The most magnetic part of Jesus’s ministry, drawing crowds of thousands from all over, was the miraculous healings that He performed. As we know from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus was a radical and authoritative teacher, but it was the hope of relief from suffering that would initially draw people in.
One of my all-time favorite podcasts is Freakonomics Radio. I’ve been listening for years, and it continues to feel like a treat each time a fresh episode drops in my app. A favorite episode, called “The Most Ambitious Thing Humans Have Ever Done,” explores two of biggest innovations in the 19th century that changed surgery forever: anesthesia and antisepsis. They were introduced within months of one another, but were adopted into standard surgical practice and vastly different speeds.
“Within two months of publishing the result that a gas could render people insensible to pain, it was being used in every capital in Europe. There’s no internet. You had to send news by boat and horse. And within two months people were using it in the capitals of Europe, and by six years later there wasn’t a hospital in the country that was not delivering anesthesia care. By contrast, antisepsis. Joseph Lister discovered that if you used antiseptic solution, clean the instruments, your hands, did all that stuff, you could cut infections by 80 percent. And a generation later, you still haven’t gotten to half of the profession doing it.”
Anesthesia provides immediate results and relief from pain, and its use spread almost instantaneously. Antisepsis, which easily prevents infection but has delayed and less obvious direct results, is STILL not perfectly implemented today.
And THAT is such a good picture of our natural human motivations. If the results are immediate and relieves our pain, we are quick to adopt it. If it’s preventative, and with long-term effects that you can’t immediately see the benefit of, we’re much less inclined.
It’s not surprising at all that word spread nearly instantaneously that Jesus was healing people of their afflictions. The promise of instant relief was an incredibly powerful draw. And it provided a visceral, tangible reason for people to believe in Jesus, and to then hear what He had to say.
Jesus responded to the radically simple faith of an outcast (leper), an occupying foreigner (centurion) and a woman (Peter’s mother-in-law) in contrast to the “religious faith” in the culture who would have been considered “Most Faithful and Worthy.”
Jesus is amazed – AMAZED – by the faith of the centurion. It had to be a hard juxtaposition for Jesus himself to witness. This deeply abiding faith in the authority of God from the centurion is in stark contrast to what he is seeing among God’s chosen people, including his own disciples.
Jesus’ disciples on a stormy sea cry out for Jesus to save them, and He laments their lack of faith. They prove His observation true when they then express surprise to see the wind and waves obey the same Man who has been performing miracles before their eyes.
It’s easy to criticize them, isn’t it? How could they – and all Israel for their entire history of unbelief in the face of God’s miraculous intervention in their lives – not just BELIEVE? They had all the knowledge and resources available to them! What gives?
But it’s the antisepsis issue all over again. Hand and instrument washing is SO easy. We have the knowledge and tools readily available. It saves lives. But it lacks that sweet feedback loop of instantaneous reward, and so people aren’t as dialed in to just how important it is. Faith for these disciples and teachers of the law offered rewards that were eternal, but seemed distant enough to not be as compelling. Plus it looked an awful like hardship or inconvenience in the moment. Not nearly as effortless as faith might seem to the person anticipating complete healing of the leprosy that made them a social pariah.
Jesus often chose to forgo the use of His full power as God while on earth. He didn’t use it during Satan’s temptations, He didn’t perform signs to prove who He was in court, He didn’t save Himself from the cross. He didn’t do any of the powerful things that could have saved Him or made Him look great. But He DID gift mankind with miracles that changed the lives of people, that drew them to meet Him for the first time. He didn’t have to. We are called in our faith to trust Him even when He isn’t physically among us; rewards are delayed and life now may be full of hardship in our service to Him. So what an incredible, short-term gift these miracles of healing were to bestow on people as they met the One who would impact their eternity.