Celebrating the NHS
Isaiah 65:17-25; Ecclesiasticus (Sirach) 38:1-15; Mark 5:21-43
Has the Bible anything to say about the Health Service?
Until recent times, medicine was quite primitive. We recently heard a talk about the ‘barber surgeons’, and it was quite gruesome! It has been said that until at least the 19th century medical treatment on the whole did more harm than good. Note the remark in our reading about the woman spending a fortune on doctors to no avail.
Superstition usually took the place of science. In Africa there are still witch doctors. In most cultures there are ‘healers’, who sometimes seem to have a special gift, but sometimes just go through rituals.
Today, some people are recognising the wisdom in ancient cultures and realising that scientific Western medicine doesn’t have all the answers. They are exploring such things as homoeopathy, herbal medicine, reiki, acupuncture, chiropractic, ‘super foods’ and prayer for healing.
The Bible has little to say about the medical profession. It seems Luke was a doctor, but that is only mentioned once, when Paul refers to him as ‘our beloved physician’ (Col 4:14). Only in the Apocrypha do we find a passage acknowledging that physicians have their use, and even that ends on a slightly cynical note. There are many references to sickness in the Bible, but the cure is always supernatural: Elijah and the widow’s son, Elisha bringing a dead boy to life, Elisha and Naaman, the miracles of Jesus and the early disciples. How relevant are these for us today? Miracle still seem to happen, but most us know of them by hearsay rather than personal experience. Our everyday experience tells us that there is no guarantee that prayer will result in physical healing.
Perhaps people were sometimes healed by believing they were, and this still happens today. Jesus sometimes said to people, ‘Your faith has saved you’. Once he told a lame man, ‘Your sins are forgiven’. We still recognise today the influence of thought and feeling on the body. A positive attitude often makes for a healthy life. Body, mind and spirit are one, and should be treated as one. The best healing is holistic healing. Loving care is just as important as medicine.
This applies not just to individuals but to society as a whole. Many of the ailments we suffer today are symptoms of an unhealthy society. The Bible has a concept of shalom, a state in which everything is right, and blessings abound.. The prophets see health and healing as a result of good things happening to the nation. Talking of a new age for Israel in the return from exile, the Book of Isaiah says: ‘The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom … Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.’
Most of us believers today have the attitude shown in Ecclesiasticus: healthy living, confession and prayer are important, but we must also be sensible and turn to the doctor. Today most of the ‘miracles’ we see are brought about by medical science.
But the National Health Service is not just about medicine, or even primarily about it. It is mostly about social justice, the belief that life and health should be for everybody whether rich or poor, that everybody should have the best, that we should be a caring society. And that is definitely a biblical theme. The Old Testament constantly reminds the Jewish people that they are a family. It also reminds them they should welcome the foreigner among them, because they were once foreigners themselves.
When Jesus healed people, he deliberately healed those others regarded as unclean or unworthy: people with leprosy, beggars, unclean people, Gentiles, people looked down upon as sinners.
The Health Service at its best is a declaration that we all belong together and have a special responsibility for those in the greatest need and with the lowest status.