Miracles as MacGuffins: What ailment did Jesus really cure?

Isaiah 35:5 and 6 declared, "Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a hart, and the tongue of the dumb sing for joy." It was imperative that any claim of Messiah-ship be backed up by evidence of healing powers.

Some claim that the Bible has the "ring of truth" about it. What they mean by this is that it has a warts-and-all portrayal of man and his frailties. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Bible and the events depicted exist in a realm outside of human existence. The characters are larger than life. The episodes miraculous and unlikely.

Even events which have the least amount of time between the happening and the recording fail to have the ring of truth about them. Apparently there was a man who walked the land of Israel two-thousand years ago, and he had the ability to cure people of their ailments merely by speaking a word or "rebuking a spirit." However, the fact that mankind generally accepted this phenomenon with a collective shrug testifies to its unlikelihood. Yes, the gospels often portray onlookers as being amazed or "giving glory to God," but this claim tends to land with a dull thud when nobody but the Christians were impressed enough to attempt to document the claims - and even then thirty years or more after the event.

One of the problems is that the individual events themselves fail to impress with their scale. They are presented without any sense of awe, as if the writer was so aware of their impossibility that he erred on the side of the perfunctory because that might make it appear more real. Although Jesus is shown in scenes where large numbers of sick and crippled are cast at his feet and he "cured them all", there are only a handful of direct references to curing, and even these turn out to be vehicles for conveying a different message. The miracle is a MacGuffin.

Several episodes have Jesus curing on a Sabbath. On each occasion they serve as a basis for a discussion about what is lawful on a Sabbath.

His curing of a leper is a means for showing the compassion of the Christ. He wants to cure. He touches the man. Jesus is shown as a man who is not going to be swayed by religious extremes and unloving attitudes towards cleanliness. Why, a leper could be made clean simply by having the law changed.

In both of these instances Jesus is depicted as a man who has no truck with the heavy load that religious restrictions place on the people. He is not interested in keeping people at arms length or making them feel rejected. What better way of conveying this than have him literally cure a leper or heal a woman with a flow of blood.

The story of Jesus' long-distance curing of a Canaanite woman's demon-possessed daughter is really an opportunity to teach his disciples a lesson about prejudice. The story of Jesus curing the boy that his disciples were unable to cure becomes the platform from which Jesus can make the observation, "If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there' and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you." Time and again, the miracle fades into the background as the desired teaching point comes into focus.

In order for the Messiah not to be outdone by the prophets of old, it also needed to be emphasised that death had no hold over him either. However, the three occasions in which Jesus raised the dead are highly dubious affairs. Lazarus is mentioned only by John, the widow of Nain's son only by Luke. That alone speaks volumes. And as for the daughter of Jairus: "She did not die, but is sleeping." A twelve-year-old, confined to her bed with a mysterious illness...

There was perhaps one ailment that Jesus was able to cure. A twelve-year-old, confined to her bed with a mysterious illness; a man is lowered through the roof paralysed and bed-ridden; a woman has a disabling spirit for eighteen years; an army officer's manservant has been confined to his bed. This was a community oppressed by both Roman subjugation and finding no spiritual solace in the religious system. Jesus felt pity for them because they were "skinned and thrown about, like sheep without a shepherd." He talked about them being tired.
Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.
Today similar stresses exert their toll on men, women, and children, and some collapse under the system's crushing weight. If the people suffered from anything in the first century it would be what modern-day medicine would categorise as fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, or M.E., ailments that can be brought on by the stresses and anxieties of the world around us. People are affected in different ways. Some have personal demons to exorcise, others have their internal anxieties manifest themselves as external ailments. "Cure" the inner person, and the external symptoms can disappear.

Jesus method of addressing such symptoms was with the expression, "Your sins are forgiven". Jesus was not saying that he forgave their sins, he was stating the fact that their sins were forgiven. Repentance is not the means by which we discover that our sins are forgiven by the power of Christ Jesus. Repentance is the means by which we discover our sins are forgiven, period. This greatly redacted statement focused on matters of the mind and heart. We struggle with repressed feeling of guilt and shame for a variety of reasons. Only by revisiting the source of these feelings can we begin to lift ourselves out of the malaise that we experience in life. Jesus said, "your sins are forgiven," but it is we who have not yet forgiven ourselves. When we understand who we are we can begin to let go of those matters that weigh us down. To members of a religious community Jesus was emphasising the fact that God held nothing against them, and if that was true, they had no reason to hold anything against themselves.

There is a short account of a person's struggle with fibromyalgia which serves as an excellent illustration of this healing process. Written by Melinda Cote, it is entitled The Spark. The symptoms she describes could be applied to many of the despairing characters encountered in the gospel accounts. Melinda meets her own personal "saviour" in the wife of her mother's friend. "She commanded a certain presence that I can't really describe. There was a palpable sense of life about her, and lacking anything like that myself, she somehow magnetically attracted me." The spark that Melinda describes finds its equivalent in the statement that Jesus makes, "If you have faith as small as a mustard seed..."

"The Christ," is a short-cut. Believing that "the Christ" will soon come and rid us of our ailments, or that only by accepting "the Christ" can our sins be forgiven, ends up being a reason to avoid sorting ourselves out. When a church makes this statement, "We can never make up for our sin by self-improvement or good works. Only by trusting in Jesus Christ as God's offer of forgiveness can anyone be saved from sin's penalty," it sails dangerously close to the warning that Jesus gave to the Pharisees: “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in."

Religion is only of any use if it a means to an end. When it becomes the end it has lost its meaning. The difference between Jesus and Christianity was that Jesus was helping people on a journey of self-discovery. Christianity denies people the power of self-discovery because it sets itself up as the final destination - without it salvation is impossible. In contrast to this, Jesus was all about self-improvement. He didn't cure people, he gave them the way to cure themselves.