If this is your first visit, please see my introduction to these Lenten readings.
18 March. Ecclesiasticus chapters 35-38
Today I am taking the short passage in Ecclesiasticus 38:1-15 headed “medicine and illness”.
These days there are many discussions about the place of various approaches to health. There is “conventional medicine” by which we mean medicines prescribed by a doctor or sold by a pharmacist. Many of these now are produced industrially although some still use natural plant extracts – arnica for bruises, for example. Then there are “traditional”, “herbal” or “natural” medicines which shun the fruits of scientific research and rely only on an older body of knowledge of the effects of various plants.
Then there are “alternative” approaches to treatment such as homeopathy, which is widely trusted by many people but equally widely regarded with scepticism by doctors who cannot see how a substance diluted until barely a few molecules of active ingredient may be present can be of any benefit. With that, then, we are getting closer to “faith healing”, which for Christians means praying in the name of Jesus for someone’s wholeness, including relief from pain or cure for a disease. No-one except a few charlatans suggests that everyone who asks for prayer will be healed, but enough do claim to have benefited from such healing prayer for others to seek it too.
So what is the approach of the writer of Ecclesiasticus to health matters? “The doctor, too, has been created by the Lord; healing itself comes from the Most High, like a gift from a king” (v.2). “the Lord has brought medicines into existence from the earth; the sensible man will not despise them” (v.4). So the natural healing properties of plants are seen as gifts of God, certainly not to be rejected. There was no pharmaceutical industry as we know it in those days, but “the chemist makes up a mixture from them” shows that there was a tradition of making medicines of some kind.
The writer then moves on to mental and spiritual health. “When you are ill, do not be depressed, but pray to the Lord and he will heal you. Renounce your faults, keep your hands unsoiled, and cleanse your heart from all sin”. That reference to renouncing sin may be uncomfortable to today’s humanists, but it is now generally agreed that physical health and well-being are closely linked to mental health, good diet, exercise and spiritual well-being (whether that is defined in terms of religious faith or a secular understanding of spirituality as mindfulness and self-awareness).
The benefits of traditional or modern medicines, then, are not to be rejected (whether we see them as “natural” or “God-given”), but experience suggests that their effects will be greater if these other aspects of our overall well-being are attended to as well. The Bible has a name for it – Shalom. This word is usually translated as “peace” but meaning far more than the absence of stress and conflict and really means a wholeness of mind, body and spirit. No wonder that “shalom” or “salaam” is a common greeting among Eastern people even today.