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Ched Myers (Binding the Strong Man: A Political reading of Mark's Story of Jesus) raises this question at the beginning of his comments on Mark 1:21-39:
These "miracle" stories raise important issues of interpretation. Is Jesus simply "curing" the physically sick and the mentally disturbed? If so, why would such a ministry of compassion raise the ire of the local authorities? [p. 141]
He goes on to suggest: "There must be more to these stories than is immediately obvious to the modern reader" [p. 141]. As I suggested last week, we are in constant need of capturing again and again the fresh/new power and authority of these stories.
Ben Witherington III (The Gospel of Mark: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary) notes some of the offensiveness of Jesus' actions:
Though there are later stories of rabbis taking the hand of another man and healing him, there are no such stories of rabbis doing so for a woman, and especially not for a woman who was not a member of the healer's family (b.Ber. 5b). In addition, there is the fact that Jesus performed this act on the Sabbath. Thus, while touching a nonrelated woman was in itself an offense, and touching one that was sick and therefore unclean was doubly so, performing this act on the Sabbath only compounds the social offense. But this is not all. The service of Peter's mother-in-law to Jesus (and the others) itself could have constituted work on the Sabbath, depending on what was done (.e.g., preparing food). In any case, later Jewish traditions suggest that women should not serve meals to male strangers. The important point about Jesus, however, is that he does not see the touch of a woman, even a sick woman, as any more defiling than the touch of the man with the skin disease. Jesus' attitudes about ritual purity differed from those of many of his fellow Jews. [p. 98]
What are we to do with miracle stories of healing and exorcisms (more about this word later) with people who do not have the same world-view as in first century Palestine? One answer is presented by Richard Jensen (Preaching Mark's Gospel) who points out: "The fact is, ... people do still get sick. The fact is that our lives are thwarted by powers and forces over which we seem to have no control." [p. 52] Especially since 9/11 we are aware that terrorists can bring destruction at any time and any place. Even the most powerful country in the world cannot keep evil under its control.
We may also consider being opposed to laws or attitudes that oppress people -- that consider some people "untouchables," e.g., those with AIDS, with mental illnesses, etc. As I quoted at the beginning, it is unlikely that the people wanted Jesus executed just because he miraculously healed people. He threatened their way of thinking, their cultural stereotypes, their understanding of religious purity. If a pastor has a beard (like me) or a tattoo (not like me) or rides a Harley (how I wish) or plays drums during worship (which has happened) that might raise the anger of parishioners because "pastors aren't supposed to do that," is that good? Is that helping people to strip away some of the garbage that hides salvation by grace alone? At the same time, there are (mis)behaviors of pastors that undermine their authority as proclaimers of the gospel; that, rather than leading people into a deeper faith in God's grace, repels them from that grace.
Pheme Perkins (Mark, New Interpreters Bible) raises the following questions: "How can we read these stories about Jesus, the exorcist and healer, without feeling cheated? God or Jesus has only to will it, and a person is healed. Does God will that person's suffering? If anything would make Jesus angry, it would surely be the charge that God wills the suffering and evil in our world" [p. 546].
We struggle with the fact that with a word or touch, Jesus can heal; yet, as much as we may pray and touch and anoint a loved one, they often do not become well and restored to society. They die. We may cry out, "Jesus, you healed with a touch, why can't you do the same through me now?"
At the same time, we cannot blame God when our sufferings are not immediately removed after prayer. Even Jesus did not escape suffering and death.
Our pericope for this week present three different events:
Jesus Heals Peter's Mother-in-law (1:29-31)
Jesus Heals Many People (1:32-34)
Jesus Withdraws and Departs from Capernaum (1:35-39)
I will follow this outline in my notes below.
The first thing to note about this event is that it follows what has gone before it. Mark intends this and the previous miracle story to be read together -- but the editors of the lectionary saw fit to be read on two different weeks.
The first clue about their connectedness is that v. 29 begins "and immediately" (kai euthus). One doesn't usually start a story with those words. There needs to be something prior to the "and immediately."
Next we are told that: "They [Jesus (and disciples?)] having come out from the synagogue." Remember from last week that "on the sabbath, he went into the synagogue " (v. 21). Besides the connection with the word "synagogue," this also indicates that it is still the sabbath day when they enter the house and the miracle happens. Evening will come in v. 32. For the ancient Jews, a new day began at sundown. For Mark, Jesus' first two miracles occur on the same day -- and it is the sabbath. Working/healing on the sabbath will become an issue a little later in Mark: (see 2:23, 24, 27; 3:2, 4 -- the word doesn't occur again until 6:2, and then 16:1-2).
