28th Sunday in Ordinary time

The NHS is pretty much constantly in the news these days. The situation with the NHS in England and Wales seems to be more acute than in Scotland, but even here the healthcare system has its own problems and challenges to deal with. One of these problems is the lack of sufficient funding to provide reliable healthcare across the board. Every now and again there are discussions about the merits of the NHS, and calls to cut down on some services. Among the many proposals, some are pretty controversial. Recently I have been reading about proposals to restrict spending on healthcare services for people who neglect their own health by living unhealthy lifestyles, including smokers, drug-takers, binge drinkers and the obese. You may remember the story of a man who ruined his liver by alcohol abuse, had a liver transplant, and then damaged his new liver by heavy drinking and was waiting for another transplant. The main argument against the imposition of financial restrictions is, of course, that everybody deserves humane treatment regardless of their lifestyle.

The level and quality of healthcare that we take for granted nowadays is the result of developments over the last century or so. Before that, medical knowledge was extremely limited and often wrong; so any miracle workers, magicians, shamans, healers or plain charlatans were desperately sought-after. The religious aspect of illness and cure was part and parcel of any approach. In ancient times every incomprehensible aspect of life was interpreted in spiritual or religious terms. In this context we have ten lepers in today’s gospel, each seeking Jesus’ intervention. At that time the term ‘leprosy’ was used as a blanket description of every kind of skin disease. Some of these skin diseases were considered harmless, and some of them were considered serious. For the latter it meant that the victims became outcasts: they had to leave their communities and live in isolation. Uninfected, healthy people feared the diseased, and avoided them. But who was it who had the authority to discern which skin disease was harmless and which wasn’t? In ancient Jewish society, it was the priest’s responsibility. His decision wasn’t final; if the skin condition changed and improved, the leper could be re-examined and maybe subsequently allowed to return to his community. So when the ten lepers ask Jesus for help, he tells them to go to the priests in order to be re-examined. Jesus doesn’t offer soothing, or supportive, or consoling words; no waving of a magic wand or any special magic-like gestures. Perhaps that was a bit disappointing for the lepers… it was like telling people nowadays to ‘go and see your GP’.

Here’s a kind of mystery; while on their way to being re-examined, seemingly the lepers are cured and cleansed of their disease. So has this cleansing been the result of a miraculous healing done by Jesus, or was it a pure coincidence? It seems that only one of the ten lepers sees it as a miraculous work of Jesus; only one returns to him to give thanks to God, thus recognising Jesus’ action. I think here we touch upon the mystery of miracles. There are people who completely reject the idea of a god intervening in human matters. Many talk about probabilities and randomness in the mathematical sense as the way to deal with reports of miracles. Others feel let down when miracles they begged for never happen. I have my own personal theory about miracles.

God acts discreetly within the laws of the universe. His actions can be explained without recourse to any supernatural intervention. Those acts happen in the right time and the right place, although such coincidences can be explained by the mathematical theory of probability. So, what are the criteria that establish a miracle? The answer lies in the words that Jesus addresses to the one leper who returned to him after being cured: ‘Your faith has saved you.’ It is faith that lets us see through events and beyond their purely naturalistic explanations. Miracles don’t produce faith; it is faith that lets us see miracles happen.