Healing Friendship: A sermon based on Mark 12:13-17
We are continuing our reflection on God and sickness. Reflecting on how God is with us when we’re sick, reflecting on how we are with God when we’re sick. Earlier this morning we reflected on the story that came right before this passage, where Jesus both forgave the sins of someone who needed healing, and then healed them physically. We noted how odd it was that Jesus would forgive someone who needed healing. The passage suggests that Jesus didn’t make the same clear distinctions between healing and forgiveness that we might. Rather, Jesus sees that all that’s broken in our world is the result of sin, and its His work to restore all things back to the way they’re supposed to be. So of course healing and forgiveness would go together in that story, Jesus is restoring all that’s broken about this world. In today’s Scripture passage, Jesus makes a similar link between sin and sickness when he says, (Slide 2) “Its not the healthy who need a doctor but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
Now that we know Jesus’ job description, we can get on with praying. Jesus invites us to pray for the restoration of all things throughout Scripture, when He says things like, (Slide 3) “whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive.” Jesus is about healing and restoring all that’s broken in this world, and he promises to do whatever we ask in His name. So when we are sick, or when someone we love is sick, all we need to do is ask for healing in Jesus’ name and He’ll do the healing.
Although there is some truth in what I just described about prayer, you can probably see all sorts of dangers in that description. Here is one: when we see prayer as just asking God to do the things that we see is important, the danger is that we’re actually relating to God like we’re a magician. Having the right words or technique to get God to do what we want is called magic. In the middle ages, the use of magic was a bit more in your face. For example, the bread and the wine at the Lord’s Table was believed to be especially concentrated with God’s power. Someone actually smuggled out a piece of communion bread to use as a love potion. They figured that if they used the bread in a particular way, God couldn’t help but respond. Today, we’re more subtle in our ways to force God to do what we want. We know the magic word, which is “Jesus.” Or we might claim “the blood of Christ”, or we might call down the Holy Spirit a lot as we pray. Or we might pray in tongues. Or we might use an ancient healing liturgy. Or we might anoint someone with oil or Holy Water. We might go on a fast. Of course, all those are practices are advocated in Scripture, and can be important aspects of prayer. But they have a danger of becoming a form of magic if we think that if we just push the right spiritual buttons, God will do what we want. Let me put it another way: we’re acting like a magician when we stop relating to God as a friend. Today’s passage shows us that Jesus heals primarily through friendship.
(Slide 4) We’ll come back to this idea of magic in a moment when we’ll contrast this magical approach to God, with the Pharisee’s approach to God. And I’d like to contrast both the magical way, and the pharisaical way of relating to God with how God relates to us. God relates to us in the same way that Jesus relates to Levi. So let’s meet this Levi character. Jesus approaches Levi and says, “Follow me”. So Levi follows Jesus, and they end up having a feast together. This gets under the Pharisees skin because they saw Levi as about as loathsome as you could get. Levi was a unique kind of tax collector: he was basically a custom’s officer that makes people pay too much duty as they passed from one region to another. People were particularly annoyed at having to pay Levi customs, because a few years earlier there was a political change-over where Herod the Great's Kingdom was divided in three. This resulted in three times as many borders, which resulted in more customs booths. So, Levi was forcing people to pay taxes at a regional border which didn’t exist a couple years earlier. Think how annoyed we’d be if suddenly we had to pay extra taxes on everything we bought in Smithers as you came back to Telkwa. Maybe that’s how we can fund the water tower. Everyone who passed by Levi was remembering the good old says of no tax. As they paid Levi, they were suspicious that Levi was cheating them out of their hard earned money. The pharisees, who stressed moral purity, actually said that it was OK to lie to people like Levi. As if all this wasn’t bad enough, everyone also saw him as a traitor to the Romans. No wonder the phrase “tax collectors and sinners” was common currency. When Jesus invites a person like Levi to follow him, he wants us to pay attention. Jesus is taking someone who’s in need of all sorts of healing, and is going to show us how He sets to work.
(Slide 5) While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and “sinners” were eating with him and his disciples….” Its here that we see the Great Physician at work. Through a party. Through relationship. Joyful, festive relationship. That’s the picture he offers us for how He practices medicine. One way that Jesus goes about restoring all things is by becoming intimately involved with all things. Through getting to know Levi, walking with him, talking with him, eating with him. Jesus hosts a banquet with tax collectors and sinners, that’s the way He doctors the sick. That’s how Jesus invites us to pray to him, not as a conjuring magician, but as a friend.
