“I can’t breathe.”
These words have become agonizingly well-known in recent days.
They were familiar to Jesus also because he frequently encountered people whose experience of isolation, hopelessness, marginalization and pain forced the breath out of their lungs.
Across the Sea of Galilee, along the shore in the country of the Gerasenes, Jesus met a man possessed by demons.
He had been ghettoed among the tombs, where the stench of death and decay made it almost impossible to catch his breath.
Irrational and intolerable people had bound him with shackles and pinned him to the ground, which made breathing even more difficult.
With frantic jerking and pulling against his restraints, he had broken loose and run into the mountains, where, despairing, he screamed day and night and cut himself with sharp stones.
Isolated by unfeeling and fearful townspeople, he was tormented by loneliness and a legion of forces beyond his control.
And then he met Jesus, who was not afraid and did not bind him. The demoniac’s wild eyes, filthy face, matted hair, bloody arms and swollen feet communicated a grim message: “I am alone. I am crushed. I can’t breathe.”
So, Jesus responded (Mark 5:1-20).
While on his way to visit the deathly ill daughter of Jairus, Jesus unexpectedly happened upon a woman whose chronic hemorrhaging had drained all of her physical and financial resources.
For 12 years, she had suffered a condition that made her embarrassed and uncomfortable but also ritually unclean and forbidden to associate with those for whom cleanliness was next to godliness.
Now pressed on every side by a crowd that was pushing to get close to the wonder worker, she felt faint from her repeated, unsuccessful attempts to be rescued.
Then, miraculously, she was next to him. Extending her trembling hand, she touched his garment, maybe to whisper, “I am exhausted. My situation is hopeless. I can hardly breathe.”
So, Jesus responded (Mark 5:25-34).
Traveling to Jerusalem near the border between Judea and Samaria, Jesus saw 10 men who suffered the fearsome scourge of leprosy.
Cloth masks covered their faces, both as a warning and a protection for others. Hardest to endure, however, was the plague of looking dangerous when they were guilty only of being different and disadvantaged.
Then they saw the man whom people claimed could cure illness and even overcome death. They gestured shamelessly and shouted from a safe distance, pleading for mercy and to be noticed.
Sent by him to a priest who could declare them clean and restore them to community, their awful condition was suddenly altered.
Only one of them – a Samaritan sadly accustomed to the racial slurs, stares and suspicions of the Jewish majority – realized that Jesus had treated him with dignity.
Returning, he knelt before this mysterious savior without his mask for the first time in months and thanked him profusely for his kindness.
Perhaps he thought, “I have been an outcast. I could not show my face. But now I can breathe freely again.”
Despite his particularity and imperfection, this leper was a beloved child of God with infinite worth as a fellow human and brother.
So, Jesus responded (Luke 17:11-19).
Such episodes were common in an imperfect, broken world where Jesus’ redemptive response was often needed.
Even at the end of his life, hanging on the center cross between two criminals, Jesus had an opportunity to show what abundant living looks like.
One of those crucified with him was skeptical and dismissive, demanding he use any power he had to save them both.
But then Jesus turned to the other thief, who begged to be remembered after the “King of the Jews” came into his kingdom.
The dying man longed for something he felt was unattainable. He expressed his hope haltingly, with tremendous effort and labored breathing, because the cruel design of the cross as an instrument of political torture and death made it increasingly difficult for a victim to inhale and exhale.
Gasping for air, the penitent thief used his last ounce of strength – almost his last lungful of air – to plead for help.
It was as if he said, “I am nobody important, but I don’t want to be forgotten. I dream that maybe there is still life after I have breathed my last.”
So, Jesus responded (Luke 23:39-43).
Two thousand years have passed since Jesus met these people whose stifling circumstances sucked the air out of their lungs.
They cried out for companionship, cleansing, compassion and a chance to live. Their words became both an appeal for social justice and an indictment against the domination systems of the day.
“I can’t breathe. I am isolated, hopeless, marginalized or pained. I am a victim of social misunderstanding, religious judgmentalism, racial discrimination or governmental oppression. Help me, please. I can’t breathe.”
Jesus heard these cries for help and responded with restoration, healing, transformation and promise.
More to the point, however, is the implication of these gospel stories. For when we hear these same calls for assistance from those we encounter today, are our hearts and minds troubled and will we be stirred to act?
How will we – who claim to follow the way of Jesus – respond?