[This article is part of the series The Politics of Scripture. While the focus of the series is on weekly preaching texts, we welcome commentary on sacred, classic, and profane literature, film, and artistic expression. We also welcome sermons. Submissions may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.]
By the time preachers in America address their congregations this Sunday, the nation’s Supreme Court will have ruled on the health insurance reform act passed by Congress and signed into law by President Obama in March of 2010. The coincidence of this much-anticipated ruling and a quirky Jesus healing story is irresistible!
It is tempting to suggest, with tongue only slightly in cheek, that supporters of health care reform might turn to the lectionary Psalm for comfort this weekend: “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications!” (130:1-2)
For it seems unlikely at the moment that anyone other than the Lord is going to be attentive to the supplications of such supporters. Court watchers are widely predicting that significant parts of the Affordable Care Act will be overturned when the justices announce their ruling tomorrow. For those with preexisting conditions, like, maybe, 12 years of hemorrhaging, the decision is not expected to be good news.
The inevitable context of our time, of this and all of our Sundays, is the deep cultural and political divide that can be seen in stark relief in the responses to health care reform. The psalm of lament, a pilgrimage psalm that was likely used in Yom Kippur liturgies, offers hope and assurance that the God of Israel will redeem this time, and all time, regardless of the hash we make of things.
While that assurance is critically important, it does not get us off the hook for grappling seriously with the divisive issues and taking faithful stands on them. The New Testament readings speak provocatively, albeit obliquely, across the ages to our time.
The healing story from Mark (5:21-43) places two patients in the ER of Jesus’ MASH unit. The first demand on this makeshift health care system comes from a presumably well-connected member of society and leader of the religious community, Jairus, who poignantly pleads with Jesus to heal his deathly ill daughter. Like any busy emergency room, however, before the Healer can make his first move toward a cursory examination of the first patient, a second one commands his attention.
The second patient, ritually unclean for more than a decade, lacks the presumed connections of Jairus. While the scant details leave the economic and social disparity between Jairus and the hemorrhaging woman mostly implied, the still clear contrast between the two raises a host of questions about the health-care transactions that follow immediately in the story:
• Who deserves healing?
• Who has a right to it?
• What is the currency of the transaction between healer and healed?
• Who guarantees it?
Variations of these questions were raised in oral arguments before the Court, and at a moment when that Court seems likely to drive the American health care industrial complex more deeply into the private market, these questions themselves are prophetic. They are particularly so when that private market has created the least equitable American society since the Great Depression. The share of national wealth enjoyed by the wealthiest Americans is the largest it has been since the 1929 market crash. Just like Jairus, the One Percent may worry about family members getting sick, but they never worry about being one ill-timed illness away from bankruptcy. For the rest of us, unexpected health care costs are the most likely cause of bankruptcy.
To such a society, Paul’s letter to the congregation at Corinth should come as a stinging reminder that the great economy of the Kingdom of God looks nothing at all like our own economy. The One Percent will find not great comfort in Paul’s words:
“I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need in order that there may be a fair balance. As it is written, ‘The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little’” (I Corinthians 8:13-15).