Contrast this with the Pharisee’s approach to God. At the same time that Jesus is enjoying this banquet with tax collectors and sinners, He’s sending a message to the Pharisees looking in from outside. Jesus is sending a message to them that’s pretty similar to other parables Jesus told throughout His ministry. (Slide 6) You may remember the story from Luke 14. Someone says to Jesus, “Blessed is the man who will eat at the feast in the kingdom of God.” This person is looking forward to something called “The Messianic Banquet.” This banquet will happen on the day the Messiah will come, everything will be restored, and the righteous will feast together. In responds to this person’s hope by telling a story about a man preparing a great banquet, but one by one, his guests begin making excuses about why they can’t come. It sounds like no one will come. (Slide 7) So the master says, “Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame”. Stories about the messianic banquet were common currency. But the story Jesus told about the banquet made it seem like Jesus was telling a completely different story. Jesus’ peers would have grown up hearing stories about the messianic banquet as something that only good people hoped to be a part of. God’s Banquet was what righteous people hoped for. It was a story about how God would reward the righteous people in the age to come. For example, the Qumran Community was a community of Hebrews who were exceptionally rigorous in maintaining their ritual purity. They hoped that this would earn them a place at the Great Banquet. They have a document called “The Messianic Rule” which describes the last days, when the Messiah will gather the whole congregation to eat bread and drink wine. They said that the wise, the intelligent and the perfect men will gather with him… no one is allowed who is “smitten in his flesh, or paralyzed in his hands or feet, or lame or blind or deaf or dumb.” (Slide 8) The Pharisees and the Scribes had a very similar perspective, which is why they wonder aloud “Why does Jesus eat with tax collectors and sinners?” They thought that by being righteous, a person will get to eat with the messiah at his banquet. Jesus turns that idea on its head. Righteousness isn’t the way to buy a plate at the Messiah’s table. Instead, bringing your plate to the Messiah table is the way you become righteous.
(Slide 9) That’s exactly what Jesus gets across when he responds by saying, “Its not the healthy who need a doctor but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” When the Pharisees wonder why Jesus is eating with tax collectors and sinners, Jesus says that its by spending time with Him that these sick sinners will be healed. Jesus is their hospital. Friendship with Jesus is how the sick and sinners are made whole.
We’ve seen three very different perspectives on healing. One way, which I call magic, tries to get God to heal or act because we come to him with the right word or technique. That doesn’t work because, by definition, magic is about trying to exercise power apart from relationship. We cannot manipulate God with words or techniques. Approaching God like a magician won’t work because God actually wants a relationship with us. The second perspective on healing that we’ve talked about didn’t work great for the Pharisee. They acknowledged that relationship is important, but the way they secured a future relationship with the Messiah was through being good. They believed that God is less concerned about relationship and more concerned about performance. Being good is the way you get God to do what you want. Jesus shows us another way. Jesus shows us that relationship with Him is the way He heals and restores us to righteousness.
This means we can let go of spiritual practices as a way of trying to impress God. It also means that we can let go of our spiritual practices that are just a way of pushing God’s buttons so He’ll do what we want. Instead, we’re invited to actually to get to know God, Frienship with God is the context of healing. Goodness, healing happens, righteousness happens through friendship with God.
That’s the heart behind all Spiritual practices. That’s the goal of all prayer, fasting, meditation on Scripture, speaking in tongues, intercessory prayer, praying in Jesus’ name, praise and worship, contemplation, and the rest. The goal of these practices is to help us become aware that Jesus is with us in friendship. We don’t engage in Spiritual Practices as a magical way of manipulating God to do what we want. We don’t engage in Spiritual Practices to try and prove to God that were somehow righteous enough. Those are two significant dangers to avoid in our relationship with God. Instead, we engage in Spiritual Practices because they simply help us become aware of His friendship. And its His friendship that heals us and the world.
Living this out when we’re sick is so hard. Sometimes, when we’re sick and hurting, or when those we love are sick or hurting, we can try all the magic tricks we know to get God act to make us feel better. Or we can trust in our own righteousness like the Pharisees, and demand to know why God won’t heal when all we’ve been so good. When we’re not getting the response we want, one of the most difficult things to do is to relate to God as a friend, and trust that He is there. But even if we can’t trust that He’s there, He is there. This means something good must be happening. He has a plan, even through suffering. From that place of friendship, certainly we ask for healing, but we trust that however he responds, He loves you, and is giving you His best. Its like a friend of mine said, “Trusting completely that WHATEVER He does is the actions of my closest possible friend, for the best good of all involved. I can ask Him for limitless portions of that!"