Living on Borrowed Time
In our day there are many medical “miracles.” As we grow older, we experience medical issues that are now routinely and successfully treated whereas they could have taken our lives a century ago. So we are cured and live to see another day—or many more years. But in fact, with every medical miracle, we are merely delaying the inevitable. We are really living on borrowed time. Someday our bodily health will be stricken for the last time and we will enter into eternity.
Summer is a time for growth, a time for considering the “ordinary” public ministry of Christ. During this time the Gospels present His “garden variety” miracles (to coin an oxymoron): an official’s daughter is raised from the dead; a woman with a hemorrhage is cured; a man born blind is made to see. But all the miraculous cures by Jesus present us with the question: What is the point of his miracles and can we expect similar miracles today?
Some preachers make a good living with the theme: “expect a miracle” from the Lord. In one carefully documented exposé, the preacher with an audio earpiece was in secret radio contact with his daughter in the control room. The infirmities of those attending were carefully documented during the registration before the actual assembly. Details were transmitted to the preacher’s earpiece and the stage was set for a “miracle.” Such religious flim-flam men hardly inspire confidence in true miracle cures.
Furthermore, we normally shouldn’t expect miracles when we pray for healing. We pray for the patient’s courage, for competent and virtuous medical professionals and caretakers, for understanding and supportive family members. And, if God should so deign, a miraculous cure. This, in a nutshell, is the theology of the sacrament of Extreme Unction, or Anointing of the Sick for life-threatening infirmities or injuries. Miraculous cures are rare. I can’t recall a single instance of a truly “miraculous” cure in my years as a priest (perhaps I wouldn’t know). But I do recall countless examples of courage, kindness, and competence —God-given natural gifts that are elevated by the graces of prayer and the Sacraments.
Why are there so many miraculous cures during the ministry of Jesus? The miracles were necessary to establish his authority as the Christ and to confront the effects of sin. The punishment inflicted upon Adam and Eve and their progeny was not of God. The consequence of their sin —and ours—is suffering and death: “God did not make death, nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living. (Wis. 1:13) With his miraculous cures, Jesus is “rolling back” the consequences of sin and setting the stage for his definitive confrontation and defeat of the cause of suffering and death: evil and sin.
Jesus makes clear his priorities during the healing of the paralytic. (cf. Mark 2:1-12) Jesus sees the faith of the men who popped a hole in the roof and lowered the paralytic into his presence, so He immediately cuts to the chase of his ministry: “Child, your sins are forgiven.” The crowds angrily respond, “Who but God alone can forgive sins?” Exactly. But the faith of the paralytic’s attendants is so strong that the cure is secondary to the forgiveness of sins. The miracle came afterward, to tame —and shame—the fury of the crowd and even to stimulate their faith in Him.
Jesus is eager to receive our faith so that we turn to Him for the forgiveness of our sins. Sin and the effects of sin—suffering and death—are not ultimately overcome by his miracles. His miracles are signs of his divinity, a divinity born into the world to forgive sins and overcome death by his Cross and Resurrection.
In one of the most touching scenes in the Gospel, after the death of Lazarus, Jesus meets his grieving friend Martha on his way to Bethany. He says to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Undoubtedly, Martha knew of the many miracles of Jesus, but in her intimate friendship with Jesus, despite her sorrow, she responds in faith. With her tender resignation of love for the will of God, Martha does not expect a miracle. But she responds in faith: ““I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”
Martha’s profession of faith is followed by one of the most memorable teachings of Jesus: ““I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.” (John 11:25)
Martha’s faith is already strong, but Jesus elicits from her an even stronger faith by asking, “Do you believe this?” The death of Lazarus, in God’s providence, becomes the occasion of Martha’s witness of faith, a profession that rivals Saint Peter’s. She responds, ““Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.” (John 11:27) This time, in the midst of truly pure and loving faith, Jesus breaks his pattern again for the purposes of establishing faith as His priority: He raises his friend Lazarus from the dead.
God’s miracles and the natural “miracles” of medical science are not futile. But they are secondary to the faith that leads to our salvation. Lazarus and all who were miraculously cured by Christ would someday die. We, too, are living on time borrowed from God. So every reprieve and extension of life should be well spent in true faith and Christian love. In so doing, may we live forever with Him in heaven.
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