Why does Jesus heal people in the Gospels?

This blog is seeking to understand more fully why Jesus heals people in the gospel accounts. Specifically does Jesus’ healing signify some kind of physical norm that people need to be restored to as part of Jesus’ mission to ultimately restore all of creation? I will argue that this is not the case, rather that Jesus heals people because, quite simply he is asked to. Therefore, the physical norm people are seeking to obtain exists only in their own minds and not in the mind of the creator.

Within the gospels there are roughly 4 types of healing narrative surrounding Jesus.

General summaryDisabled person seeks healingFriend/family seeks healingJesus heals without a request
Matt 4:24Matt 9:21Matt 8:8Matt 12:13
Matt 8:16Matt 9:29Matt 9:4
Matt 12:15Matt 14:36Matt 12:22
Matt 14:14Matt 21:14Matt 15:28
Matt 15:30Matt 17:18
Matt 19:2
Mark 6:13Mark 3:10Mark 1:34Mark 3:5
Mark 5:28Mark 5:24
Mark 10:52Mark 6:56
Mark 8:25
  Mark 10:52 
Luke 5:10Luke 4:40Luke 6:10
Luke 6:18Luke 5:24Luke 9:11
Luke 8:47Luke 7:7Luke 14:4
Luke 17:15Luke 714Luke 22:51
Luke 18:42Luke 8:10
  Luke 9:42 
John 5:10John 4:50John 9:7
John 11:43

The verses in the category of “General summary” are typically too vague to provide useful insights into our question.

The next category describes healings in which a person who is themselves disabled approaches Jesus. One of the most fully described of these is Mark 10:51-52.

51 ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ Jesus asked him.

The blind man said, ‘Rabbi, I want to see.’

52 ‘Go,’ said Jesus, ‘your faith has healed you.’ Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus along the road.

In this passage Jesus makes no assumption that the man should be healed. It is not unheard of for people to explain Jesus’ question away by the possible loss of begging privileges the man will experience. Edwards, in his PNTC on Mark (2016 p330), is less dehumanising in his analysis, seeing instead the contrast with the sons of Zebedee, of whom Jesus had asked the same question. Where they had sought glory, this man seeks only “normalcy”, and “normalcy is God’s greatest gift”. Except of course it is not. A walk through any crowd will reveal that God delights in variation. It is dangerous for us to assume that what is common, God sees as more valuable.

This man, though, does understand his blindness to be a problem, which given the sever limitations that will have been imposed upon him by a culture that will have assumed him judged is not a surprise, but there is no evidence that Jesus considered his blindness something that had to be changed.

It will be of no surprise to those affected by disability that the most numerous category across the gospels, and in three out of four gospels, is that in which others seek healing for someone in their care.

Regrettably, those who care for disabled people are more likely than disabled people to see disability as a problem rather than a valuable aspect of a person’s identity. Such attitudes are slowly changing thousands of years after the bible was written, but in its pages carers typically love the person but hate the disability. There are no instances where Jesus declines to heal someone brought to him, but it is also extremely unlikely that a disabled person living in those circumstances would have had the support required to decline such a healing. I do not think there is evidence here of Jesus having a model of normal existence, there is only more evidence that humans have such a model.

Clearly the final category offers the greatest challenge to my argument. In these cases, Jesus heals men without having talked with them. They are described as objects, to be altered, which whilst potentially troubling to our sensibilities, is the language the bible uses for the nature of our relationship with God: he is the potter, we are simply his clay.

Matthew 12:13, Mark 3:5 and Luke 6:10 are generally accepted as describing the same event.

1 Another time Jesus went into the synagogue, and a man with a shrivelled hand was there. 2 Some of them were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal him on the Sabbath. 3 Jesus said to the man with the shrivelled hand, ‘Stand up in front of everyone.’

4 Then Jesus asked them, ‘Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?’ But they remained silent.

5 He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored. 6 Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus. Mark 3:1-6.

