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A Lesson from Jesus on How to Heal in the Gospels of Thomas and Matthew

by Shirley Paulson, PhD

Jesus teaching his followers to heal.

I think the meaning and practice of healing the way Jesus taught it is understudied. So I continue to explore it myself. Hal Taussig and I have been preparing an online course called “The Gospel of Thomas Goes Public,” and it prompted me to ponder the verse that includes the phrase “heal the sick.” Digging into it a bit further, I was especially interested in discovering a parallel between the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Thomas that sheds light on Jesus’s teaching of healing.

The verse that caught my attention is the one specific reference to the act of spiritual healing, which occurs in the Gospel of Thomas, Saying 14. Jesus explicitly instructs his followers to go out and heal the sick:

And in whatever land you enter and in which you walk, if they receive you eat whatever is put before you, and heal the sick among them.

As with many Sayings of Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas, they sound quite similar to texts from the gospels in the New Testament. This verse reminded me of Matthew 10, where Jesus told “these twelve” to go out, “proclaim the good news, … cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. … laborers deserve their food” (Matt 10: 5-14).

But Thomas’s Saying 14 moves off into a surprising direction. Jesus sends his disciples out to other communities, where they will heal the sick, along with being fed and cared for, as in the Gospel of Matthew. But in Thomas, these instructions include more detail concerning the purity of the healers’ motives by warning them about false praying.

I think it offers an understanding of how healing happens in the Gospel of Thomas. Here is the full Saying:

Jesus said to them: “If you fast, you will produce sin for yourselves. And if you pray, you will be condemned. And if you give alms, you will do harm to your spirits. And in whatever land you enter and in which you walk, if they receive you eat whatever is put before you, and heal the sick among them. For, what goes into your mouth will not pollute you; rather, that which comes from your mouth will pollute you.”

One way I see to interpret this is that if you fast, pray, and give alms publicly, your ‘sin’ is putting yourself above others in your own eyes. Jesus also criticizes such public fasting, praying, and alms-giving in the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ in Matthew 6.

But as Thomas’s Saying 14 continues, if you can find some people without showing off – such as fasting – and they welcome you, then you will have found good people who will serve you well. Your gift-in-return is to heal them. And you’re able to heal them because your motives are pure.

You can also be assured that their hospitality you won’t hurt, because all that could harm you would be your own hypocrisy (“that which comes from your mouth”).

It’s hard to know exactly what ‘healing’ means in this gospel. But it’s probably safe to say it leaves the people feeling better in some way. I appreciate the way it puts ‘healing’ in the context of loving and sincere relationships.

People who are qualified to heal are those who don’t ‘sin’ through hypocritical acts or saying hurtful things. And when the healers find the people who are extending true hospitality, they can trust their hosts to care for them safely.

Maybe we can infer that the capacity to heal comes from a sincere relationship with God and with people. Another Saying in the Gospel of Thomas embellishes Thomas’s distinction between ‘fasting from the world’ and truly discerning the presence of God. This is Saying 27:

Jesus said: “If you do not fast from the world you will not find the realm. If you do not make the sabbath a true sabbath, you will not see the Father.”

Here again, Jesus tells us that we can’t seek approval from ‘worldly’ rituals. But if we make the sabbath in our hearts, we’ll see what’s going on in the heavenly realm. I read this as another powerful connection between healing the sick – at least those who are ready to welcome us – and experiencing the presence of God.

There’s one more Saying in Thomas that talks about physicians, and I think it also sheds light on the right relationships that support healing. Saying 31:

Jesus said: “No prophet is accepted in his or her own village. No physician heals those who know him.”

Similarly, in the Gospel of Luke (4:24), Jesus said, “no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.” Healers and prophets seem somewhat equated by Thomas, because they see what’s going on in the heavenly realm. But in all three of these Thomas Sayings, there’s something about worldliness that cuts off the ability to heal. If you pray or fast in public, if you make the sabbath in public, and if you seek the approval of your own village – all these things get in the way of truly health-giving relationships.

If I’m reading this right, it sounds like the power to heal in the Gospel of Thomas is the opposite of bragging rights. Instead, the healing power of God belongs to those who love unselfishly and unpretentiously.