We call Jesus the Great Physician, because ― tirelessly ― he healed every imaginable human ailment, including some situations we sometimes fail to recognize as sicknesses. But there’s one thing Jesus can’t do. He can’t heal those who won’t admit that they’re sick.
I’ve heard some doctors say that they dread those social occasions where folks stand for an hour or so, nursing a beverage and finger food, while they engage in chitchat. For them, it often means practicing medicine on the run. Well-meaning people, preoccupied with real or perceived ailments, can’t resist a chance for a professional opinion. Perhaps it’s only an urban legend, but one doctor is said to have stopped the practice by sending a bill the following day to all those who had sought his medical counsel over their hors d’oeuvres.
In truth, I don’t blame doctors for dreading such conversations. I don’t think it’s a matter of avoiding the giving of free medical care so much as the desire to be exempt from their work for a few hours. And they’re not really to be criticized for such a feeling. But that only makes more impressive the way Jesus went about his daily life. We often refer to Jesus as "the Great Physician," and the term is right. I suspect that I use the term with a measure of prejudice, because of my convinced devotion to Christ. But if I were looking at our Lord from a quite objective point of view, I would still title him "The Great Physician" because of the way his healing cut across the whole span of human need.
Here’s what I mean. In our day, medicine is divided into an almost infinite number of specialties. A procedure that calls for an overnight hospital stay means you will be visited by your internist or family doctor, the anesthesiologist, and the person doing the procedure ― and perhaps also a radiologist and a nutritionist. Jesus, by contrast, dealt with every imaginable illness; and he did so, not as a general practitioner, but as a supreme specialist.
Follow me, please, through a day in Jesus’ life, and you’ll see what I mean. It’s only part of a day, but it’s the part covered by the scripture you’ve heard read. It begins with Jesus’ walking through the market area of the city ― nothing like a doctor’s office, but somewhat like the scene I described at the outset ― when suddenly Jesus sees a man who is severely ill. You must have a diagnostician’s eye to catch such an illness. It’s so commonplace that a casual eye never notices it. This is a man, called Matthew, who is consumed with materialism. This is often fatal, largely because those who are afflicted are at first very comfortable with their condition; and afterward, when it begins to take its toll, they often don’t realize what the problem is, nor how serious it is.
Indeed, it’s an especially odd affliction in that the people who are most in its grip are often praised for the very thing that is destroying them. People sometimes comment on how ambitious the person is, or what a beautiful collection of pewter they’ve garnered. As a result, they sometimes don’t know what’s destroying them. The ill effects usually show themselves in a pervasive feeling of ennui, a sense that nothing really matters very much. To counter this feeling, the patient sometimes gets into drugs, or just a huge restlessness.
I don’t know how far this man Matthew had gone, but it was far enough that when Jesus said, "Follow me," the man simply left everything he had and followed Jesus. Now mind you, the illness that was destroying Matthew is rarely recognized as fatal, because it doesn’t come to the attention of the medical profession until it has taken on some other form. But Jesus knew it was an illness, an illness of the soul. So when he went with Matthew for a banquet at Matthew’s house, and some of his enemies criticized him for being there with "tax collectors and sinners," Jesus explained that "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick" (Matthew 9: l2). So, Jesus healed a not obvious but fatal illness.
While Jesus was still talking with the crowds, a community leader came to seek healing for his daughter. But while Jesus was accompanying the man to his home, a woman with a continual bleeding touched his robe, and was healed.
Her needs were quite different. She had suffered her problem for some 12 years and had gotten no relief from a series of physicians. It was the kind of condition that, in our day, would hint of a malignancy. I doubt that the first-century world had such a word for it, but I’m quite sure that as women communicated quietly with one another, they drew conclusions from what had happened to some of their friends.
But perhaps worse, in their world, a woman with such an ailment was seen as being unclean. For all practical purposes, she was cut off from society in general, and from the marital bed. She was made a social outcast.
Therefore, the woman didn’t ask Jesus for healing. She was ashamed to do so. So, she did the most inconspicuous thing possible, but also the most faith-insisting: she reached out and touched the very edges of our Lord’s apparel, believing that by doing so she would be healed. And she was!
It was a physical miracle, one that in our day would be part of the witness of a place like Lourdes. But as it turned out, it was more than that. Jesus recognized what had happened, and he insisted on talking with the woman. In the process, he gave her a sense of dignity and worth that she surely hadn’t had in years; indeed, perhaps never. So, he healed not only her body, but also her self-regard, her poor esteem, her sense of personal worth. That good friend is quite a doctor!
As Jesus resumed his journey to the home of the community leader, people there hurried out to say that there was no longer any need for him to come, because the little girl had already died. When Jesus denied the finality of her death, the people laughed him to scorn. After putting the scorners outside, Jesus took the little girl by the hand, and raised her up.
Because death itself was involved, this miracle strikes us as the mightiest of all. And I grant you that it’s hard to argue with that evaluation. Still, if I were Matthew, or if I were the woman with the illness of 12 years, I suspect I’d think mine was as good a miracle. In any event, in the instance of this little girl, Jesus invaded the very domain of death. In our day, the greatest of our physicians sometimes snatch patients out of what seem to be the jaws of death. But in the case of this little girl, the jaws had snapped shut. But still, Jesus treated the case victoriously.
What a doctor! What a doctor!
But I’m sorry to say that there’s another chapter to the story. You may have noticed that I spoke, in the title, of one doctor and four patients, and in truth, we’ve looked at only three. Those three have been very impressive, because they’ve cut through such a wide variety of human needs, even to death itself.
But I must tell you that there was an illness in the stories of our text where Jesus was not effective. Do you remember my saying that when Matthew had a banquet to celebrate his healing, some critics complained about the kind of people Jesus was associating with? And you remember that Jesus said, "The well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick"?
He then went on to tell his critics that the prophets had said that God desires mercy, not sacrifice. Well, his critics didn’t know much about mercy. They were strong on the institutional side of religion, symbolized by Jesus’ reference to “sacrifice” ― that is, the ritual and formula of their religion. They went through all the religious motions, but without any righteous emotions.
And Jesus added a deadly line. "I have come," he said, "to call not the righteous but sinners" (Matthew 9:l3). Was Jesus saying that his critics were righteous? Only in their own eyes! They had decided that other people were sinners, and that they were not.
Let me put it this way. Suppose there were some fearful sicknesses that was sure death. Four people have it. They come to a doctor who has an infallible cure. Three of them are healed. But one of them, getting the doctor’s diagnosis, says insistently and arrogantly, "I am not sick." The doctor’s skills are helpless in the face of such a patient. No doctor can heal a patient who insists that he or she is not ill, and therefore refuses treatment.
So that’s my story of the day. Three magnificent treatments by the Great Physician, and one failure. The deadliest sin in this story is not materialism, not a malignancy, not death itself, but self-righteousness.
Now what are you and I going to say to that?