By Greg Forster: part three of a series.
If the profession of shepherd is “largely lost on us today” that of the doctor is not. To the contrary, the difficulty for us is to understand how remote and exotic – and shameful – it was in the biblical world. While the shepherd’s work is foreign to us, we are actually too familiar with the modern version of the medical profession to see easily the full significance of God calling himself a doctor.
To get the obvious point out of the way first: The faith and work movement rightly emphasizes that God cares about the material creation, and the biblical image of God as a doctor points more directly to this than any other. God is healing creation, and our work in the world cooperates with his cosmic intention that not only should God’s people be forgiven their sins, but God’s world fully restored from sin’s effects.
Lauren Winner of Duke Divinity School, in the course of giving interviews about a book in which she argues that images like “shepherd” and “doctor” have been overemphasized to the exclusion of more esoteric scriptural images, nonetheless made this striking statement about the practical value of imagining God as a doctor:
I have now prayed for 10 years with this Great Physician language with members of my church community who are really sick and really need God to be a great physician. And frankly, before doing that, the image of God as a Great Physician didn’t really mean all that much to me.
Winner is obviously writing for and about Christian populations who don’t live in an “imagination desert.” For those of us who do, imagining God as a doctor would be a great help to reforming our concept of who God is so it aligns with our vocational theology.
Now, with that out of the way, I want to make a less obvious point about this image.
One of my all-time favorite sermons was on the parable of the Pharisee and the publican. Near the beginning of the sermon, to help us understand just how despised the publican was in the Judaism of the time, the preacher described the rigid hierarchy of professions that was formally codified in Jewish traditions of that era.
Publicans were in the very lowest rank, alongside prostitutes and doctors. “Doctors have risen a bit in the Jewish world since then,” he joked.
But this only means Jews had the same views as everyone else, at least in the West (and I believe, under correction, elsewhere as well). Among Gentile and Jew alike, doctors have risen from the bottom of society in the ancient world to the top in the modern world. That’s one of the most important symptoms of the basic change in mindset. The ancient world had contempt for bodily needs; moral, intellectual and artistic excellence was what really mattered. The modern world venerates bodily needs; we can’t agree about what is virtuous or excellent, but we all agree health is good.
If God calls himself a doctor, this means he cares intensely about the body and its needs. (He created it, after all.) But it also means he does not care about social respectability.
God is taking this much further by calling himself a doctor than by calling himself a shepherd. Just as the ancient world had a very strict division between the elite leisure class who pursued excellence (politics, religion, art, etc.) and the lowly professions who cared for bodily needs, it also distinguished strictly between those lowly professions that were respectable and those that were not.
The shepherd was very low in social rank, but quite respectable. The doctor was disreputable, like the publican or the prostitute.
This is probably related to the widespread presence of medical quackery and exploitation of desperate people in the age before the proper organization of medicine as a science. (Remember, the sick woman who touched the hem of Jesus’ robe had spent herself into penury hiring doctors in hope of alleviating her illness, to no effect. We need not assume the doctors she paid were honest men.)
Now, with all that in mind, imagine in your mind how shocking this scene must have been: The Pharisees attack Jesus for associating himself with sinners – with disreputable people – and his response is to identify himself as one of the most disreputable kinds of people: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.”
It’s a comeback for the ages. It says not only, “yes, I heal the disreputable,” but, “yes, I am disreputable.” Rendered with its full force, the message might be something like: “You’re damned right, I’m disreputable, if that’s what I need to be to help disreputable people.”
And then he says: “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.'”
He is disconnecting vocation (God’s “I desire”) not only from religious formalism (sacrifice practiced without the Spirit of mercy) but also from social respectability (sacrifice practiced without works of mercy).
A scene to ponder as we strive to do works of mercy in our own arenas of service, and to equip others to do the same.