Tales of Miraculous Healing (Luke 17:19)

by Lamin Sanneh

Lamin Sanneh teaches missions and world Christianity and history at Yale Divinity School. He is an editor-at-large of The Christian Century.

This article appeared in the Christian Century October 11, 1989, p. 609. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Nature, for the great 17th-century scientific pioneers was God’s Book, inscribed with holy laws every bit as valid as the laws of the other book, Holy Scripture.

"Your faith has made you well" [Luke17:19].

However, in the long history of the fruitful interaction of science and religion, from Pythagoras to Paracelsus and from Newton to Einstein, the role of religion (though not necessarily of religious authorities) in freeing human powers has generally been recognized. Francis Bacon put it memorably: science should not see nature "as a courtesan for pleasure, but a spouse for fruit." "Pleasure" in that context stands for instrumental detachment and exploitation, while "fruit" carries the sense of ethical and social accountability. The notion that physical matter is a neutral raw datum would be foreign to Bacon and the other great 17th-century scientific pioneers. Nature for them was God’s Book, inscribed with holy laws every bit as valid as the laws of the other book. Holy Scripture.

What led these thinkers to include religion in their account of the scientific enterprise was more than habit. An important philosophical principle was at stake: whether the immutable laws of science held human destiny in their iron clasp -- whether, indeed, human destiny was fixed irrevocably in the remote stellar constellations and the laws of physics. leaving us with fatalistic resignation as the only reasonable choice -- or whether. as religion was inclined to see it, human beings were free to participate in the cumulative construction of the universe. In the debate between freedom and necessity, religion was a force for integration: God endowed us with free will without removing us from responsibility for that freedom. The laws of causation are thus distinguished, though not separated, from the faculty (and faith) that apprehends them. The 15th-century Renaissance scientist Pico della Mirandola articulates this view, by putting these words into God’s mouth: "We have made thee ["man"] neither a thing celestial nor a thing terrestrial, neither mortal nor immortal, so that being thine owne fashioner and artificer of thyselfe, thou maist make thyselfe after what likeness thou dost most affecte." His view was that "man containeth in himself the stars and heaven, they lie hidden in his minde . . . if we rightly knew our owne spirite no thing at all would be impossible to us on earth." Only a short step separates this notion from Jesus’ teaching that faith, like a grain of mustard seed, can move the figurative sycamore tree of natural obstacles (Luke 17:5).

When we have thought of healing miracles as divine intervention, we have tended to think of an intrusion that violates the laws of nature, a contradiction that can be resolved either by an unwarranted elasticizing of those laws or by disallowing divine intervention. But the issue may be recast from confrontation on the physical plane to constructive engagement on the social. In most societies outside the West. and including many inside the West, illness is a social phenomenon that calk for social intervention. The quantitative view of illness is regarded by most Third World peoples as woefully inadequate, for in their experience illness evokes a social response: family members, friends and relatives are drawn into a widening circle of caring. The whole group is afflicted, though it is the individual who bears the pain. The time of illness is thus the time of recapitulating natural and acquired bonds, of summing up the connectedness by which personhood springs into being, of renewing human relatedness even while one of its strands is unraveling. The most typical question in illness under these circumstances is, "Why should this particular person fall ill at this particular time?" Only those most connected to the patient can ask that question, whereas perfect strangers may ask the stark clinical question, "What is the illness from which this person suffers?" That question, narrowly considered, reduces the patient to the level of inert matter, "a courtesan for pleasure," not "a spouse for fruit."

Divine intervention may be viewed as a prognostic charter for social intervention. We are roused to action on behalf of sick persons in our community, and we reach for the deepest and most abiding center of personhood in dedicating them by the divine gift of freedom to God’s care and concern. Only with that religious and social sense can we erect a safety barrier, for example, between someone who is terminally ill and the pessimism that would be induced by the laws of natural causation.

One of-the most dreaded diseases in all societies has been leprosy, because of its social stigma. Instead of intervening to help, people turned the other way and cut off all contact. The patient died a social death much sooner and far worse than physical death. It was in such ~a situation that Jesus intervened, as recounted in the Gospel reading (Luke 17:11-19) , commanding the patient to go and appear in the presence of priests, the symbols and upholders of purity. Jesus puts the leprosy patients on the path of breaking out of isolation and individuality. Their willingness to go acts as a solvent on the constrictions of the flesh. They will henceforth be in contact with others. There is no such thing as closet Christianity, or closet healing.

In the new churches that have mushroomed all over postcolonial Africa, congregations are filled with worshipers seeking and finding healing. Conversion testimonies are redolent with accounts of miraculous healing, of God dealing effectively with maladies of every kind, including mending broken relationships. It is from this movement of rehabilitation that we find people once considered strangers to the promises "returning and giving praise to God" whose "mercies e’er endure, ever faithful, ever sure.