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The Healing Jesus:
Interpreting the Miracle Stories

by Helen Doohan

The healing episodes in Scripture engage readers in a way that the teachings and sermons may not. These wonderful narratives spark our curiosity and heighten our interest. To imagine one paralytic taking up his pallet and walking (Mark 2:12) or another leaping and shouting words of praise because of an unexpected cure (Acts 3:8) is to experience the joy of the Gospel. Think also of the relief of the woman with the flow of blood (Luke 8:47) or the ecstatic response of Jairus at the news of his daughter—s restoration to life (Luke 8:56).

Healing is part of a larger tradition within Scripture, and the relationship between healing and sickness is not confined to physical ills. In fact, the miracle tradition tells us more about the power of God at work in our lives than it does about health. These episodes point to growth in wholeness and holiness because of the healing touch of the Lord.

Let—s examine these remarkable stories by reflecting on the purpose and meaning of the miracle tradition in the first century and the impact of Jesus— healing ministry then and now.

Miracle stories circulated independently before their insertion into the written Gospels. Preachers readily told audiences about what Jesus said and did, often adapting the stories to suit the needs of the hearers. The written Gospel narratives likewise reinterpret and adapt the original material according to the community—s faith understanding of Jesus as Messiah and Risen Lord. It is not uncommon to see that Jesus heals individuals of their diseases "in fulfillment of the Scriptures" (Matthew 8:17), since the Jews associated healing with Messianic activity.

As the community—s faith in Jesus grows, they reflect their understanding of Jesus— uniqueness. The healing power of Jesus includes restoring sight to a man born blind (John 9:7) and life to Lazarus who is dead for three days (John 11:44), miracles beyond the power of ordinary wonder workers of the time. In other words, the miracle tradition becomes a vehicle for expressing the faith convictions of the early Church.

What Is a Miracle?

While we often think of miracles as supernatural events or a suspension of the laws of nature, the biblical mind expected miracles and interpreted them as a manifestation of God—s control over the world, life and evil. Miracles can rightly be described as acts of power (from the Greek word dynameis). However, the best description of a miracle in Scripture is as a sign or wonder, an understanding that has precedents in the Jewish Scriptures (Exodus 16:4, 15; Numbers 11:8; 2 Kings 5:14 and 4:32-33).

Think for the moment about the purpose of a road sign. It indicates or points to a direction. We pay little attention to the sign itself; rather our interest is in its meaning. To make this point clear to our university students, I use the example of travelling to Seattle from Spokane on spring break. "What do you do when you see the sign that indicates —Seattle West—? Do you ever get out of your car, touch the sign, feel the letters, examine the colors and so on?" You can imagine the response!

Translate this approach to the signs/miracles in the Gospels. Biblical signs are important because of what they indicate. In the Gospels, the signs tell us something about Jesus as healer and about the power of God at work in and through Jesus. The people who witnessed these signs reacted with awe and wonder because of the power of God acting on their behalf. Many followed Jesus in faith and proclaimed the Good News as a result of these signs.

Interpreting the Signs

The question we should ask of the healing episodes is "What do they mean?" not "How did it happen?" Let—s examine a few of the healings in the New Testament. The Gospel of Mark contains some insightful episodes about the healing power of Jesus.

In Mark 2:1-12, the author relates the episode of the cure of the paralytic and inserts within this account a pronouncement about the forgiveness of sins, thereby changing a healing story into a controversy. The controversies in Mark—s Gospel lead to confrontations between Jesus and his opponents over new interpretations of Jewish laws and rituals. In this inserted section, the scribes receive a response to their inner questioning: "Who has the power to forgive sins, but God alone?" Jesus, knowing what is in their hearts, cures the man, but also forgives him so "that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins" (2:10).

The authority of Jesus is the issue at stake in this episode. While all the observers were amazed and glorified God, the opponents began to plot Jesus— death (Mark 3:6). This interesting healing reflects the Marcan community—s understanding of Jesus. He is the one who claims authority that belongs to God alone and through his powerful acts God is glorified.

