Thursday, October 26, 2006

Doctrine and Conduct (7) - "Faith" continued

I'd like to look at some examples of how faith is demonstrated in the Gospels, for insights into what our Lord meant when He spoke of "faith".

In Mark 5:21-34, Matthew 9:20-22 and Luke 8:40-48 there is a story which ends with the words "Daughter, your faith (pistis) has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering." It is followed immediately by Jesus' advice to another person asking for a miracle: "Don't be afraid; just believe (pisteuo)." This story gives us a remarkable insight into what Jesus found was so commendable about faith.

Try to picture this woman's situation. "She had been subject to bleeding for twelve years". This was obviously a serious medical condition because, as Mark says, "she had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors and had spent all she had, yet instead of getting better she grew worse." (As an aside, it always amuses me how Luke, the doctor, instead of saying how her condition worsened under the care of doctors, simply says "no one could heal her".) Here are just some of the consequences of her condition:

1. Her illness would have left her physically debilitated.

2. Under the Law of Moses this condition would have made her unclean. Uncleanness of this type meant that anyone who drank from the same cup or ate from the same plate, or even sat on the same chair as this woman would have become "unclean" themselves and would have to go through ceremonial purification rituals before the day was over.

3. Anyone she touched would become unclean. This meant she could not go out to the usual places, such as a market, because she would have "defiled" or contaminated (in a ritual sense) anyone she touched.

4. She was not allowed to attend synagogue or visit the Temple. She was cut off from normal worship and religious activities. Being shut out of the "house of God" no doubt she would also have felt cut off from God.

5. Life would have become very lonely, as visitors would have had to go through inconvenient purification rituals after any contact with her. Over time less and less people would have visited, and visited less frequently. Her isolation would have become intense.

6. Normal community life would have ended. She couldn't go shopping, sit in a park, go to a relative's wedding, attend synagogue, watch a parade, fully participate in family occasions, hug friends or family, or play games with children. In fact, there wasn't much she could do!

7. With isolation and helplessness inevitably comes depression, and after losing contact with family, friends and community, becoming poor and destitute, and suffering physically from her serious illness, I imagine the depression could have become unbearable.

It's hard to imagine a sadder or more hopeless situation.

However, Luke tells us that "she heard about Jesus" and thought "If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed." Whatever it was she'd heard, she was convinced that she would be healed. This was not just a last-hope kind of thinking. It wasn't the kind of desperation that says "oh well, it can't hurt - it's worth a try". This woman knew "If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed."

Now imagine the lengths this woman went to in order to touch Jesus.

First, she broke the Law by venturing out into a crowd where she would knowingly and deliberately touch people and thereby make them unclean. Both Mark and Luke make the point that the disciples said to Jesus "the people are crowding and pressing against you." It would have been impossible for this woman to get near Jesus without making many people unclean. But it didn't matter.

Second, if she'd been recognised by someone in the crowd she could have been in big trouble for so wantonly defiling so many people without regard for them or the Law which protected them from defilement. This was a risky venture and she would have to be discrete. I suspect this is what is implied in the words in Luke's account "She came up behind him ..." Perhaps she also thought that after she received her miracle she could also slip back home, undetected.

Finally, for a physically debilitated woman to force her way through a thick crowd of people who were "crowding and pressing" against each other would have been exhausting and would have taken every ounce of strength and courage.

Everything was against her.
  • The Law was against her - not just the civil law, but the Law of God!
  • The religious leaders, always obsessed with purity and avoiding defilement or contamination, would definitely have been against such an enterprise.
  • Her own physical condition was against her - it would take every bit of strength and willpower that she could muster if she was going to get close to Jesus.
  • There was always the risk that someone would recognise her and prevent her from carrying out her mission.
But nothing was going to stand in her way.

Amazingly, she was successful in forcing her way through the crowd and in getting to Jesus. Mission accomplished: "immediately her bleeding stopped", she was "instantly healed" (Luke). But then the unthinkable happened - she was caught! "Who touched me?" Jesus asked. Luke implies, as I noted earlier, that she tried to slip away undetected. He says she realised that "she could not go unnoticed" and "came trembling [with fear - Mk] and fell at his feet". Jesus, however, was not about to rebuke her - He wanted to commend her. "Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering."

When Jesus then turned and said to Jairus "Don't be afraid; just believe (pisteuo - i.e. have faith)" He was undoubtedly saying something like this: "you've just seen real faith demonstrated - now have that kind of faith."

What was so commendable about her faith?

(a) It was a determined faith - nothing would stand in its way. Nothing would stop her from connecting with Jesus - not even the Law of God! (We should really think seriously about the implications of that, and I'll come back to it in a later post).

(b) It was the kind of faith which would lead someone to take risks. Obeying the rules and not "rocking the boat" might be "safe" but is it commendable?

(c) This is an enabling faith - it enabled her to call up all her reserves of courage, energy and determination in order to achieve her mission.

(d) It was an overcoming faith. This woman overcame her own fear, her weakness, and every obstacle which stood in her faith.

(e) Faith like this always leads to action. This woman didn't say "Jesus could heal me if He wanted to", or "If only Jesus came here then I might be he healed", or "I might suffer now, but in the age to come I'll be freed from my suffering". No, she said "I will be healed" and she did absolutely everything she could to make sure she was!

This is not the safe "theological" faith which expresses itself in a "statement of faith" and leads to arguments and disputes about words. This kind of faith is commendable because it is empowering and leads to action. It is a demonstration of trust. It is liberating ("be freed from your suffering").

We should note how Jesus said "your faith has made you whole" (KJV). He uses the Greek word sozo which is often translated "saved" (as in "He shall save his people from their sins"). Her faith saved her. Perhaps we are to see in this story an example of how this kind of faith results not only in miracles and healings, but in the complete salvation of the whole person. This is the kind of faith that is spoken of when Scripture says we are "saved by faith" - not by understanding or giving intellectual assent to a creed or doctrinal statement, not by having the right "beliefs", not even by knowing "the Truth", but by knowing and trusting Jesus so fully that we are driven to action, determined to connect with Him no matter what obstacles lie before us, regardless of what religious leaders might say or the community might demand. This kind of faith changes people. It enables them to do the impossible, empowers them to do the unthinkable, and brings healing and wholeness in the process.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Doctrine and Conduct (6) - "Faith" continued

In my last post I dealt briefly with the way "faith" (and the related verb "I believe") is used in the Synoptic Gospels, and said I would deal with John's Gospel later.

In fact, the noun pistis ("faith") does not occur at all in John, although the verb pisteuo ("I believe") occurs nearly 100 times. It has been suggested (e.g. by R.T. France, et al) that the reason for this may well be that by the time John wrote his Gospel towards the end of the first century the noun had begun to be used to designate the body of Christian doctrine, whereas John was more interested in the relationship expressed by the verb form. Of course this is speculative, although it does fit in well with what we know of John.

One of things that is really interesting about John's use of pisteuo is that his most frequent usage is to write of belief/faith in/into Jesus (in fact only two cases refer to belief in God - all the rest are to belief in/into Jesus). R. T . France comments: "This is in striking contrast with the Synoptics usage ... where only one passage explicitly mentions believing in Jesus. While faith in the Synoptics is primarily faith in God and is directed principally toward the experience of miraculous power, in John it is faith in Jesus, and its focus is not on miracles and on the meeting of physical need, but on the establishment of a relationship which results in eternal life" (op cit). This must be read as similar to Paul's language about the incorporation of believers "into" the body of Christ so that they are "in Christ".

John has an interesting thing in common with the Synoptics: Jesus is never spoken of as believing in God. Jesus is the object, not the subject, of faith.