Earlier this year the Advertising Standards Authority took issue with a church billboard in the city of Napier. The Equippers Church, which from their beliefs I understand to be a conservative evangelical church, had placed a billboard with the message “Jesus cures cancer”, and to underline the message, the number 6 was also on the board identifying the number of cancer sufferers associated in some way with the church and who had been cured by Jesus.
The Authority pointed out that since the six apparently thus cured had also been receiving conventional medical treatment, this was misleading at best and dishonest at worst. Further, since cancer cells have a nasty habit of reappearing sometime many years after treatment, the medical profession is normally reluctant to announce a cure for any cancer patient suffering a form of terminal cancer, preferring at least in the short term to use the safer statement of “in remission”. Whether or not those leading the Church, which had only been in existence for a few years, were entitled to their certainty about the cure, let alone its cause, is a moot point. However, in fact the Advertising Standards Authority was expressing concern for a different reason. Their argument, in part, was that non Church members who had family members currently suffering from a form of terminal cancer would be upset by the notice since many would find themselves unable to access the same healing and may be angry that the implication that they were not doing everything possible for their family members.
I am therefore wondering if the casual use of today’s Bible reading from the gospel about the healing of Jairus’s daughter might also be called unwise advertising at the very least, if not actually intentionally misleading.
Since churches specialising in faith healing often make public claims about their achievements, and in particular we find some of the televangelist healers routinely advertising their success stories, you may wonder why I even raise the question. In partial answer perhaps we should first ask why this healing story even found its way into the New Testament, particularly when Jesus had specifically instructed his disciples to say nothing. There is also some additional irony that in from all the readings that might have been selected to be read in public from the lectionary, today’s reading from the gospel includes the very account which Jesus did not wish to be shared.
Jesus’ healing acts are often used as passing examples of the miraculous evidence showing that Jesus demonstrated the power which entitles him to be called the son of God. To use the descriptions of healing events in this way I would suggest is to cheapen their meaning and move away from his central teaching about loving one’s neighbour as oneself.
We also need to be clear in our minds about distinguishing what we would like to believe and what leaves open the possibility of different interpretation. If is difficult to be certain about death without modern medical training, even the certainty that Jairus’s daughter was actually dead when Jesus arrived may be unjustified. Since we have only the hearsay account – and one not approved by Jesus we are not yet at the point where we might set up our own billboard saying Jesus brings dead children back to life.
Anyone who has anything to do with the hospital system will know that what seems miraculous happens from time to time even when no miracle is invoked. Most families for example will have had one or more relatives who were diagnosed as being in effect at death’s door and sometimes with the relatives summoned to make their farewells – only a few days later to find the one supposed at death’s door sitting up and apparently in excellent health. When I was a child, suffering as it turned out from appendicitis, I had my own near death experience complete with the dark tunnel, roaring noise and sensation of moving towards the light. Two days later I was playing cricket in the backyard.
Yet there are also unaccountable tragedies. There is no apparent faith-based safeguard for children who step out in front of a car, children who drown in a stream or swimming pool, or for that matter, those who contract an incurable cancer or a chronic condition like cystic fibrosis. A parent who watches their child die before them of one of those causes will be understandably inconsolable. To blithely tell such a mother about someone else’s miracle cure – or that Jesus has just saved someone from a similar condition to the one which has just taken her child, is both crass and inexcusable.
We can only speculate as to why Jesus told his disciples to tell no-one that Jairus’s daughter had been brought back from death at his touch, but it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that he thought the news could easily have been used in an insensitive fashion. For example it might raise the question such as why was Jesus there for Jairus and yet not there to intervene for my still-born child? Given that many families not so lucky as Jairus would be naturally upset to learn that such intervention was not available to them, we too need to be cautious about how we trumpet such miracles.
