Jesus “heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds” (Psalm 147:3). 

Scripture makes clear that God’s will is for each of us, and the entire planet, to have health, wholeness and longevity. But how we secure these things for ourselves and others can be a lot less clear. 

The Bible was written in different times from ours but contains basic principles Lutherans can apply now to care for neighbors in need. Why sickness and death exist is too large a question to be tackled here, but Scripture tells us that, after the fall, sickness and death will always be with us and that God has a special relationship with those who suffer. Here’s what Scripture tells us about medical justice and how we might respond as a church. 

Jesus’ just approach to healing 

Sometimes Scripture promises complete and miraculous recovery from all infirmity. Other times, healing comes through God’s presence in the work of caretakers. On still other occasions, healing comes as a mental state in which one can live peacefully with chronic illness or disability and even employ it in service to God.  

For much of ancient Israel’s history, health care was overseen—and sometimes directly provided—by priests. In particular, Leviticus lays out specific medical and spiritual interventions for priests, including quarantines, to address issues such as venereal disease, food poisoning and postpartum care. For ailments not requiring quarantine, care was provided at home, either by the priests, relatives, midwives or, for the wealthy, physicians. 

The Gospels make clear that the saving work of God is enfleshed—not just in Jesus, but through Jesus in each one of us.

By the time we encounter Jesus’ ministry in the Gospels (approximately A.D. 30), the nature of health care has shifted considerably. One key aspect is the influence of Greek and Persian thought, which emphasized dualistic models by which bodily matters were considered evil and spiritual matters good. The epistles, particularly Paul’s, are clearly grounded in this philosophy, but Jesus approached the duality in surprising ways. Although he often affirmed the emphasis on the spirit over the flesh, he also consistently healed the flesh of people he encountered. 

The Gospels make clear that the saving work of God is enfleshed—not just in Jesus, but through Jesus in each one of us. 

Additionally, Jesus focused on people whose ailments restricted them from a healthy relationship with the community, especially those ostracized from temple worship. His care not only alleviated individual suffering but also restored these relationships. Even though we see Jesus healing particular ailments, Scripture shows he never turned anyone away. For example, he initially denied the Syrophoenician woman’s pleas for her daughter but changed his mind and healed the girl (Mark 7, Matthew 15).  

Jesus dismissed the idea that sickness and disability were caused by individual sin, and he insisted that, contrary to the systems of his day, health care should be provided free of charge. It’s crucial to note that Jesus empowered his disciples with a supernatural ability to heal others and taught them how to use this power responsibly (e.g., Matthew 10:1). As modern-day disciples, we are similarly called to heal our neighbors. 

A way forward 

The ELCA social statement “Caring for Health: Our Shared Endeavor” asserts the scriptural view that wholeness is a blessing God intends for all people. So how might we today advocate for and provide health care that models scriptural principles, especially those Jesus practiced? We need to ensure that the care we give and receive is egalitarian, focused on community, mindful of the planet and accessible to the most vulnerable among us.  

One path toward these lofty goals might be networking skills and resources within ELCA congregations, conferences and synods. Who among this church:  

  • Can be trained as a caregiver?  
  • Can provide transportation to medical appointments?  
  • Is experienced at navigating insurance claims? 
  • Is being denied care because of a debt that could be erased if each congregant donated a dollar? 

Once your ministry conducts a spiritual-gifts assessment, you might work toward creating a program in your context by discussing legal responsibilities with your insurance provider, reaching out to a nurses’ association or medical expert to develop programming and training, and by recruiting and mobilizing volunteers. 

Another way Lutherans can work toward medical justice is by advocating, at both the state and national levels, for health care that is available to everyone in need, not just the people society deems worthy. ELCA Advocacy offers advocacy alerts, some of them related to medical justice.

Furthermore, if you witness discrimination or injustice at a health care facility, speaking up can make an impact. Saying “It’s illegal for you to turn this person away because they’re poor” and asking to speak to a supervisor can make a difference for someone in need.  

I want to encourage the church to take seriously Scripture’s commands to use prayer, anointing, fasting and song as agents of healing. Although Scripture never tells us to use only spiritual approaches, it does make clear that one way to receive healing is to depend on our siblings in the faith to serve as God’s body for one another in myriad ways (James 5:14-15). 

With the internet, it’s easier than ever to organize prayer teams, mobilize people for companionship, and ensure that those in crisis have a hand to hold and someone to pray for them. (Perhaps the tech-savvy children in your parish could even lead such efforts.) 

Whichever of these approaches your community takes, it is my deep and fervent prayer that we in the ELCA might model how to care for all God’s beloveds, bearing one another’s burdens and, in doing so, fulfilling the law of Christ (Galatians 6:2). 

Jessica Davis
Jessica Davis is the educator and chaplain for #decolonizeLutheranism, a grass-roots movement seeking to elevate marginalized voices in the ELCA. When not writing, teaching or preaching, she can usually be found making music or celebrating the beauty of creation in her work as a makeup artist.

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