In the New Testament gospels we find Jesus healing and teaching. If you were to read the gospel attributed to Mark at one sitting, you would likely be surprised by how much of his ministry involves healing rather than teaching. The teachings we remember are largely in the other three gospels, which were written later than the gospel of Mark to explain the meaning of his healing ministry.
As we consider today how best to provide a health care system that insures everyone against the catastrophic costs of a health care crisis, we should also ponder the health ministry of Jesus. What was he doing, and what might his ministry have to do with our health?
Many Christians belief that Jesus was able to perform healing miracles because he could draw on the power of God. The early church quickly affirmed after his death that Jesus was in some sense divine as well as human, although it would be several centuries before the theological details were worked out and asserted in the Nicene Creed. Yet, anyone reading the New Testament gospels carefully will discover that Jesus frequently says to those he has healed, “your faith has made you well.” Here is a clue from the early church that health is not so much a miracle as a way of living with faith.
In this sense Jesus models what it means to have a living faith. His ministry is all about inspiring others to enter into this way of life, which the gospels attributed to Matthew, Mark and Luke identify as the kingdom of God (or the kingdom of heaven). To those who follow him, Jesus offers health through faith.
By following him, we should think more of living with faith than of having the right beliefs about God, Jesus, the church, etc. For the gospel stories reveal that those who Jesus says have great faith are often persons who have not even heard his teaching, much less memorized a creed or a catechism.
Yet, our state of mind has a great deal to do with our health, and the ministry of Jesus is all about our state of mind. At the very beginning of his ministry, as recounted by the gospel of Mark, people are astounded by his presence because he teaches with authority. And when a man who is described as having “an unclean spirit” challenges Jesus, we read that Jesus healed the man by commanding the spirit to “come out” of him. (Mk 1:26) Life in the kingdom of God is about mental as well as physical health.
Following this story Jesus heals Peter’s mother of a fever. “And he cured many,” the gospel of Mark continues, “who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons.” (Mk 1:34)
As we continue to read the gospel of Mark, we find Jesus explaining that sin is unhealthy. When challenged for eating with tax collectors and sinners, he responds: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” (Mk 2:17)
The tax collectors are not “healthy” because they prey upon their neighbors by collecting taxes for the Roman rulers who are oppressing the Jews. Their state of mind, and thus also their bodies, are weakened by their corruption. In first century Jewish culture, sinners were those who failed to live according to the commandments. Rather than shunning or condemning them, however, Jesus offers a way into the kingdom and a life of spiritual as well as physical health.
The gospel of Mark reveals the “good news” of this saving ministry in the story of the woman who was healed of her “suffering from hemorrhages” by touching the cloak of Jesus. “Daughter,” he says to this woman, “your faith has made you well.” (Mk 5:34) Think for a moment of what Jesus might have said to her. “I have made you well.” Or, “God has made you well.” Or, “I have performed this miracle so that others will support my ministry.”
Suddenly, we are given a way of understanding the very first words attributed to Jesus by the gospel of Mark: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and have faith in the good news.” (Mk 1:15) Most translations of this verse conclude with the words, “believe in the good news.” Yet, in the original Greek of the New Testament, the verb “believe” is a form of the noun that is always translated into English as faith, and not as belief. The good news of Jesus is not about having the right beliefs, but about living with faith.
What does this tell us about living healthy and faithful lives today? We should not conclude that faith requires certain beliefs about demons and spirits that cause illness and mental disease. Nor should we look for miracles through prayer or because of our faith in Jesus. For this language reflects a view that is limited by first century knowledge of our body and mind. We do not have to embrace first century beliefs to have a healthy faith.
Nonetheless, we may have to have healthy habits to be healthy. Being healthy involves caring for our bodies, eating good food and exercising regularly. If we feel life is a gift that we should treasure, we will develop healthy habits.
Being healthy also involves our state of mind. Are we anxious? In the gospels Jesus says having faith means letting go of our worries. (Mt 6:25) Are we judging others all the time? Jesus says we should stop being hypocrites. (Mt 7:1-5) Are we depressed? Jesus says “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt 5:3)
We can enter this kingdom of mental health, this state of mind that reflects our faith, by trusting in the love of God. This is all faith is. “Blessed are the pure in heart,” Jesus says, “for they will see God.” (Mt 5:8)
If you read the New Testament gospels carefully, looking for instructions about prayer and worship, you will be surprised by how infrequently Jesus refers to either. The gospels report that Jesus prayed, and when his disciples ask for guidance in praying, Jesus cautions then against public prayer and using flowery language, which marks the prayers of those he describes as hypocrites. Whether Jew or Gentile, Jesus says, these religious people are more concerned with how they appear to others than with being faithful.
Therefore, Jesus counsels his disciples “to pray to your Father who is in secret” and he provides the simple words of the prayer that today we know as the Lord’s Prayer or the Our Father. (Mt 6:9-13 and Lk 11:2-4) As for worship, all that Jesus says in the New Testament gospels is that we should “worship the Father in spirit and in truth.” (Jn 4:23) Being faithful requires not being hypocritical. Living our faith means following the spirit of Jesus.
Does faith guarantee a long life or good health? No, but faith is healthy. If we embrace life with faith, we will treasure our bodies as a blessing. If we live with faith, we will pay attention to the spirit of the gospel. If, as Paul says, we abide in “faith, hope and love,” we will have “the mind of Christ.” (1 Cor 13:13 and 2:16).