Furthermore, Mark reminds the community that they, as believers, continue to experience the healing power of the Lord through forgiveness of sin. For the paralytic, the physical cure indicates a deeper healing and restoration to wholeness.

Another key episode occurs in the center section of the Gospel (Mark 8:22—10:52). Mark frames the journey to Jerusalem with two episodes that relate the cures of blind men, a technique called inclusion. The image of blindness and sight is the interpretive key to the entire section. In fact, in the first episode Jesus heals the man in two stages. Initially the blind man sees people like trees walking, and then he sees clearly (8:22-26).

Mark immediately follows this miracle with the confession of Peter. In the account, Peter—s confession "You are the Christ" is only a partial insight into the identity of Jesus (Mark 8:30). Three passion predictions follow this confession (Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:33-34), but Peter cannot accept the suffering and the death of Jesus, and this causes a serious rebuke by the Lord (8:32-33). Like the blind man in the preceding passage, Peter must go through a second stage of healing if he is truly to see who Jesus is.

The entire section moves the reader to another level of understanding Jesus. He is the suffering Messiah who will be glorified. Again Mark reminds his community that suffering leads to salvation for the son of Man and for those who follow him in faith (Mark 8:34). The miracles themselves challenge all disciples to see Jesus truly and never to be satisfied with partial limited vision.

Mark frequently links healing with Christology—an understanding of who Jesus is—and discipleship—the following of the Lord in faith—challenging us to see these works in their proper perspective. The fact that Mark frequently challenges those who witness the miraculous power of Jesus "to tell no one" until the Son of Man is raised from the dead (Mark 1:44; 3:12; 5:43) indicates that the identity of the healer is more important than the actions Jesus performs.

The Gospel of Matthew adds several features to the miracle tradition by identifying Jesus— motivation for healing. Mercy and compassion are the wellspring for Jesus— healing ministry (Matthew 9:35-36; 14:14) and these acts are far more powerful than in the earlier Gospel of Mark. Jesus heals two men possessed by demons (Matthew 8:28-24 parallels Mark 5:1-20) and two blind men (Matthew 9:27-31; 20:29-34 parallels Mark 10:46-52). Jesus— healing fulfills the Scriptures by placing his miracles within the context of Messianic activity. As Messiah, Jesus serves the people, heals them of their diseases and, as in Mark—s account, provokes conflict that will lead to his death (Matthew 21:14-15). Matthew—s dramatic narratives clarify the community—s growing faith in Jesus as Messiah who inaugurates a new age.

Luke—s writings, the Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, connect the healing ministry of Jesus with God—s gift of salvation—liberation, forgiveness and peace, particularly for the marginalized and oppressed. In fact, Jesus begins his public ministry with a proclamation regarding his mission to those in need (Luke 4:16-20). Many of the narratives are filled with touching characters and special details that indicate the care, compassion and love of Jesus for those in need. Physical and spiritual needs receive equal attention because for Luke, healing means wholeness and personal transformation, not simply physical cures. In both the Gospel and Acts, disciples share the healing ministry of Jesus. Those healed rejoice as they offer praise and thanksgiving to God (Lk 5:26; 7:16; 13:13).

John weaves signs into the fabric of his Gospel, frequently using an entire chapter to convey one powerful sign (John 9; 11). The long discourse in John 9:1-41 on the cure of the man born blind has an ironic twist. The symbolism of light and darkness illuminates the relationship between faith and knowledge. Those who claim to see and to know are, in the end, blind, while the blind man sees and believes (John 9:40). This sign indicates the real purpose of the miracle tradition, believing in Jesus. In addition, the narrative suggests a strong association within the Jewish world between sickness and sin. "Who sinned, this man or his parents?" (John 9:2). Both John (9:1-3) and Luke (13:1-5) negate this connection. John—s episode indicates that wholeness and health on all levels is a tangible result of Jesus— healing ministry (cf. Ezekiel 18:20).

