blog, and it’s a temptation I have to be aware of: am I expressing my love for God, or putting my trust in my own understanding? We’re called to give, but if we only give, and never take the time to pray, to listen, and to receive from God, we’re putting our trust in the wrong place. By going off to pray, Jesus shows us where this power to heal (and the power to be healed) comes from: faith and prayer. It’s what heals the leper, and it’s what the wounded masses need to be working for, not an immediate physical cure.
St. Augustine had a beautiful reflection on the same subject. He was looking at the Pool of Bethesda in John 5. Christ comes to this pool, next to which are laying “a large number of ill, blind, lame, and crippled” (John 5:3). But John says that Christ selects and heals one of them (John 5:5-6). Augustine said of this:
He entered a place where lay a great multitude of sick folk— of blind, lame, withered; and being the physician both of souls and bodies, and having come to heal all the souls of them that should believe, of those sick folk He chose one for healing, thereby to signify unity.
If in doing this we regard Him with a commonplace mind, with the mere human understanding and wit, as regards power it was not a great matter that He performed; and also as regards goodness He performed too little. There lay so many there, and yet only one was healed, while He could by a word have raised them all up.
What, then, must we understand but that the power and the goodness was doing what souls might, by His deeds, understand for their everlasting salvation, than what bodies might gain for temporal health? For that which is the real health of bodies, and which is looked for from the Lord, will be at the end, in the resurrection of the dead. What shall live then shall no more die; what shall be healed shall no more be sick; what shall be satisfied shall no more hunger and thirst; what shall be made new shall not grow old.
But at this time, however, the eyes of the blind, that were opened by those acts of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, were again closed in death; and limbs of the paralytics that received strength were loosened again in death; and whatever was for a time made whole in mortal limbs came to nought in the end: but the soul that believed passed to eternal life. Accordingly, to the soul that should believe, whose sins He had come to forgive, to the healing of whose ailments He had humbled Himself, He gave a significant proof by the healing of this impotent man. Of the profound mystery of this thing and this proof, so far as the Lord deigns to grant us, while you are attentive and aiding our weakness by prayer, I will speak as I shall have ability. And whatever I am not able to do, that will be supplied to you by Him by whose help I do what I can.
And that is beautiful. The temporary physical healings are nice, but mostly because they show us that a deeper and fuller healing is possible. Christ makes this point repeatedly. The strange teachings He proclaims in Luke 9:25, Matthew 5:11-12, Matt. 5:30, and especially Luke 12:16-21 can all be summed up simply: stop worrying about how great your earthly life is, and start thinking about the state of your soul, and your relationship with God. Our minds and our souls are so puny that this is hard: mentally, maybe we can acknowledge that we have maybe eighty, perhaps a hundred years on this earth, should God bless us with a long life, while a billion years in Heaven is nothing. As John Newton wrote in Amazing Grace: “When we’ve been there [Heaven] ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing His praise than when we’d first begun.” But that concept – eternity – is beyond our understanding, and we get caught up on the here and now. We get obsessed with things which are, in the scheme of eternity, incredibly insignificant.
So Christ jolts us. He cures one man at the pool and keeps walking. In that moment, the other sick and infirm were probably expecting Him to come around, but He doesn’t. And after He’s gone, they’re left there by the pool, knowing that:
- Jesus is capable of healing, of doing things no mere man can do.
- His mission doesn’t seem to be physical healing. In fact, these healings seems to just be a way of letting us know who He is (Mark 2:6-12; Matthew 11:1-6).
Those things should tip them off that Jesus’ Gospel is about something much more incredible than how comfortable earthly life can be. We don’t get to know how that story ends. Did the people by the pool put their trust in Christ, knowing that the One who can heal physical disease can forgive sins? Or did they die bitter that Christ didn’t meet all of their physical wants and needs like a Divine butler?
At the very least, we know that the question facing the sick at the Pool of Bethesda is the same question that faces us: are we going to demand that Christ do what we want, when we want it, for us to love and obey Him? Or are we going to recognize that the One capable of fulfilling all of our wants is also capable of giving us what we really need, salvation?