Jesus’ care for the lonely
As I read the story (in Mark 5:21-43) of Jesus’ healing of a woman who had been bleeding for 12 years, I am struck by the realization of how deeply Jesus cares for the pain of lonely and ostracized persons.
According to religious law, this woman was unclean, and all who came in contact with her were made unclean. The Law required, “Any bed she lies on, while her discharge continues, will be unclean, and anything she sits on will be unclean. Whoever touches these will be unclean, he must wash his clothes and bathe with water, and he will be unclean till evening.” (Leviticus 15:25-27) Thus she was left in a rather miserable predicament. Everything and everyone she touched was made unclean. So who would want to have anything to do with her? She was absolutely cut off from public worship of God, and virtually cut off from fellowship with other people. To take it a step further, tradition of the time blamed such bleeding on immorality, and required a husband to divorce his bleeding wife! This woman was well experienced with rejection and loneliness and heartache!
In Dry, Augusten Burroughs writes, “Why am I so anxious? And then it hits me. I’m not anxious, I’m lonely. And I’m lonely in some horribly deep way and for a flash of an instant, I can see just how lonely, and how deep this feeling runs. And it scares the s__t out of me to be so lonely because it seems catastrophic—seeing the car just as it hits you.” That was the life of the woman Jesus met in Mark 5.
In Fully Alive, Larry Crabb adds, “Because we were wired to breathe the life-giving air of community, we cannot endure the thought of isolation. We fear aloneness—life without connection, achievement without companionship, existence without friendship, forever wandering in lonely despair. Loneliness is a taste of hell.” That was this woman’s life.
According to the Jewish law, this woman should not have been in a public setting, and she should never have reached out to touch the hem of Jesus’ robe, yet she is desperate enough to hope that the touch of Jesus’ clothing will heal her.
Sure enough, according to Mark 5:29, as soon as she touched Him she was healed!
It’s what Jesus did after she was healed, though, that amazes me the most. It’s what Jesus did after she was healed that shows me the depth of His care for the pain she had experienced for so many years. Though a synagogue ruler named Jairus is tugging on Jesus sleeve, trying to get Jesus to hurry to his home where his own young daughter is dying, Jesus stops there to take time with the woman who had been bleeding for 12 years. Jesus took the time with this woman because she mattered as much to Him as Jairus’ daughter meant to Jairus. Indeed, when Jesus speaks to this woman, He calls her “Daughter.” That’s the kind of love Jesus had for her. She was as precious a daughter to Jesus as Jairus’ daughter was to Jairus! So Jesus took time to connect personally with a woman who had been ostracized and shamed for 12 years, because He cared as much about the healing of her broken heart as He did for the healing of her body.
What strikes me is that Jesus doesn’t just love the world as some mass unit; He loves the broken-hearted individual who has struggled through the pain of loneliness. The one who may have been rejected by others will find a friend in Jesus.
In the storms of life….
When it comes to facing storms in life, I find that I am much more like Jesus’ disciples than I am like Jesus.
One evening, after a contentious and exhausting day of ministry, Jesus told His disciples to take Him across the Sea of Galilee (Mark 4:35). While they sailed across the lake a furious storm came upon them. Either Jesus did not know a storm would hit them, or He didn’t see a reason to avoid the storm.
Here’s the first point where I recognize a difference between my approach to storms and Jesus’ approach. I fear storms, so I try my best to avoid them. Jesus does not fear any storm, so He does not shy away from facing the storms of life. I am least like Jesus when I run away from the storms of life.
When the storm pummels them, with waves breaking over the boat, leaving the disciples terrified, where do they find Jesus? He is in the back of the boat, sleeping on a cushion. Doesn’t that match how we perceive God during the storms of our lives? When problems and fears invade our lives, we have the tendency to doubt the presence of God. We jump to the conclusion that God has left us alone to struggle through the difficulties of life while He is lagging behind somewhere. Or we figure that God has fallen asleep on the job.
