Proper 23C: Faith that Makes Us Well
By: Kristen Leigh Southworth
“Your faith has made you well.” -Luke 17:19
Faith. The Greek word used here is pistis. And it doesn’t mean belief, as in “I believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God…” It doesn’t mean adherence to a certain religion, as in “I belong to the Catholic faith.” The Gospels are not a set of theological treatises and doctrines about God or Jesus. They are a collection of stories. In particular, they are stories about trust.
Pistis means “trust.”
Today in Luke, we have a story about trust. We hear about a motley crew of ten standing outside a village, crying out to Jesus for mercy. These ten had all been classified as “lepers,” meaning they had either contracted the bacterial infection mycobacterium leprae, for which there was no cure up until about 1940, and which caused a slow and irreversible degeneration of the skin tissue that eventually led to swollen deformities all over the body, or they had come down with psoriasis or some other skin condition that looked like mycobacterium leprae in its early stages, and got classified just the same. Folks designated as “lepers” were required by law to live in isolation, apart from their families, outside the city gates, wear torn clothes, keep their distance from others, and announce themselves to strangers by yelling “Unclean! Unclean!”
It sounds harsh, but nobody knew about bacterial infections back then. Leprosy was thought to have resulted from some kind of divine curse that was probably due to a sin on the part of the sufferer, or maybe their family. After all, it was pretty much accepted that people were responsible for their own fates.
We like to think we’ve come a long way since then. The World Health Organization announced in 2000 that global leprosy had been eradicated thanks to antibiotics. But I think we still have our “lepers” today. There are plenty of physical ailments and mental illnesses that still bewilder the best of modern medical practitioners, and those who suffer from them are often met with a similar attitude.
Take, for example, my mother, who has fibromyalgia, a chronic condition that causes her to experience debilitating pain all over her body, for reasons that no one is able to entirely explain. After nearly fifteen years, she has visited all manner of doctors, undergone all sorts of tests, and tried all kinds of treatments including prescription medications, vitamin supplements, hormone therapies, homeopathic remedies, yoga, acupuncture, massage therapy, herbal teas, and special nutritional vegan detox smoothie cleanses. All along the way, rationally-minded neurologists and new age positive-thinking healers alike have suggested that her illness is probably the result of her psychological attitude, or some set of choices she made along the way.
Similar assumptions are often made about folks living with all manner of poorly-understood conditions, from depression, to multiple sclerosis, to cancer—even homelessness and systemic poverty. We humans are relentless in our need to oversimplify and assign blame when answers are elusive. We want control. And so in the absence of real scientific, psychological, or sociological clarity, we still tend to fall back on those same age-old assumptions, that people are responsible for their lot in life, and that in the end we get what we deserve. Hey, it’s karma, man.
But Jesus steps into that world of inevitabilities and says to Hell with causes and conditions. Whatever your circumstances, there is always an opening to new life, which you can access through pistis. This, for me, is the meaning behind so many of the miraculous healing stories we find in the Gospels. Over and over, we hear the same refrain: “Your faith has made you well.” This is not about belief. This is not the idea that if you just believed hard enough in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior that he would make the cancer go away. Pistis is about trust. Radical trust. Faith is the life that we choose to live into, when life seems impossible. Faith is placing the weight of your trust on the Goodness and the Lovingkindness at the center of all reality, regardless of your personal circumstances. Faith is what allows us to move even towards our own death, trusting in the crazy, radical promise of new Life in resurrection.
The Gospel stories show us that when we act with trust in God, in spite of how dire our circumstances may seem, we demonstrate real faith and we find true healing. In today’s story, Jesus sends the ten lepers back to the priests to be re-classified as “clean” without having healed them! They were required to step into the reality of their own healing, even before it had actually occurred and without any evidence that it would. They were made clean as they went.
One of my favorite books is entitled Ruthless Trust by Brennan Manning. He writes:
The way of trust is a movement into obscurity, into the undefined, into ambiguity, not into some predetermined, clearly delineated plan for the future. The next step discloses itself only out of a discernment of God acting in the desert of the present moment. The reality of naked trust is the life of the pilgrim who leaves what is nailed down, obvious, and secure, and walks into the unknown without any rational explanation to justify the decision or guarantee the future.
In Alcoholics Anonymous there is a recovery strategy called “acting as if.” It involves making the conscious decision to act in accordance with one’s own recovery, even when the person feels totally overwhelmed by the negative thoughts and feelings that would drive back into addictive behavior. The trick is not to lie to yourself about what you are thinking or feeling, or to try and repress it, but to simply make a choice to live into a new and different reality.
That is pistis. Sometimes it can mean acting without belief. Sometimes it can mean “acting as if” you trusted in God, even if you aren’t sure whether or not God even really exists. There is real power in this kind of trust. This is the kind of faith that can move mountains, the deepest kind of faith there is. Because the choices we make in our lives, with our actions, express our inner convictions far more authentically than any mental construct, feeling, or creed ever could.
Much has been made in recent years of the doubts that plagued Mother Teresa in the last half of her life. Time magazine called it a “crisis of faith.” And yet what is truly remarkable, what actually makes her a stalwart of Christian faith and worthy of sainthood, is that she continued to act with overwhelming trust in God’s reality and presence, even when she could not personally perceive or feel that presence. That is Biblical faith.
“To trust in the love of God in the face of the marvels, cruel circumstances, obscenities, and commonplaces of life,” writes Manning, “is to whisper a doxology in darkness.” Sometimes the darkness is all we can see, and a whisper is all we have to give. When we find ourselves in the midst of pain, or sickness, or danger, or grief, Jesus does not ask us to whitewash it, deny it, analyze who is responsible for it, or try to make it go away. The faith that Jesus calls us to only asks that we step into our own healing by continuing to move in the direction of life and love, even (especially!) when all hope seems lost. This kind of faith is not contingent on ideas, or feelings, or particular outcomes, but on the choices that we make in every single moment of our lives. This is the kind of faith that has the power to make us well.
Kristen Leigh Southworth is a freelance writer, theologian, and indie folk singer-songwriter with an M.Div from Union Theological Seminary in NYC, where she focused her studies in theological aesthetics, theology of culture, Biblical interpretation, and ecumenical worship. She is currently living in Greensboro, NC, where she offers workshops, performs music, practices archery, grows vegetables, roller skates, writes, and serves as Assistant to the Director of The Servant Leadership School at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church.