Important contrasts between the first healing (1:21-28) and the second (1:29-31):
|synagogue (holy place)||house (common place)|
|(supernatural) unclean spirit||(natural) fever|
There is no limit to Jesus' power and authority. It is for all people, in all places, and in all circumstances (natural and supernatural) -- yet, he is not under our control.
In last week's notes (Mark 1.21-28) I quoted a section from Myers (Binding the Strong Man) about sociocultural perspective on illness. You may want to reread that.
Malina & Rohrbaugh (Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels) present a similar discussion concerning healing.
In the contemporary world we view disease as a malfunction of the organism which can be remedied, assuming cause and cure are known, by proper biomedical treatment. We focus on restoring a sick person's ability to function, to do. Yet often overlooked is the fact that health and sickness are always culturally defined and that in the ancient Mediterranean, one's state of being was more important than one's ability to act or function. The healers in that ancient world thus focused on restoring a person to a valued state of being rather than an ability to function.
Anthropologists carefully distinguish between disease -- a biomedical malfunction afflicting an organism -- and illness -- a disvalued state of being in which social networks have been disrupted and meaning lost. Illness is not so much a biomedical matter as it is a social one. It is attributed to social, not physical, causes. Thus sin and sickness go together. Illness is a matter of deviance from cultural norms and values. [p. 210, italics in original]
To briefly apply this understanding to demon possession in the last week's text -- the demon-possessed were people whose behaviors were socially deviant. Malina & Rohrbaugh go on to say:
Such attribution was something the community would be concerned to clarify in order to identify and expel persons who represented a threat. Freeing a person from demons, therefore, implied not only exorcising the demon but restoring that person to a meaningful place in the community as well. [p. 182]
It is not that long ago in our history when we felt it necessary to expel the mentally ill from normal society. They would be locked up in asylums -- not as places of healing, but as places to keep them away from "normal" people. We didn't want "their" strange behaviors disrupting "us".
This is a long introduction to help explain the fact that Peter's mother-in-law, immediately after being healed, was serving (diakoneo) them. Perkins (Mark, New Interpreters Bible) writes:
Peter's mother-in-law lies wracked with fever. She cannot fulfill the role of preparing and serving a meal to the guests, which would have fallen to her as the senior woman in the household. Jesus' healing restores her to her social position within the household. Many women today react negatively to the picture of a woman getting up after a severe illness to serve male guests. That sentiment hardly seems appropriate to the complex gender and social roles involved in the household. Certainly, Peter's wife or a female servant may have prepared food. The privilege of showing hospitality to important guests falls to Peter's mother-in-law as a matter of honor, not servitude. We even exhibit similar behavior. When special guests are expected for dinner, no one gets near the kitchen without clearance form the person who has the privilege of preparing the food. [p. 546]
Jesus restores her to her proper position in domestic society. Her healing and subsequent actions are not just physical, but also social (according to 1st century standards).
If we approach Jesus' actions as social healing -- restoring people to the community -- that presents a new set of issues for congregations.
Members of a former congregation had a number of informal discussions about what we should do when a member was released from prison. The "healing" that will be required is a social one. Can he be welcomed and restored as a member in our community? (If he should wish to return.) Should he be elected to council again? He had been an effective council member and committee chair before his incarceration. What about his relationship with the other member who, because of her job, had to turn him in to the authorities?
In my chaplaincy work in an alcohol rehab hospital, perhaps the most difficult task was to try and restore trust between couples (or parents and child) when it had been broken repeatedly. Often such a "healing" did not happen.
One might ask: "What kinds of social or relational healings are needed in our community?" How might Jesus be involved in such healings? What public rituals might we use to symbolize the healing? (I think that "serving the guests" was a public act that symbolized her restoration into the household community.)
I also want to comment about the Greek word aphiemi. It occurs a number of times in these opening chapters of Mark, but with widely different uses.
It is used of the fishermen who leave work and family in order to follow Jesus (1:18, 20).
It is used of the fever that leaves Peter's mother-in-law (1:31).
It is used of Jesus not allowing the demons to speak (1:34)
It is used of Jesus/God forgiving sins (2:5, 7, 9, 10).
The word seems to denote a drastic change from what was before to the present. It is a "letting go" of something in order to move on -- whether that is a person leaving or letting go of family or jobs; or sicknesses and sins leaving a person. It would seem that neither family, job, sickness, nor sins, are to control one's present life. They have been "left behind." I have begun to define "forgiveness," as "Not letting what happened in the past control my life in the present." It is leaving the past behind. It is letting go of past events, relationships, actions, etc., so that they no longer control life now. It is starting today fresh and new.
