13th Sunday in Ordinary time

The NHS is present in the news daily. Certainly, this has been true over the last couple of weeks because this year marks the 70th anniversary of the foundation of the NHS. That ought to be something to celebrate, but more often than not, the NHS news stories appearing on our screens concern its alleged failings or problems. Only the most senior among us can remember the pre-NHS times and how massive the difference in medical care is between then and now. The level of healthcare provided in our country remains a distant or even unachievable dream in many other countries of the world. Yet, as we’ve got used to it, perhaps we have tended to become overly critical of “our” NHS. I’m not saying we ought to be ‘all praise and awe’ of it, but a degree of reality should colour our views.

Obviously, we hold dear our Health Service, and we demand a lot from it because our wellbeing is at the pinnacle of our priorities. Nothing else matters to us, nothing brings us joy any more when our health fails us dramatically. That has been the case since time immemorial. Child mortality and chronic incurable conditions were among the most common afflictions that plagued our ancestors. Desperate situations led those afflicted to take desperate measures. Until the developments in modern medicine, miracle-workers, healers or even persuasive charlatans were in great demand. We can see that in the story of the suffering woman in today’s gospel. Her chronic condition wasn’t simply affecting her health adversely. According to Jewish ritual Law she was considered ‘unclean’ and hence effectively excluded from Jewish society. She was caught in a double whammy. She was desperate, as ‘after long and painful treatment under various doctors she had spent all she had without being any the better for it; in fact, she was getting worse.’ It’s impossible to establish exactly what she knew about Jesus. But what we do know is that she believed she could be cured simply by touching him; and, according to St Mark, that proved to be the case. What is quite puzzling is that she was cured without Jesus’ direct action and even without his approval. In fact, ‘immediately aware that power had gone out from him, Jesus turned round in the crowd and said: Who touched my clothes?’

Let’s put this story into the context of the whole of St Mark’s narrative. Mark was addressing his gospel mainly to Gentiles – to people who knew very little, if anything, about Judaism and Jewish history. He presented Jesus the Son of God as a powerful figure rather than as the fulfilment of the Old Testament prophecies. Jesus’ miraculous powers – including healing – were the attraction, the ‘pull-factor’, initiating people’s interest in him. Only as their knowledge and understanding of the faith developed were the Gentile Christians learning that Jesus had given up his powers and offered himself as a sacrifice to redeem their sins. In this way those early Christians moved on from their initial yearning for divine intervention to improve their short-term earthly prospects to grasp the eternal dimension of Jesus as Lord. In the process they learnt from Jesus that suffering can be a force for good, a force for growth; they learnt to see eventual physical death as the gateway to heaven; not as the ultimate end of life itself, but as the entrance to the superior form of life, life without suffering and pain.

I think that – generally speaking – many people have lost this perspective. Due to the major improvements in healthcare, increased life expectancy and much more effective medical procedures, we subconsciously expect modern medicine to deal successfully with all our ailments. In fact, we have to face different medical conditions from those of our ancestors, including degenerative ailments, because we live longer. The medical conditions may be different, but they are no easier to deal with and no easier to bear. Recently I joked to a friend of mine that I ought to have a tattoo on my chest: ‘Do Not Resuscitate, please’. Although I was joking – I’m not keen on tattoos – I’d rather live my life to the full, but not cling to it when it’s time to go. Because I do believe that on the other side of ‘the hills of peace and silence’ a better life awaits; the one that won’t be plagued by suffering and pain.