Here the “shrivelled” hand is made like the man’s other hand (Matt 12:13b). So the “normal” could be argued to exist within the man’s body. It must also be noted that here the focus of the narrative is not the healing, but rather on Jesus’ authority over the sabbath. Jesus sets the situation as a diametric choice, healing in defiance of tradition is good, withholding healing and abiding by tradition is bad. The Pharisees objectify the disabled man, he is a moral trap used to ensnare Jesus. Jesus seeing the hardness of their hearts and grows angry; they would rather be right according to their rules and allow suffering to continue. For Jesus stopping suffering is right regardless of tradition (Edwards 2016).

In this situation then Jesus is restoring a man’s arm to its original state in order to relieve suffering, both the man’s and potentially the man’s family. There is no implication that the body is being conformed to a divinely mandated ideal.

In Luke 9:11 we are told that Jesus “healed those who needed healing.” It is possible that it was Jesus who defined who needed healing, but the passage describes the crowd pursuing Jesus and him then responding to their needs. Reasonably it can therefore be concluded that the desire for healing and the ‘normal’ sought is that of the crowd and not Jesus.

The healing in Luke 14:4 is remarkably similar to that found in Luke 6 and elsewhere. A man suffering with oedema, probably a sign of heart or kidney failure (Green, 1997), is presented to Pharisees as they share a meal with Jesus on the Sabbath. Jesus again presents the choice of doing good and healing or doing evil by doing nothing. The focus again is that the gospel is about bringing life not rejecting life for the sake of rules. Jesus heals the man, releasing him from his suffering, and presumably curing the background heart or kidney failure.

Therefore, Jesus is not changing a person to conform to an ideal but returning an organ to full function, and in so doing he is relieving suffering, and bringing life.

Finally, in Luke is the healing of the guard in 22:51, Jesus restores the ear cut off by Peter. The focus here is Jesus’ mercy and his rejection of violence in his name, he restores the lost ear as a denial of Peter’s mistaken act.

John describes few healings, and yet presents the most pointed challenge to this argument.

As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’

‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned,’ said Jesus, ‘but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him. As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.’

After saying this, he spat on the ground, made some mud with the saliva, and put it on the man’s eyes. ‘Go,’ he told him, ‘wash in the Pool of Siloam’ (this word means ‘Sent’). So the man went and washed, and came home seeing.

Although the man who is healed is given a voice later in the narrative, before he is given sight he says nothing. Jesus very clearly rejects the false assumption, common in Jewish thinking of the time (Carson 2010), that disability is a direct result of sin. Rather this disability is the canvas upon which the works of God can be displayed.  In verse four, Jesus begins to speak in metaphor: images of darkness and light, Jesus wants them to understand that only by following him can they walk the path to light. He then demonstrates the truth of his teaching by giving light to the man’s eyes.

Here then the healing’s focus is not on the man who is healed but humanity’s need for Jesus’ light. The man’s difference from ‘normal’ is not a problem, but rather an opportunity for Jesus to teach. The need is not for this man alone to see, but for all humanity to accept the light of Christ, in the same way this man follows Jesus’ teaching and can then see.

Again, therefore, there is no indication that there is a divine ‘normal’, indeed it can be seen that Jesus values the diversity of humanity and will readily teach through our diversity.

This brief investigation has therefore found no convincing evidence that Jesus heals in the gospel out of a desire to restore humans to a divinely defined normal. Rather, Jesus listens to those who come to him, heals them as they lead, seeks to relieve the suffering that accompanies disability. When Jesus does heal without being directed by the person affected by disability, it is part of his wider teaching ministry, and with the intention of relieving suffering. Although some may see Jesus’ use of disabled people to illustrate his teaching as inappropriate, I suggest that the creator is entitled to use us, our strength and our weaknesses for his glory.

The consequences of this understanding are in our pastoral approach to people with disabilities. Disability is not something less than, or something ‘other’. Disability is part of God’s breadth of creation, we must learn not to make assumptions based on our strength.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s