Among all the corporal works of mercy, it would seem, we do the best with this one. At a more obvious level at least, we tend to fulfil our duty here. If someone close to us, a family member, relative, or friend, is more seriously ill, we generally do not find it difficult to spend some time with him or her. Most people who are sick in hospitals receive visitors, sometimes more than their doctors and nurses would like.
When Jesus tells us to visit the sick, however, he means much more than simply visiting family members, relatives, and friends who are hospitalized. What else does he want of us?
Among other things, Jesus’ counsel to visit the sick means that we should examine our attitudes towards those who are sick in view of purging ourselves of a certain arrogance. Not so subtle in our society is the attitude that those who are sick are somehow responsible for their illness – with the other side of that being that we, who are healthy, should get the credit for our health. … “I take care of myself, my attitudes are positive, I live right, and that’s why I’m healthy! It’s no wonder she is sick, given how she thinks and lives!”
That is a very common attitude and there is an incredible arrogance in it. Moreover this arrogance is further reaching than we think. Initially, it makes a harsh judgement on persons who are sick because of depression or various psychosomatic illnesses. It blames them for being sick and, at the same time, congratulates itself for being well. Then it goes further:
It blames all sick persons for their illnesses, pure and simple. When we are healthy, we have the tendency to look at sick persons, indeed even very sick people who are dying from illnesses such as cancer, AIDS, heart disease, and the like, and see them as somehow responsible for that illness. Sometimes this is expressed openly and sometimes it is only there subtly within an attitude, but it is generally there and it is accentuated in a culture that is so strongly focused on being young, physically healthy, trim, and good-looking.
You see this among conservative persons in their attitude towards those who are sick with AIDS. There is the not-so-subtle accusation: “It’s your own fault! If you had a better moral life you wouldn’t be in this situation.” Liberals today are generally sympathetic towards AIDS victims but do not always have that same sympathy for those whose who are sick because they smoke, have bad eating habits, or (worst case scenario) those who are unhealthy because of scruples and moral rigidity. There is present the clear judgement: “This illness is your own fault!”
We if were really honest with ourselves, most of us would have to admit that we make some brutal judgements about various people who are sick. Maybe we blame those who are sick for that illness as a way of trying to immunize ourselves against sickness: “I don’t live that way so I will never get sick the way you are!” Perhaps then there is more fear in this than arrogance, but, in either case, when we feel like that we are not visiting the sick in the biblical sense.
Related to this too is the whole issue of our attitude towards those who are physically challenged or handicapped. Again, there is an incredible arrogance among those who are not as physically challenged as others.
Visiting the sick, as Jesus understood this, means that we must value and treat all lives as equal, irrespective of their overt physical qualities and appearance. We all struggle with this. Despite the fact that today most countries in the West have laws which attempt to enshrine equality, we do not live this out very well, both in attitude and in actual life. Those who are physically handicapped, despite the more politically-correct terms we have coined to describe them, are basically not treated as equals. From the way we treat the unborn to the way we patronize (and distance ourselves from) basically everyone else who is physically different from ourselves, we fail in visiting the poor.
Again, perhaps this takes its root more in fear than in arrogance, but the end result is the same. We self-congratulate and feel good about ourselves at the expense of somehow blaming others for their less than full health.
So Jesus asked: Do you suppose that those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed were worse culprits than all those who didn’t die? (Luke 13, 1-4)