Recently my neck began to hurt, not very acutely, but painfully when I made certain movements, not least when I attempted to find a comfortable sleeping posture. After trying various forms of self -help, which only made it worse, I went to a local physiotherapist, who has lots of experience with sports injuries in elderly idiots. She – it would be a woman, a very fit, strong young woman- listened, watched, then massaged, discovering spots of tension and pain, not merely in my neck, but all over my upper back. Often the pressure of her knuckles would be exquisitely painful, but if I groaned a little, she would say, “Sore?” and then press harder and longer on the spot. No pain, no gain, she knows this truth, and uses it as a diagnostic tool. She’s very good.
My guess is that the healing skills of Jesus included this tool: he knew where the pain or dis-ease was located, and dealt with that. The leper was suffering from exclusion and the absence of human touch, so Jesus touched him. He saw that the demon-possessed man was afflicted with a violent compulsion, so he made him reveal its name, “Legion, the Roman Army.” He had been traumatised by its violent rule of his people and needed to name it so that he could gain control of it. Jesus knew that Peter’s mother-in-law was fevered because, in her daughter’s house, she had lost her honour as hostess, so he raised her to her feet, so that she could resume that role. He understood that the rich young man was suffering from an overdose of wealth, so he recommended giving it away. We don’t know if this was the right prescription because the patient refused to take it. Unerringly, Jesus could put his hand on the place of pain, knowing that this revelation would be therapeutic. If the person had enough faith to face the facts, they would get well.
( No, the scripture tradition of Jesus’ healings is not very factual, emphasising miracle and divine power. Doubtless the stories show exaggeration and misunderstanding but as a sceptical reader I still conclude that the historical Jesus did heal, and that some memory of his healings survives in the gospel narratives.)
All of the above reminded me of some lines of T.S. Eliot in East Coker:
“The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer’s art.”
Jesus is the wounded surgeon. His sharp compassion comes from his own experience of pain, in his life and death. In his risen life, he has complete respect for pain, knowing that it signals something wrong; its purpose is warning and protest at the presence of that wrong. It is life’s argument against death. In his pain on the cross, we can see, as opposed to all the blethers about his acceptance of our punishment for sin, his refusal to accept it as the will of God; his pain and his cry of protest, signals that something terrible is being done to a human being, which must never be glossed over or made acceptable. It is pain that demands a healing it does not receive, which makes Jesus, according to the Letter to Hebrews, perfect through suffering, and therefore a suitable high priest for humanity.
The fact of pain as an indicator of human illness, extremity and rebellion is clear in the gospels, as is the call for human hands and brains to supply the healing which God can’t. Faith in this God means seeing pain as an indicator of wrong, recognising the wrong and doing our best to heal by changing it.