I am currently just over half way through writing Praying the Psalms Volume Two – Praying our Challenges and Choices. Working on Psalm 41, where David prays his weakness and sickness, made me think of the old rabbinical story of the Wounded Healer. I thought I would share it for those who have never read this insightful little parable-story about the Messiah.
Here it is… with my introductory comments, taken directly from my book Doing Healing, pp.16-18.
Rabbi Yoshua ben Levi came upon Elijah the prophet while he was standing at the entrance of Rabbi Simeron ben Yohai’s cave.
He asked Elijah, “When will the Messiah come?”
Elijah replied, “Go and ask him yourself.”
“Where is he?”
“Sitting at the gates of the city.”
“How shall I know him?”
“He is sitting among the poor covered with wounds. The others unbind all their wounds at the same time and then bind them up again. But he unbinds only one at a time and then binds it up again, saying to himself, ‘Perhaps I shall be needed to help someone else bind up their wounds, and if so, I must always be ready so as not to delay for a moment’. He is the Messiah, the wounded healer.”
This amazing little story comes from the Jewish Talmud, written between 250 and 500 CE. Henri Nouwen has popularised it in Christian circles. He shows how its meaning is fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth, and also through “the ministers of the Church of Jesus Christ” (Nouwen’s phrase).
The basic message is that Jesus made his broken body the source of healing for the world. And his followers are called to care not only for their own wounds, but for the wounds of others. How? By making their wounds a source of compassion in bringing Christ’s healing to the world. This is distinct from the wrong idea that our wounds — or taking on other people’s suffering — can bring them healing.
Jesus is not only the Jewish Messiah; he’s the Liberator and Saviour of the whole world precisely because he is the Wounded Healer. Jesus “took up our infirmities and carried our diseases” (Isaiah 53:4). Matthew quoted this Messianic prophecy when he observed Jesus’ compassion as he patiently “healed all the sick” late into the night (Matt 8:14-17 cf. 9:36). Jesus felt their pain and suffering deeply in his own body; therefore he was compelled to reach out and heal them in mercy, through the power of God’s love.
This kind of Messiah saves Israel and the world. Our Western success ethic says the strong and popular, the powerful and prosperous, are the leaders and saviours of the world. The weak and wounded are losers! They suffer because they are failures (so says the dominant mindset). The weak need to be saved — how can they save others?
But Isaiah 53, as fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth, turns these values on their head. Jesus had “no beauty or charisma that attracted us to him. In fact, he was despised and rejected, a man marked by weakness and pain — the kind of person others despise. So we turned from him in disgust, believing God was punishing him. But little did we realise he was doing it for us! Our pride blinded us to the fact that he carried our suffering and sickness, our sin and death. He was punished by God for our sin, so that we might be forgiven! Indeed, by his wounds we are healed!”
(My RAP, Revised Alexander Paraphrase, on Isaiah 53:2-5).
God uses the weak, the lowly and despised, to “bring to naught” the proud and powerful (1Corinthians 1:18-31). In this passage Paul says the message of Christ’s cross is “the weakness of God” that saves the world — which proves to be God’s wisdom and power!
We must remember, says David Bosch, that the cross is the hallmark of the Church. When the resurrected Messiah appeared to his disciples, it was his scars that were proof of his identity, and because of them the disciples believed (John 20:20). Will it be any different with us, his followers? Will the world believe, and allow us to touch them, unless they can recognise the marks of the cross on us? (Bosch asks).
The followers of Jesus enter into, and continue his ministry as wounded healers; not in the ultimate sense of accomplishing salvation (only he can, and did, do that); nor in the triumphalist sense of wealthy world leaders or high-powered motivational healers; but in the immediate and humble sense of being instruments of his compassion and healing.
By being in touch with our own wounds we learn to receive healing from Jesus. Then we have mercy on others who suffer in their wounds, and sensitively touch them in Jesus’ name. We feel the pain and suffering of the world in our own bodies, for we too are weak and broken by sin. To the degree we deny our own weakness, not being in touch with our own brokenness, we tend to treat others harshly, having little or no compassion on those who suffer and are in need.
The lesson we learn from the Jewish parable is this: While we attend to our own healing, we must always be ready to help heal others. We must avoid the extremes, either of a preoccupation with our brokenness in a culture of self (“me, myself and I”); or an obsession with healing others as if we are their saviour (in denial of our own brokenness). My own story is about this very parable — my life-journey in becoming a wounded healer. And if I’m honest, due to the waywardness of my own heart, it’s been a slow learning from Jesus, as he repeatedly has come to me in my sin and brokenness, patiently and passionately ravishing my heart again and again with his healing love.
 Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer (New York: Image Books, 1979). I have added the last sentence as summary of the story.
 A Spirituality of the Road (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1979), p 82. Kosuke Koyama calls this “stigmatised theology”, which is true “Apostolic theology” (i.e. the lives and teachings of the apostles were marked by Christ’s suffering; being sent into the world as Jesus was) in No Handle on the Cross (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1977), p 37. See Philip Yancey and Paul Brand for an insightful discussion on the importance of stigmata (markings on the body), and its outworking in social stigma in helping us to recognise disease or healing, and attitudes of rejection or mercy, in relation to Leprosy and now HIV/AIDS, in The gift of Pain (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Zondervan, 1993), pp 313-316.
 Other auto-biographical reflections on my life journey are found in the first chapters of Doing Church (Cape Town, VIP 2000), and Doing Reconciliation (Cape Town, VIP 2004).