But there are additional possible dimensions to Jesus’ admonition. Why for example do we find ourselves trying to follow Jesus’ teaching? If it is simply because we are awed by his power then his example is so far beyond what we can experience for ourselves that we are relegated to passive admirers and observers rather than active pilgrims. In any case, the few healing miracles we do have on record don’t all speak of a deliberate power. The middle part of the reading refers to that other healing. When Jesus was still on his way to meet Jairus’ daughter he encounters a crowd. A woman who for years had suffered from recurring haemorrhages was in that crowd, touched Jesus, and was healed without his knowledge or intention. He not only was aware of her touch, he talked then of power being taken from him. As John Pridmore puts it, “Power drains from Jesus, because his ministry is the self emptying of the Son of God”. Rather then, this is not so much the story of power wielded but rather of power exhausted. Might it not then be that the call to mission is the call to follow Jesus’ example and give of ourselves rather than behaving as if the expectation is that we are tapping into some easy source of show miracles.
The other learning about that other healing event involving the woman with the haemorrhages was to remember that Jesus called the woman out of the crowd. Did you notice he then called her “daughter”. Whereas we might be tempted to see those who Jesus ministered to as incidental props – those who are merely there so that Jesus might demonstrate his powers. Not for Jesus. Jesus sees the unnamed person as one genuinely worth recognising. This, I guess we should contrast with the travelling healing shows of some of the popularist faith healers (called by some of their critics “the God pumpers” ) who often appear to cause the collapse of those who come for healing by a single touch. Yes those touched may indeed appear to be “slain by the Spirit” to use the healers’ terminology – but there is little sign that the healer is stopping to engage them in conversation, let alone finding a need to treat them as separate from the crowd, or worse allowing them to make a genuine call on the faith healer’s energy and power.
Perhaps this is the key for guiding our behaviour. My guess is that few would find themselves in the position of faith healers in the sense of being able to find the right actions and words to make a genuine difference in the case of an otherwise incurable disease. Yet making a difference to the well being of the mind and attitude of one who is unhappy, whether the unhappiness is caused by circumstances or disease is much closer to being within our reach. The feeling that others care, that there is someone sincere in their understanding is very readily sensed.
We might also remember that there are two sides to this healing. Yes we do need to identify the one who can help – but we also need to turn to that person. This is not necessarily going to be easy. For the synagogue official to recognise in Jesus someone who might help his dying child would have required humility and courage. Jesus was not seen as particularly friendly to orthodox faith so for Jairus, the ruler or keeper of the Synagogue and its practices, to run and prostrate himself in front of Jesus to plead for his help would have had considerable and sacrificial personal loss of face. Since Jairus with his position in the synagogue would have been wearing a long robe, I have this mental picture of Jairus gathering up his robe in a most undignified way in order to run to Jesus.
Certainly too, courage was shown by the woman with the haemorrhage who would have known that custom meant that while she had that condition she should not be seen in public, let alone be seen to be touching a religious leader. She had to risk a good deal of herself before she could be restored.
For his part, that Jesus was prepared to put himself out to walk some distance to the bedside of the daughter of the Synagogue official, Jairus, showed that Jesus cared. That he was also able to notice the one who touched him in the crowd for healing amongst the throng of the crowd and furthermore, speak to her as a person who mattered, not only shows what Jesus was prepared to do but also models for us how we too should be prepared to show genuine care and put ourselves out for those who seek our help no matter how undeserving they might appear to be.
In my introduction I suggested that the thoughtless use of today’s gospel might lead to the same effect as false advertising. Now I want to point to a more positive approach. While it is true that the listing of miracles tempts us to present the faith as a series of gee whizz events which cheapen and mislead, a closer look at today’s stories reminds us that sacrifice – both on the part of those seeking and the one who responds does bring us to the essence of true miracle and wonder. Faith is not in giving the correct answers to a list of questions, yet faith does begin to find meaning in being prepared to trust ourselves to the care of one another and the acceptance of help of the one we trust enough to follow.