When the disciples wake Jesus up and ask for His help, the question they ask of Him is phrased in a remarkably impersonal way. The N.I.V. translates Mark 4:38, “Teacher, don’t You care if we drown?” But, in the actual Greek, the word they choose is the “impersonal” verb melei, which means “it is of concern.” The most accurate translation of their question would be: “Is it not of concern to You that we are perishing?” I recognize that when I am panicking in the storms of life, God seems less and less personal to me. I doubt where He is around. I doubt whether He cares. Sometimes I even go so far as to doubt whether He exists.
After Jesus calms the storm, He said to the disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” Jesus addresses the vital truth about fear and faith: The two often go hand-in-hand. When I am most afraid, I am most lacking in faith; when I am most lacking in faith, I am most afraid.
Like the disciples, I do not tend to handle well the storms of life.
But Jesus…. Jesus is able to sleep even amidst the storm because His trust in God is far greater than His fear. He knew the truth of David’s words in Psalm 4:8: “I will lie down and sleep in peace, for You alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.”
Though fear causes us to question the presence of God, Jesus was not actually lagging behind. He was there with them. And He promises us, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5 & Deuteronomy 31:6).
Though panic causes us to doubt God’s concern for us, the gospels make it clear that Jesus concern for people was not impersonal but was so deep that He cried with people, that He ached in His gut for persons, that He became angry when others responded cold-heartedly to a person in need. He cares so deeply and personally that he gave His very life for us.
I want to remember these truths when I go through storms in my life. Then perhaps I won’t run away from storms but face them with faith.
I have a problem with anger.
Those who know me will be surprised by that confession, for they never hear me yell or curse; they never see me stomp about or kick the dog or throw a fit. I don’t get angry like that.
My problem with anger is that I feel guilty about being angry. I have internalized the opinion that anger is wrong, that good Christians shouldn’t get angry, that I should always be able to accept and be content with everything. The problem is that my opinion about anger does not match what Jesus reveals to us about the character of God. The problem is that I have convinced myself to live in a way that does not match the way Jesus lived.
The gospels give evidence of times in which Jesus got angry—and not one of those times did He apologize for it. Each time, His anger is presented as the right response in the situation. Apparently, from a Biblical perspective, anger at times is the proper response, the godly reaction.
In Mark 3:1-6, Jesus was in a synagogue on a Sabbath day, and a man with a “shriveled hand” was there too. Some who were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus were watching closely to see if Jesus would heal the man or the Sabbath. Jesus asked them, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” In response to His question, they made no response. They refused to answer. They “remained silent.” At that, Jesus “looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored.”
Why was He angry?
Benjamin Warfield observes, “The fundamental psychology of anger is curiously illustrated by this account; for anger always has pain as its root, and is a reaction of the soul against what gives it discomfort.”
According to Warfield, Jesus was angry because His soul was discomforted or distressed over the cold-heartedness of people to the need of this man.
In this case, anger was the reaction of a soul that was stirred to discomfort or distress. Not to be angry in this situation would be to have a heart that was comfortable with overlooking a person’s need. Not to be angry in this situation would be a lack of concern for a person who was suffering.
The choice here seems to have been a choice between indifference and anger. Jesus chose anger that flowed from the depth of His care for this man. Sadly, my fear of anger has often resulted in the practice of indifference.
The truth is that it has often been those who were willing to get mad at injustice or who are willing to get mad about the agony others are going through who have jumped into the battle for justice and into the struggle to care for the needy, and who have made a difference for the good in the lives of people. Whereas those of us who are afraid of anger have settled for indifference and allowed pain and injustice to continue on.
Reject the mindset of the Asklepion
When Debbie and I traveled to the ancient city of Pergamum, in what is now the nation of Turkey, we visited the Asklepion—the ancient hospital/surgery center/health spa. It was so famous in ancient times as a place of healing that even Roman emperors and their families spent time there. A large sign at the official entrance to the Asklepion announced, “Death is not permitted here,” and to protect the reputation of that healing center, no one was permitted to enter unless the priests were certain the person could be healed. They would not take a risk on anyone they thought might die on them.
Unfortunately, often the Christian church acts the same way. Too often, we seem only interested in ministering to those who are already “good” and who will not damage our “good” reputation. We want the “good” people to be at church, and we want the “bad” people to stay away.