The Healing Jesus

Questions still remain: How and why does Jesus heal individuals of their afflictions? Jesus often heals with a word or a touch. He heals at a distance in response to a request by the royal official; in the presence of opponents, as in the paralytic—s cure; on the Sabbath; after expressing his grief and offering prayer as in the raising of Lazarus.

The reasons for restoration to health and wholeness vary. Jesus has compassion for the widow who has no future without her son and so restores him to life. He frequently responds to the requests of those who suffer and offers a cure. At times, the request is silent, as in the case of the woman with a hemorrhage. Friends bring those in need for healing to Jesus and he responds to the obvious as well as the deeper need by physically curing the paralytic and forgiving his sins. Many colorful and dramatic episodes demonstrate how and why Jesus heals those in need.

The Gospels also indicate another reason for healing. The miracle tradition is a vehicle for Jesus— teaching and an opportunity for the observers or onlookers to praise God for the wonderful signs. For individuals healed by the Lord, the miracle often leads to a response of discipleship. In these instances, the healings become a variation of the Gospel—s call episodes (Mark 1:16-20) as those restored to wholeness follow Jesus in faith.

Jesus seems more concerned about the faith of individuals than their physical condition. In fact, wholeness has more to do with fidelity to God than it does with health. The real sickness that needs Jesus— healing touch is that of sin, isolation, marginalization, anxiety and lack of peace. The fullness of life that Jesus brings is the opposite: authenticity, community, integration, wholeness and peace. Therefore, the miracle tradition always asks us to ponder the deeper questions implied in the narrative and to identify real, rather than obvious, needs in ourselves and others. This approach was certainly the focus of Jesus— ministry and it may offer us insight about our own responses as people of faith.

Healing and Faith

A final observation concerns the relationship between miracles and faith. Matthew, Mark and Luke demonstrate a different view of this relationship than John.

In the Synoptics, faith is a necessary prerequisite for the Lord—s healing touch. "Your faith has saved you" (Mark 5:34; Luke 7:50). Faith opens the person to the possibility of a physical cure. But this healing faith becomes a sign of something more—salvation and transformation of life. The Gospel writers again suggest that real health is more than lack of illness.

In John—s Gospel, the signs serve a variety of purposes. Sometimes they lead to initial faith (John 2:12) or deeper faith (John 9:38). In other instances reliance on signs indicates inadequate faith. "Blessed are those who do not see, yet believe," Jesus tells Thomas, who will not believe the testimony of others (John 20:29). Sometimes the signs even lead to rejection of Jesus and his message (John 1:11; 9:40). John also demonstrates that the faith of those healed is in Jesus, not only in God—s power at work in Jesus.

The healings are truly signs that can transform people, redirect their energy, instill commitment and inspire service. The faith that is so integral to the signs is the faith that leads to discipleship. Spectacular events are of little importance when compared to the miracles within the human heart and mind and an authentic following of the Lord in faith.

Reading the biblical healing episodes requires more than savoring the story; it calls for a mature interpretation of the meaning of these events. The Scriptures also challenge us to cultivate appropriate attitudes regarding healing and wholeness in our own lives, while being sensitive to God—s power at work in our world. While some Christians want and need powerful signs in order to believe, others readily accept the gift of faith and nurture it by reflecting on the testimony of Scripture, of other believers and of the Church. The transformation of their lives attests to their faith in Jesus as Risen Lord. Their experience of his presence and power results in their living witness to Gospel values. Isn—t this wholeness and holiness the real purpose of the powerful signs that we call miracles?

Helen Doohan is a professor of religious studies at Gonzaga University. She is the author of several books on the New Testament.

Next: Understanding the Apocalypse (by Wilfrid Harrington, O.P.)



Talking About Scripture

Jesus often involves others in his healing ministry. How do we work with others in order to meet the needs so evident in our families, communities and churches?

The gospel signs lead to discipleship or following the Lord in faith. How do the signs of the Lord—s healing presence in our lives deepen our commitment and expand our service to others?

Many of the illnesses that afflicted individuals in biblical times are better understood today or can even be cured. Are there miracles today? Where do we as Christians need faith and healing today?



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