The Rev. Melanie McCarley
“When Jesus and his disciples left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. The Gospel tells us that Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.” It’s difficult to move past this moment in the Gospel without wondering why someone couldn’t have given the poor woman a break? Why not give her the day off and tell her to go out and smell the roses. But, here’s the thing; at least for anyone who has ever been desperately ill—when you are truly sick, all you really want is to get better. When you are laid low---really low, washing the dishes and being able to kneel down on the hard tiles to scrub a toilet these are tasks which are no longer burdensome—they are a reminder of a life that was. So, to be able to return to serving others—well, for this woman, that was to return to wholeness. It was a precious gift. Jesus had returned her to herself.
Simon’s mother-in-law wasn’t the only one who was ill. The Gospel tells us that the disciples brought others who were sick to Jesus, and he healed them as well. And so, it shouldn’t surprise us that it wasn’t long before the whole city was gathered around the door. Soon afterward, under cover of night, Jesus escapes—he leaves, and we are left to ponder why.
Why doesn’t Jesus stay? Why not heal everyone? Certainly the disciples wonder. They find the Lord and say: “Everyone is searching for you.” Here’s the thing. The crowds, they are coming because they want miracles—they want healing. And, can we blame them? This is one of those Gospel passages that can feel cruel—particularly if you are someone who is searching for healing, either for yourself, or for someone you love. How could Jesus simply walk away? What kind of God is this?
Yet, it seems to me that the Bible is filled with people who were fated to go through life with physical problems. Jacob wrestled with an angel—and, for the rest of his life he walked with a limp as a result. Paul asked God to take away a profound physical infirmity, and was told “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9) Life does not always hand us what we ask for—or, quite honestly, what we deserve. How does this square with a God who has the power to heal? What makes one person worthy and another not?
The only way I have found to answer this question is to approach it from an oblique angle. Most of us are certain of what we need—we want healing, and are sure what this should entail. Yet, sometimes, the type of healing that God offers us is different than the kind of healing we have in mind—yet, I believe, it is there, all the same.
Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen, co-founder of the Commonweal Cancer Help Program writes: “Two months after a diagnosis of breast cancer, a woman brought in a dream. She was standing before the eagle’s cage at the Chicago Zoo watching a sleeping eagle on its perch. The cage, like all the other aviary cages, was made of something that looked like chicken wire but was much heavier and stronger.
As she watched, the eagle awoke. Spreading its magnificent wings, it flew through the wall of the cage. She watched it until it became a tiny spot against the sky. When finally it disappeared, she had no sense of loss but felt a lifting of her heart. It was then she noticed that there was no hole in the wall of the cage.
“A wonderful dream,” I thought, and asked her what she made of it. She hesitated and then said that she was afraid of what the dream had meant. Did I think the dream meant that she was going to die? I said that I did not know but that it certainly was a dream about freedom. I suspected it might equally well mean that she was going to live.
Three years later this same woman, marveling over the inner changes and awakenings she had experienced since her diagnosis, told me, “Who would have thought I could have so much more joy in life and have cancer? Who would have thought that such a thing was possible?” (Kitchen Table Wisdom p. 109)
We do not always get what we ask for—even precious, important things. This does not mean that God does not love us or care for us. I expect that when Jesus left the house of Simon and Andrew, he probably did so with a profound sense of regret. He knew the people who were gathered at the door wanted healing—and he could have healed them. And, had he stayed, there would have been a never ending line of people—all of whom needed to be healed. Yet Jesus didn’t come to our earth and into our lives simply to heal us from illness—he came to do something much more difficult—he came to make us whole—and with this there is a subtle, yet profound difference.
You see, I don’t know if the woman who had the dream of the eagle lived or died. In the end, I don’t really think it matters—because she was healed—she was made whole. And that doesn’t come from the cancer leaving her body—it comes from her spirit being made whole.
And this is what brings us to the heart of why Jesus left the house of Simon and Andrew. You see, I don’t believe for a moment that it was because he didn’t care about those who were ill and in need of healing. It was because he was sent for a larger purpose.
The season of Epiphany gifts us with snapshot images of the person of our Savior. You have to put them together in order to see the whole. Jesus is not simply a teacher, nor is he merely a healer or a worker of wonders. As important as these aspects of his person are—they are only signs urging us to look deeper; for this is the Son of God; and ultimately his real gift isn’t to give us what we want, but to give us what we need—and that is his very self, offered upon the cross. His death, in exchange for our life.
Wholeness is what Jesus is offering us—and that, I suggest to you, as difficult as it may be for us to accept, is far better than our version of healing. Wholeness of spirit, and the promise of a life lived in the presence of a loving and abiding God. Now, I’ll grant you that this may not always be the news we want—but in the end, it is, and always will be Good News, saving news; and really, if you think about it, the kind of news we really need to hear. In Jesus’ name. Amen.