Max Lucado shares the story of a church that behaved like the priests of the Asklepion:
“I once knew an extremely courageous lady. She was courageous for several reasons. For one thing, she was waging an uphill battle against alcoholism. For another, she was doing all she could to restore her relationship with God. It’s tough to start over. It’s even tougher to start over when people won’t let you.
“She chose a small church to attend, a church where she knew many members. She thought she’d be received there. One Sunday she parked her car near the church building and got out. As she walked toward the front door, she overheard two ladies talking nearby. The stinging words were not meant for her ears, but she heard them anyway. ‘How long is that alcoholic going to hang around here?’
“She turned and went back to the car. She never entered another church building until she died.” (On the Anvil, p. 119)
When the church takes on the mindset of the Asklepion, we may keep our “good” reputation, but we bring great injury to people whom God loves—people whom Jesus gave His life for.
Jesus is less concerned with reputation and more concerned with reaching out to all in need. Mark records that when Jesus was criticized for enjoying dinner with “tax collectors and sinners,” he replied, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
Apparently, the church is most like Jesus when it gives up worrying about its “good” reputation and focuses, instead, on reaching out to all who struggle in one way or another. The church is most like Jesus when it includes many people of “questionable character.”
Sometimes we have the wrong impression of God’s forgiveness. Sometimes we get the idea that God’s forgiveness is easy, that God simply waves His hand and all our guilt simply vanishes.
The truth is that God’s forgiveness is no easy matter! The difficulty of forgiveness was addressed one day when Jesus asked, “Which is easier: To say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up, take your mat and walk’?”
Jesus compares the difficulty of forgiveness to the difficulty of curing a person of paralysis—something medical scientists have been striving to accomplish for decades.
In that particular incident, Jesus simply spoke words of healing to the paralyzed man, and he got up, picked up his mat and walked home. But to forgive the man’s sins (and our sins) Jesus had to die on a cross. It was far, far, far from easy to bring about forgiveness!
In their book In His Image, Dr. Paul Brand and Philip Yancey point out, “The pictorial Chinese language combines the two concepts of love and pain in eloquent symbolism. In the character that expresses the highest kind of love, symbols for love and for pain are brushed on top of each other to form a word like ‘pain-love.’ Thus a mother ‘pain-loves’ her child. She pours out her whole being on the child’s behalf.” What Jesus did for us on the cross was pain-love. He endured astounding physical agony out of sacrificial love for us. It was far, far, far from easy, but it was the cost of our forgiveness!
Ralph Barron sums up what Jesus did on the cross in one powerful sentence: “In His passion to set right a disjointed universe, God broke open His own heart in love. (The Strangest Way, p. 31).” Upon the cross Jesus endured the pain-love of His heart being broken open for us. It was far, far, far from easy, but it was the cost of our forgiveness.
Following a horrible forest fire that swept through Yellowstone Park many years ago, an urban legend made its way across the internet claiming to have been reported in National Geographic: “Forest rangers began their trek up a mountain to assess the inferno’s damage. One ranger found a bird literally petrified in ashes, perched statuesquely on the ground at the base of a tree. Somewhat sickened by the eerie sight, he knocked over the bird with a stick. When he struck it, three tiny chicks scurried from under their dead mother’s wings. The loving mother, keenly aware of impending disaster, had carried her offspring to the base of the tree and had gathered them under her wings, instinctively knowing that the toxic smoke would rise. She could have flown to safety but had refused to abandon her babies. When the blaze had arrived and the heat had scorched her small body, the mother had remained steadfast. Because she had been willing to die, those under the cover of her wings would live.” This quote from Psalm 91:4 accompanied the story: “He will cover you with His feathers, and under His wings you will find refuge.” Yet Snopes.com reports, “We’ve been getting a lot of emails about this. It’s an inspirational story—which is why we regret that we have to debunk it. The incident was never reported in National Geographic. Nor did it happen at Yellowstone, according to the park’s ornithologist, who adds that it doesn’t ring true of bird behavior anywhere.” Birds won’t act in that way, nor will any other animal. But Jesus did. On the cross, He covered us and bore the entire consequence of our sins. It was far, far, far from easy, but it was the cost of our forgiveness!