Touching and Healing
Scriptures: Matthew 8:1-13, James 5:13-16
Even though both stories I just read are healing stories, there are two striking differences between them, and the differences tell us a lot about how Jesus works.
Difference #1: In the first case the person with leprosy asks healing for himself, and in the second case the centurion asks healing for someone else. This is significant because in the first case the leper was healed because of his own faith, but in the second case the servant was healed because of the centurion’s faith.
There is a story in the next chapter, Matthew chapter 9, of a paralyzed man brought to Jesus on a stretcher. Matthew 9:2 says, “When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Take heart, son, your sins are forgiven.’” The paralyzed man never says a word. But when Jesus saw their faith—meaning the faith of his friends, Jesus gave the man both forgiveness and healing. In the same way Jesus gives the centurion healing for his servant, not because of the servant’s faith—we know nothing about the servant—but because the centurion’s faith.
I hope this gives you encouragement, because a lot of people in this room have prayed for loved ones who may not have been interested in praying for themselves. I think of all of you who have asked us to pray for family members battling addiction or making bad decisions. The family member may not have been praying about these things. The family member may not even acknowledge their need help. But we prayed for them, because Jesus does not always need the faith of the people we are praying for to do something. Sometimes Jesus can do amazing things because of our faith.
That’s why in our first scripture reading James says, “Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord.” Sometimes the community of faith can hold us up in prayer, when we have neither the will nor the wherewithal to pray for ourselves.
And that brings me to Difference #2: In the case of the person with leprosy Jesus physically touches him, but in the case of the centurion’s servant he does not need to.
Jesus demonstrates both kinds of healing on numerous occasions. In Matthew chapter 9 he goes to the home of a synagogue official to heal his sick daughter. He does not heal her long distance; he goes to her home, takes her by the hand, and the girl, whom everyone thought was dead, gets up.
But then in Matthew chapter 15 a Canaanite woman comes to Jesus asking healing for her daughter, and Jesus says to her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish,” and the daughter is healed, like the centurion’s servant, without Jesus taking a single step toward her house.
One time I was scrolling through the channels on television, and I landed on a Christian channel showing an evangelist with slicked-back hair conducting a healing service in a large auditorium. People from all over the auditorium were streaming down the aisles. When they got to the stage the minister would sweep his arms at them and say something I could not understand, and suddenly they would all fall down like bowling pins, each row collapsing on the ones behind them. How this healed people, I could not figure out, but all over the auditorium people were raising their hands and singing and crying for joy as the ushers began collecting their money.
I could tell they weren’t Presbyterians. Presbyterians have always been a little suspicious of that kind of thing. The emotionalism, the extravagance, and the almost magical reliance on certain words and rituals, not to mention in some cases outright fraud—all these things have made Presbyterians cautious and reluctant to use any kind of rituals for healing, even anointing with oil, fearing that it might take our eyes off of Jesus, causing us to put our trust in magic rituals instead of Jesus’ promise.
It is clear from the example of the centurion and the Canaanite woman, that Jesus does not need anointing with oil, let alone a slick televangelist, to heal people. We are healed by faith in Jesus’ promise. Even when James talks about anointing with oil, he says, “The prayer of faith will save the sick.” It is not our ritual but our faith in Jesus’ word that saves us.
And yet in some cases Jesus actually touches people to heal them. Why? It is not necessary for Jesus to touch people in order to heal them, so why does he do it?
There is an interesting pattern in this. The people Jesus actually touches in the gospel of Matthew are often people who would have been considered unclean, ritually defiled, not allowed to be touched by other people. Who is the first person Jesus touches in the gospel of Matthew? A person with leprosy! That’s about as unclean as you can get. People avoided lepers like the plague, because they thought it was a plague. But not Jesus.
Likewise Jesus touched the girl whom everyone thought had died, because dead people were unclean. You were defiled when you touched a dead body. But not Jesus. In both case Jesus touches the leper and the supposedly dead girl as a sign that Jesus makes people clean. In other words, Jesus came not only to heal our bodies but to make us holy.
That’s why James talks about anointing people with oil. The practice of anointing with oil actually goes back to the Old Testament. In Exodus chapter 30 God tells Moses to make a sacred anointing oil and anoint the tent of meeting and the ark of the covenant and all the furnishings of the tabernacle. Then God says, “You shall consecrate them so they may be most holy.”
The practice of anointing with oil is not some mysterious ritual or potion by which God heals people. It is a statement about our holiness to God. It is just like Jesus touching the man with leprosy or the girl presumed dead. When Jesus touches people, they are not only healed, they are made holy. And when we anoint people with oil, we are not doing this just to heal their bodies; we are doing it as a sign that God has consecrated this person, made this person a holy vessel for God’s love, just as Jesus did when he touched people who were considered untouchable.
So that is why we are having a service of healing and anointing with oil. There is no magic in the oil, even less in the people applying it to your forehead. We are doing symbolically what Moses did: consecrating imperfect human vessels, making them holy. Anointing with oil is nothing more and nothing less than a gesture of faith, but God uses it as a sign of God’s power to make us holy, not just to heal us or the people we pray for, but to make us instruments of God’s love in ways we may not have yet imagined.