This gospel lesson is difficult for preachers. Which healing do you pay attention to?
Matthew 9:9-13, 18-26
Much has been made in recent years of the woman who touched the hem of Jesus’ cloak. The daily loss of her life-blood not only indicated health problems (an infection? fibroid tumors? uterine cancer?) and sapped her strength (anemia?), it made her unclean. It deprived her of touch, of entry to the Temple, of normal social interaction. For twelve years...
Even in her pursuit of healing she tries to be audaciously inconspicuous. The healing she finds in Jesus restores her body, her spirit, and her place in the community.
It is difficult to ignore the story the daughter raised from the dead. The brief descriptions in the gospel lesson are easily filled out by imagination and experience. Children continue to die, by accident, illness, and violence, and the chord this sounds is recognizable, resonating deep in the soul.
The death of a child strikes hard, on the family and also on the community. Perhaps it was different in an age when child death was common, but we feel there to be something wrong with the cosmic order when children die. Many marriages do not survive the death of a child, and parents who have lost children carry that loss for life.
Myra Dean tells about the aftermath of the death of her son, Rich Stark:
"And the worst part is when you realize you're going to live, because you just want to die. I thought I wouldn't live 10 minutes and I was astonished when I'd lived 10 days and mortified when I'd lived 10 months, and not even grateful yet when I had lived 10 years. I was just mostly surprised. And there was no one more astonished that I'd survived it than myself. When you lose your child, it's like somebody has just amputated a huge chunk of your heart. The difference is people can't see the amputation. I miss him terribly.” (Listen to Myra Dean; Transcript of A Mother's Bittersweet Memories.)
How wonderful to bring a child, a parent, a community back from this great tragedy. Good news, indeed!
But there is one more healing to consider. We may imagine tax collectors as greedy and rapacious. And they can be. It is known that tax collectors in first century Galilee were not well-liked. Their living was based upon how much they could extract from people without much to spare.
The gospel text, though, gives us no definite clue as to the character of this particular tax collector. (The association of him with the author of the gospel is ancient, but not conclusive.) He might be a scoundrel, he might be in the process of repentance, he might be an ordinary Joe in a position within a system of oppression.
The healing in this story may not be so dramatic or unmistakable as in the other two. There is no illness cured, no child raised from the dead. But make no mistake that Jesus at dinner with tax collectors and sinners is making a house call on his healing mission.
He calls himself - by analogy - a physician. He is in the midst of those in need of healing. For sinners, healing comes in repentance, a turning from that which is evil and harmful, and a turning towards that which is good, true, and restorative. It may well be that, in the presence of Jesus, listening to this rabbi, these sinners and tax collectors are taking a step towards health. As is always the case, healing has a social dimension. Living in sin, profiting from oppression, they live in a world where each is ranked according to their wealth and influence, their ability to profit in a society which is sick with injustice. Should they hear and follow Jesus, they will also find healing in a community which treats them with the currency of mercy and kindness.
We may be presumptuous enough to guess that - as we know happened to so many - some of them heard this new word and "came to Jesus." Tradition has said that Matthew himself did. A tax collector renouncing his part in oppression? This looks like, sounds like, feels like - this is healing.
Which healing do you pay attention to? All of them, all of them. We may lift up one today and another tomorrow, but may we never forget that God is always in the healing business. Even at dinner, even on the way to another healing...
This is one of those things we know about God. And knowing that God is always about the work of healing, we may be attentive to God's constant desire for healing, and the many acts of restoration which surround us - if we but have the grace to notice. No community touched by Jesus is without healing.
So this reading might well be an opportunity to notice the healings in our midst, whether brought about through psychotherapy, medical care, Twelve Steps, confession and absolution, the welcome of outcasts, bread for the hungry, release for the captive, having your story heard, seeing justice reign, or participating in forgiveness and reconciliation. This looks like, sounds like, feels like - this is healing, when we touch the hem of God's garment of wholeness.
Images (top to bottom, left to right):
1. Woman with a Hemorrhage - Louis Glanzman, trinitystores.com.
2. LEFT: Palestinian photojournalist Nasser Shtayyeh weeps as he carries the body of his five day old baby daughter Dunya before her funeral in Nablus April 19, 2002. Shtayyeh, who works as a photographer with the Associated Press, said that Dunya was taken ill and died [the night before] on the way to hospital after they waited three hours due to roadblocks for an ambulance to enter their home village of Salem. RIGHT: Iraqi father and daughter.
3. Illustration by Rick Meyerowitz, insteadofapes.com.
4. J.R. Moore, Jr. Tax Assessor-Collector, Monroe County, Texas.
5. Father and daughter reconciliation, Doug Phillips.