Ecclesiasticus 38:1-4, 6-10, 12-14 Concerning Physicians and Health
1Honour physicians for their services, for the Lord created them;
2for their gift of healing comes from the Most High, and they are rewarded by the king.
3The skill of physicians makes them distinguished, and in the presence of the great they are admired.
4The Lord created medicines out of the earth, and the sensible will not despise them.
6He gave skill to human beings that He might be glorified in His marvellous works.
7By them the physician heals and takes away pain;
8the pharmacist makes a mixture from them. God’s works will never be finished; and from Him health spreads over all the earth.
9My child, when you are ill, do not delay, but pray to the Lord, and He will heal you.
10Give up your faults and direct your hands rightly, and cleanse your heart from all sin.
12Then give the physician his place, for the Lord created him; do not let him leave you, for you need him.
13There may come a time when recovery lies in the hands of physicians,
14for they too pray to the Lord that He will grant them success in diagnosis and in healing, for the sake of preserving life.
Text ©The New Revised Standard Version, alt, Used with permission.
Just to save confusion, Ecclesiasticus is not the same as Ecclesiastes, and is often called [Wisdom of Jesus son of] Sirach. This passage was included in the international Revised Common Lectionary for its reference to physicians, given that the 18th of October is St Luke’s Day, and Luke was a physician.
What hit me first with this passage is the similarity to medical approaches in the 21st century. In the current Covid-19 era, where we are dependent on medical staff for advice and treatment to minimise the impact of the pandemic on our lives, we should take heed. “Honour physicians for their services” means honour them; don’t tell them they don’t know what they are talking about, don’t tell them we don’t need to wear masks when those physicians are telling us that’s one way to reduce the risk to us and to others, don’t belittle them because we can’t see the serious nature of an illness or injury. The physicians’ gift of healing comes from God, through all the research and development that has gone on through the centuries. We know as much as we do about the human body and how it works because physicians in the past have made discoveries which would astound most of us, and yet there are untrained people who think they know better, and whose concern is more about themselves than the safety of others. Think of how doctors and surgeons work together to restore our health when we have been attacked by bugs or violence, and we must admire their skills.
Of course, there are medical staff who believe they are God’s gift to mankind, taking this passage too literally. Some say that God has nothing to do with the advances in medical science, totally ignoring the evidence that those advances are because God has given us the skill to investigate and lead up to improvements in the way we treat people. Some doctors are also drawn by their positions of power and prestige to go against their Hippocratic Oath, or its later equivalent, to protect the lives of their patients to the best of their abilities, though the vast majority keep to it. With one exception, physicians are human, not divine, but their skills should still be recognised and appreciated. No prizes for getting that the exception was Jesus.
The Lord created medicines out of the earth, so we shouldn’t despise them. Some medicines come directly from plants or animals; others are made by humans who have studied the impact and interaction of certain chemicals, all derived from the earth at some stage, on our bodies and the bugs which attack us. Some people despise them by saying we don’t need them – again showing disrespect for the people who designed them for our benefit, some despise them by using them in ways that were not intended – biological warfare and substance abuse come to mind. I admit that I’m a reluctant drug taker, but when I know the medical condition which needs to be treated, and understand the need for a particular drug, I am less reluctant, but still mindful of the fact that God gave us bodies which are incredibly resilient and able to heal themselves to a large extent, and drugs are frequently only a help in the process of healing. There are, of course, times when our lives depend on the use of some drugs because our bodies have been weakened too much to fight alone.
Even pharmacists get a mention in this passage, because they, too, have a vital role in our healing. Thanks to their work the physicians can heal us and take away our pains.
All this is very practical, if we are listening, which is often the biggest problem. If we are listening to God then the work of healing us all continues through our lives and the lives of those who follow us here on earth, but how many of us really do listen to God? How many of us pray to God for healing, and for the hands and minds of physicians to do God’s work in that healing? Sometimes God works through the hands, the eyes, the minds, and the strengths of people to whom He has given the gift of healing; other times He asks us to make changes in our own lives so that we are healed in different ways. Our problem might be the way we interact – or don’t interact – with others, or the way we think only about ourselves.
Who is the greatest physician? This passage was written nearly 200 years before Christ was born, so He wouldn’t get a specific mention from Sirach, but we could do much worse than trusting in Jesus to heal us when we pray authentically. When we are sick, we should put our health in the hands of the greatest physician of all time, follow His instructions, and give Him a real chance to heal us.