The sick are only brought to Jesus after the sabbath rest.
An observation about all of these healings in the first chapter of Mark is that faith is never mentioned -- not until 2:5 -- and then it is not the faith of the paralyzed man who is healed and forgiven by Jesus!
What is the relationship between faith and healing -- or faith and salvation? When is it appropriate to state: "Your faith has saved you"? When is it appropriate to state: "Your faith does not save you; it is God who saves you by divine grace"? NOTE: the proper Lutheran slogan is "saved by grace through faith." "Saved by faith" is a bit of a perversion of the slogan -- and, I think, misrepresents much of what happens in scriptures. Faith does not seem to be a requirement for healing or salvation. However, the presence and power of Jesus is necessary.
The word for "he cured" in v. 34 is therapeuo, which, as you might guess, is the basis for English words like "therapy" or "therapist". Frequently, one seeks a "therapist" for non-medical healing, e.g., wholeness with self or wholeness in relationships. This word in Greek, however, also conveys the idea of physical healing, but its connection with "therapy" and "therapist" might help convey the sense of "illness" and "cure" being, in part, one's relationship to self or to society or other people.
Since "casting out demons" occurs twice in our text (vv. 34, 39), further words are necessary about ways this action might be preached.
Although we use "exorcism" to refer to the casting out of demons, the Greek equivalents: exorkizo (verb, only at Mt 26:63) or exorkistes (noun, only at Acts 19:13) are not used of Jesus' actions. These two words are based on horkos = "oath" -- that is, calling upon a god to do something.
Jesus "casts out" (ekballo = ballo = "to throw" + ek = "out") demons (1:34, 39, 7:26). This is a power which he also gives to his disciples (3:15; 6:13), but which they also fail at doing (9:18, 28).
Jesus does not call on any other powers except his own in dealing with the demons. Malina & Rohrbaugh (Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels) present the following hierarchy, with the higher levels having the ability to control lower ones:
"Our" God, the Most High God
"Other" gods or sons of god or archangels
Lower nonhuman persons: angels, spirits, demons
Creatures lower than humankind [p. 182]
Although I think this scheme is generally true, there are uses of the word daimonion that suggest "demons" are equivalent to (false) gods or idols, e.g., Ac 17:18; 1 Cor 10:20, 21; Rev 9:20, which seem to raise them to level 2 in the chart.
Two thoughts from this:
(1) By not calling upon a God higher up on the list than the demons to cast them out, Jesus presents himself as a person who is higher on the list than demons. In essence, he is representing himself as having the power and authority of God. This helps explain why the scribes conclude that Jesus must be using the power of Beelzebub, the ruler of the demons to cast out demons. Jesus, as a human being, would not have that power. They certainly couldn't equate Jesus with almighty God -- or perhaps, because they can't cast out demons by evoking God, they can't imagine that Jesus could either, so it must be the Beelzebub who gives Jesus this power. By not calling upon a God (exorkizo), but by speaking on his own authority and having the demons obey, indicates that Jesus has the power and authority of God. No demon (then or now) can stand up to Jesus.
(2) If we use the broad definition of daimonion as god(s) or idol(s), can we say that people are possessed (or, perhaps, obsessed) with different gods of this world? Can people be possessed by Greed or Perfection or Taking-Care-Of-Everyone? A "demon" doesn't have possess people and cause them to do evil things. "Demons" can simply be anything which becomes our idol or seeks to control our lives. Anything that takes the place of the one, true God, is demonic. Anything that keeps us from being the individuals or the community that God wants us to be, is demonic.
I've attended lectures where the need for wholeness, especially taking care of our selves is stressed. A large part of that is self-care. One speaker reminded us clergy that Jesus did a pretty good job of saving the world 2000 years ago -- we don't have to do it. Although there are some understandings of "What Would Jesus Do" [WWJD] that are good; we also have to remember that what God called Jesus to do -- to die for the sins of all people -- is not what any of us have been called to do. Our job is not to save the world. We are to proclaim salvation in Jesus' name.
