The Wounded Healer
Calvin Theological Seminary
Before reading the text, remember to mention the placement after the John the Baptist narrative.
In the 2007 film Into the Wild, Christopher McCandless has just graduated from Emory University. Memories of utter brokenness in his abusive household, the materialism of his parents, and the meaninglessness he experiences in worldly pursuits confront him afresh. He decides to find solace in a different kind of life: A life alone in the wilderness.
Throughout his penniless journey to the Alaskan wilderness, Christopher’s earliest memories of abuse repeatedly assailed him. The shattering loss of a healthy family life left him bruised and aching for healing. Yet, all along his journey to the wilderness, Christopher finds people who need him, relationships that could prove to be redemptive…a young woman, a lonely old man, and a grieving mother begging for his companionship. He indulges them for a while, staying with them until he finds himself restless for solitude again. But he keeps moving. He keeps his wounded heart to himself. He hesitates to give it to anyone again. He can’t make space for others when he needs space for himself. “I have to move on. I’m on my way to Alaska,” he tells people. He reached his goal of isolation in Alaska. But eventually, his solitude in the wilderness brings him only death.
Jesus is also headed for solitude in the wilderness in our text today. He also has suffered tremendous loss, the senseless murder of his companion in ministry, his cousin, John the Baptist. When Jesus hears of John’s gruesome death he seeks to find refreshment of life in solitude. The weight of ministry is heavy as it is, but now with his cousin’s death Jesus feels compelled to withdraw for a time to a solitary place. You might say he wants to keep his wounded heart to himself.
But here come the crowds. Even before Jesus even gets off the boat he observes them gathering on the shoreline, clamoring for his attention, aching for healing. This is a complete disruption of the retreat meant to breathe new life into his ministry. Life’s bitter blow has wounded Jesus, but the crowds want a healer for their wounds. He has experienced tremendous loss, yet the people need someone to fill the holes in their own lives. The frustrated disciples muscle around people just to dock the boat, and Jesus wearily disembarks. Will he keep his wounded heart to himself today?
Fast-forward the rest of the afternoon…The sun is starting to withdraw from view, bringing supper time with it, but the people are still there. They just won’t leave Jesus alone! “You know what?” the disciples say to themselves, “Enough is enough. This is a natural time to send the crowd away. I mean, they have to eat, right?” Maybe to coerce Jesus away from what they see as an unhealthy pattern of self-sacrifice, or maybe to force Jesus to quit escaping his pain through active service, abruptly the disciples tell Jesus what time it is, where they are, and what he should do. “Send those people away! They can fend for themselves this time. It’s late. They’re hungry. You need your space.”
Jesus’ dilemma and ours as well, is that of the wounded healer. How is it that I can give my heart to people in compassionate ministry when this broken world and broken people have broken my heart?
Moise Vaval may have asked God this same question. Moise is a Haitian pastor who couldn’t find his 8 year old son, Jean-Mark, after the massive earthquake that rocked Port-au-Prince in January. Jean-Mark went to school the morning the quake hit, the quake that completely pancaked that poorly built structure. Although Jean-Mark was killed when the building collapsed, Moise and the Vaval family had no idea if little Jean-Mark was still alive. And if he was alive, they didn’t know if they would ever find him among the 50,000 lost children of Haiti.
But Moise was not able to simply take time off to grieve his tremendous loss. He had responsibilities to his congregation. Each person there needed spiritual and emotional healing that their pastor was in a unique position to offer. More than that, Moise was the director for the country’s Global Orphans project, and this devastating quake drastically increased the number of other people looking for their children. Jean-Mark was still unaccounted for, but everyone needed a piece of his father, Moise.
Whether or not you have had such a tragic loss in your life, you may know what it feels like to minister with a broken heart. Maybe you have lost a father or mother. Maybe you have moved states and lost most of your friends. Perhaps you have lost a job, or a home, or some medical condition haunts your life. And if you have suffered loss, you may also know what it feels like when someone else’s need interrupts that grief. Here you are trying to handle what hurts, trying to cry, trying to pray, and your daughter tugs on your shirt sleeve and asks for a glass of water. You’re struggling to make it through the day at work when a coworker comes to you for help. You’re not sleeping well at night, but your carpool partner needs you to pick everyone up tomorrow. You’re still hurt by your spouse’s words, but she needs your forgiveness. Are you going to keep your heart to yourself?
Jesus’ heart goes out to the people who need him. Our passage tells us that Jesus has compassion on the people, but that might even be too soft of a word. Jesus feels their need, and he acts. The Holy Spirit moves him deeply.
