16 March 2010

Doctor's orders

4th Week of Lent: Readings
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
SS. Domenico e Sisto, Roma

Jesus asks the man who has been sick for 38 years if he wants to be well. The man doesn't answer yes, no, or maybe. Instead, he tells Jesus that he has no one to put him into the healing pool when the water is ready to heal. We can infer from his response that he wants to be healed but cannot do on his own what is required to be healed. He needs help. We might expect, at this point, that Jesus would pick the man up and put him in the pool. But following the man's enigmatic example, Jesus responds in a way that no one expects. He says to the man, “Rise, take up your mat, and walk.” Just like that, he does. John writes, “Immediately the man became well, took up his mat, and walked.” He is completely healed. We could read this passage as a story of miraculous physical healing and surely it is. But we could also read it as a story about how illness—physical and spiritual—cripples our courage and undermines our faith by leaving us to the fickle mercies of others. The man has no one to help him. What he needs is someone to come along and strengthen his spirit. Jesus does just that. But he helps in way that heals all the man's sicknesses not just his body. Finding the newly healed man later that day, Jesus says to him, “Look, you are well; do not sin any more, so that nothing worse may happen to you.” The fundamental ministry that Christ gives to his Church is the ministry of reconciliation with the Father through grace. If Christ's healing grace is to work in bringing us back to the Father, we must do what the Doctor has ordered us to do.

Rise, take up your mat, and walk. These are the three orders that the divine physician gives to his long-suffering patient. Are we surprised that these orders do not include instructions on prayer, fasting, sacrifice, or alms-giving? Are we surprised that the man is not ordered to recite scripture or wash himself clean with fresh water? Jesus doesn't even require the man to answer his simple question, “Do you want to be well?” John is very clear on the sequence of events: Jesus issues his orders and immediately the man does as he is ordered to do. At no time in the gospel story does the man ask to be healed nor does he explicitly consent to the healing he receives. Jesus speaks, and it is done. What are we to make of this sequence of events given that Christ's healing grace requires our cooperation in order to do its work? Unless we are willing to admit that the man was healed against his will, we must wrestle with exactly how he came back to physical and spiritual health.

First, notice that the Jews who want to persecute Jesus consider healing the sick a form of work, a job that gets done. Next, note that the man is hanging around the healing pool waiting, hoping to be helped. Now, remember both the natural condition of the human soul and its supernatural end. Putting these three elements together we get a man who should be well seeking out someone to do the work of healing in order that he might be well again. In other words, he longs to be reconciled to the Father as a matter of who he is as a fallen creature. He yearns to be made whole because who he is most perfectly is a child of God. That desire is his consent, that need is the work he contributes to his healing. To be fully healed—body and spirit—is his goal, his end. Jesus orders him to see himself as he should be and to act accordingly. He does. Nothing more is required.

And nothing more is required of us. The saints and doctors of the Church teach us that sin is a slave master. We are chained to disobedience. The irony is that we remain chained by choice. We hired our master and we employ him. All we need to do is see our perfected end in Christ and fire our unruly master. If we do as the Doctor orders, we too can rise and walk away from sickness. And in rising and walking away, give witness to the healing graces of our Lord.

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  1. Overall, this is enlightened and very heartening.

    On a personal note, the components of this story as you've broken it down, correlate to a recent sequence of events in my work life. Astonishing and so interesting to consider and to apply.

    Thank you, Fr. Philip...

  2. Thank you, Fr. Philip.

    I needed to hear this message to help energize my own work. "It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me" [Gal 2:20]

    It will provide good fodder for contemplation as Holy Week approaches...