Witherington (The Gospel of Mark) writes about these verses:
We must beware of reading vv. 32-34 as simply a success story. The people are not coming to Jesus for the reason he wants them to come. They come for relief from physical ailments, but Jesus came to preach the dominion of God. The reader may be meant to think that the crowds did not see the exorcisms and healings as Jesus did -- as victories in the conflict with Satan, and as examples that the dominion was breaking in. The crowds may have seen them as only a temporary respite from their woes. [p. 101]
We thus may be able to make some contrasts: the "big picture" (the breaking in of the dominion of God) vs. the "little picture" (temporary respite from woes); the global picture or the community (congregation, neighborhood) vs. me (my life, my feelings). While those who came, even with poorly defined motivations, were healed, Jesus came so that we might see much more than just what might happen to me.
If Jesus had a need to get away to a private place to pray -- and did it -- how much more do we need to take a break from trying to fix all the problems in the world and in the parish and in our parishioners' lives?
In this event, we have the first dispute between Jesus and his disciples. This dispute might be characterized as the disciples' (and people's) desire to have Jesus go back to where he was vs. Jesus' (and the Father's?) desire to move ahead to new areas. Jesus did not come to keep the gospel hidden in Capernaum, but to spread it throughout Galilee and Judea and the world.
How many "church fights" are over similar issues? To try and become what we used to be vs. stepping out into an unknown and different future? pleasing the "people back home" vs. seeking to be faithful to God's call? keeping the treasure of the gospel (and healings) for our selves vs. spreading it throughout our communities and the world? centering only on our members vs. centering on the unchurched, dechurched, unbelievers?
What is so enticing about "going back" is all the successes back in Capernaum. Miracles were happening. People were being cured. The entire city was at the door. There has been no opposition to Jesus and his ministry. Who wouldn't want to continue such "successes" in ministry. Who of us clergy wouldn't wish to have everyone in town fighting to get into the church? Who of us clergy wouldn't wish to have no one criticizing us for our ministry? Returning to Capernaum seems awfully attractive.
In contrast to that wonderful past in Capernaum, the future, roaming around Galilee was uncertain -- but that is what Jesus has been called to do. He will not walk the safe and seemingly successful way, but follow the way God has set before him. It will not always be what his disciples want. It will not always be with the people want. It will be what God has determined.
Related to this: As often as we say: "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever" (Heb 13:8), we also need to quote the words of the one seated on the throne: "See, I am making all things new." Congregations need to live in the tension of the eternal sameness of Jesus Christ and God's power which is always leading us into something new. As I noted earlier, the Greek word aphiemi suggests leaving the past behind in order to enter into a new future. It's easy to leave the past when it is demonic, evil, sickly, full of failures; but leaving a successful past behind in order to move ahead (like the first disciples leaving their businesses and families or Paul leaving behind his good, upright, moral, life) is much more difficult.
A family systems approach stresses the fact that much of the unhealth in systems (and congregations) is caused by being stuck in past successes -- continuing to do the same old things when they are no longer appropriate or no longer effective. In order for Jesus to fulfill his mission, he had to leave behind his successes in Capernaum.
The designation "their synagogues" in v. 39 (also v. 23) indicates an "us" and "them" distinction. Probably it indicates a conflict between Mark's Christian community and the Jews living in the same area. It is possible that the situation described in 13:9: "...you will be beaten in synagogues..." had happened in Mark's community. However, "their" is not used in these references to synagogues: 1:21, 29; 3:1; 6:2.
How often do our words betray an "us" vs. "them" conflict or feeling in a congregation? or towards judicatories, e.g., what they are doing in Chicago (where our ELCA churchwide offices are located), rather than what we are doing through our churchwide offices, or, what we are doing in our congregation.
In 1:28, we are told: "the fame (akoe also = "report" or "rumor," literally, "that which is heard") about [Jesus] went out everywhere into the whole neighborhood of Galilee." Now, in 1:38-39, Jesus wants to personally go out and proclaim in the whole of Galilee. There is a difference between hearing a report about Jesus and hearing Jesus. Is there also a difference between preaching about the gospel or about Jesus and preaching the gospel or preaching Jesus? Do we include in our sermons words about Jesus' power to forgive sins, to restore relationships or do we proclaim, "Jesus forgives your sins." "Jesus restores your relationships"? Can we proclaim, "Jesus heals you," knowing that the paralyzed member will not rise up out of his wheel chair, and another one's kidneys will not suddenly start working properly, or that the diabetic will have to continue to inject himself with insulin, etc.
How do we proclaim Jesus' power to heal that takes seriously both these biblical passages of healing and the present reality that mental and physical ailments are not usually instantly removed through prayer and evoking Jesus' name and power over the ailments? And, at the same, claiming that our proclamation of absolution in Jesus' name instantly brings forgiveness of all sins?
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