He could react differently. He could send them away immediately, perhaps appeasing their disappointment by a public appearance the next morning. He could stay on the boat, finding his solitude below deck. He might have become angry, frustrated, or overwhelmed. No…Jesus saw them on the shore, crying out for healing, and his heart went out to them.
And his ministry to the crowd is no shotgun healing. He doesn’t raise his hands and simultaneously fix the problem of the multitude. But he spends time with them, going to those who hurt, touching them, healing them. In fact, he spends so much time with the people that before they know it, their stomachs are growling and the disciples are growing uneasy.
The disciples think that the people need to leave, so that they can buy food. But Jesus knows what they need, and what they need is not to leave. What they need is food! Like the healing they needed when he got off the boat, Jesus knows that this too is something he can provide for them. And again, his heart goes out to the crowd.
His response must sound like a cruel joke to the disciples. Not only are their hearts not fully engaged in the ministry but they pretty sure they don’t have what it takes to meet the needs of the people this time. When Jesus commands them, “YOU give them something to eat!” their anxiety is almost palpable. They respond quickly, “We only have five loaves and two fish.” And bear in mind the loaves are more like a piece of pita bread than Sara Lee Honey Wheat. The anxious disciples see no way to meet the needs of this crowd.
But Jesus’ heart goes out to both the people and his anxious disciples. Emotionally drained and having ministered all day to the crowds, he takes the bread, looks up to heaven, gives thanks to God, breaks it, and gives it to the disciples. The disciples, flabbergasted, take the bread and start to distribute it obediently. Jesus has empowered them to do the very thing he commanded of them. He has made them into powerful witnesses of for his need meeting ministry. Subtly, Jesus is ministering even to his disciples in his grief. He does not respond angrily or send them away, but rather he brings them in and teaches them to minister as he ministers, to serve as he serves. He shows them how real ministry is about bringing needy people to Jesus.
Meanwhile, the crowds, the grass poking up from between their dusty toes, gratefully eat the meal the Lord provided for them. Their stomachs stop rumbling. Only then does Jesus dismiss the crowds. Only after he has made space for the needs of others does he make space for himself. Wounded and hungry for time in prayer, it is only after he has healed and fed the people that he goes up to the mountain to grieve, alone with his Father at last.
Jesus’ actions in taking the bread, looking to heaven, giving thanks, breaking it, and giving it to the disciples sound familiar to us because Jesus does the exact same thing at the Last Supper, and these are the very same words we use today when we administer the sacrament of Communion. Jesus’ actions in this passage not only remind us of our ritual formula, but they also embody the very reality that the Lord’s Supper represents. Both this miracle of feeding and the sacrament of Communion bring us into the presence of a God who was willing to suffer for the needs of his people. He was willing to make space for the hurting, while he himself is hurting. Even as Jesus suffers incredible distress, he heals the sick, he feeds the hungry.
The blood coming from Jesus’ wounds are the healing salve for the wounds of the world. The Wounded One is the Healer.
As those who have been healed by his wounds, we too are empowered to be wounded healers. Through his suffering on the cross and resurrection, Jesus empowers us to suffer on behalf of others. The blood that poured from his side on the cross delivers a cup of redemption and the bread that we eat at his table signifies his broken body. By his broken body, the Holy Spirit gives us strength to minister as broken people, to broken people. God empowers us to meet the needs of others even in the midst of our own suffering.
He certainly empowered Moise Vaval. Moise, emotionally tattered from the loss of his son, still worked night and day visiting the orphans of Haiti. Of course, he went out looking for Jean-Mark every day, reporting him missing to pertinent agencies and canvassing neighborhoods Jean-Mark may have wandered to. But there were many others clamoring for his word of redemption, his healing touch. God gave him the strength to continue to preach to his congregation amidst the rubble of their decimated church building. In his own words, “We are looking for one, but there are hundreds here to care for.” God empowered Moise to feel and respond to the needs of the people around him. The Holy Spirit gave this very anxious disciple the courage to continue to bring broken people to Jesus in the midst of his own hardship. The heart of God went out to the people of Haiti through Moise Vaval.
Just like Jesus we often feel the needs of others crowding in around us when we most need our own space. But, through the Suffering Servant, the Wounded Healer, Jesus Christ, God has empowered each of us by his Holy Spirit to be wounded healers ourselves. He has turned us, his anxious disciples, into powerful witnesses of his grace in the world.
 With thanks to Henri Nouwen