Valued or ill?

Week of Sunday February 8 - Epiphany 5
Gospel Mark 1:22-39

29 As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. 30Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. 31He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

32 That evening, at sunset, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. 33And the whole city was gathered around the door. 34And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.

35 In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. 36And Simon and his companions hunted for him. 37When they found him, they said to him, ‘Everyone is searching for you.’ 38He answered, ‘Let us go on to the neighbouring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.’ 39And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

Last week I was so impressed by a short quotation about Jonah that I bought the book from which it came. The section on Jonah is breathtaking; I stopped mid-chapter and wrote a short email thanking the person who, by her quotation, had alerted me to the book! It's called The Murmuring Deep: Reflections on the Biblical Unconscious. It is written by Rabbi Avivah Zornberg and her stunning Jewish book alerts me again to the dangers to Christianity which come from dismissing and diminishing Judaism, let alone the sins it has justified against Jewish people.

Jesus was a Jew. He was murdered by the Roman-Jewish elite, not by "the Jews." When people follow him out of the synagogue, (Mark 1:32) this is not an anti-Jewish statement. It is an argument about the correct way to be Jewish, which meant the correct way to live faithfully before God. This is an issue for us. We are called to live faithfully before God.

Historically, Judaism and Christianity have ended up as two different religions. But if we let this fact erroneously drift into a "Christians are right Jews are wrong" simplisticism, we risk becoming exactly the kind of people−  and as a church, exactly the kind of religious system− which Jesus stood against. What has happened historically does not reflect the good news Jesus came preaching.

Because of the tensions and politics of New Testament times the gospels often reflect an "anti-Jewish" sentiment as the followers of Jesus seek to clarify their identity.  The Jesus-Jews and all the other Jews were struggling to survive in the aftermath of the revolt against the Romans in 66-70CE.

These struggles taint− I use the word taint deliberately− the message of Jesus who at first understood that he "was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel," (Matthew 15:24) and only later, as he was confronted by people like the Canaanite woman, discovered he had a wider calling.

This tainting has come down until now. We are steeped in a way of reading which shows a Jesus against Judaism, rather than a Jewish Jesus decisively aligning himself within Judaism alongside the prophets like Amos and Hosea. "Go and learn what this means, 'I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.'" (Jesus in Matthew 9:13, quoting Hosea 6:6.)

The tensions, and callings out, and shifting of allegiances in Jesus' teaching, were about what kind of Jew you would be. And so, first of all, when we meet these in the gospels, they are about what kind of Christian we will be, even if the sayings are contaminated by the struggle against a hostile synagogue, or an effort to present as being different from "those Jews who sparked the rebellion against Rome." Such a reading will seriously challenge how we live our faith, because those being criticised will not be some ancient Jews, but our fellow Christians, and even, perhaps, us.

So Jesus went to church, we could say,

and taught. 22They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the clergy. 23Just then there was in their church a man with an unclean spirit, 24and he cried out, ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.’ 25But Jesus rebuked him, saying, ‘Be silent, and come out of him!’ (Mark 1:21b-25. Note the alterations!)

This text is initmately connected with this week's text by the phrase "and immediately." (1:29)

People saw a new authority. And at the end of the Sabbath, they voted with their feet. They went to where Jesus was. But they went at the end of Sabbath, at the end of the day when the sun had set.

They were coming to a new understanding of things, but not stopping being Jews. What was it about this new teaching that gave it authority?

Who is Jesus?
Firstly, the time in Capernaum identifies something of who Jesus is. In "the pecking order of life" we have

1. "Our" God, the Most High God
2. "Other" gods or sons of god or archangels
3. Lower nonhuman persons: angels, spirits, demons
4. Humankind
5. Creatures lower than humankind  [Malina & Rohrbaugh (Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels) p. 182 ]

Brian Stoffregen says of this ordering

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.

Secondly, the story this week goes from the synagogue into the house. His healing is an all of life affair, not just something done in certain holy places. There is a sense of separation from the synagogue here; all the named disciples go into the house with him. This may reflect later patterns of worship in houses rather than synagogues. And all the people come to the house, not the synagogue. But they come at the end of the Sabbath according to the Law.

This is not anti-Jewish. These are faithful Jewish people responding to something new in, or, perhaps, a fulfilment of their faith. It is rather like the good Anglicans who none the less, went to Chapel in the evenings because something else was there, or the UCA folk who rock on down to the local Pentecostal assembly on Sunday nights.

A woman is healed

Let us not romanticise Mark. He is a man of his time as are those who passed on to him the story. The woman remains unnamed. She is healed to do what women stereotypically did: look after the men. It is spinning a yarn to make too much out of the word, ‘serve’, here, as if she is the first deacon. We can espouse such values without fiddling the text.   (Bill Loader)

In the larger pattern of Mark this unnamed woman is the "first resurrection." Defined by her relationship to Peter, she is yet, with the women at the tomb, given a high place in the narrative. Despite Bill's correct observation about the nature of her serving, women do have a great significance in the gospel. They belong, and they are at the centre of the action.

Sick and demons
Our eyes are blinded here. We think of medicine as bio-mechanical healing of malfunctioning biological systems. We think of demons as individual entities after the manner of Hollywood movies.

Tillich says somewhere in Theology of Culture (OUP 1959) that, being created by God, all matter can be revealing of God. But that it can also become demonic. Stoffregen expands this thought.

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. (op cit)

Such an understanding makes it clear that society is still replete with demons, and that people are badly afflicted, even possessed. It should open our eyes to a new reality!

Quoting Malina & Rohrbaugh's  Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels   via Stoffregen again:

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]

Brian:

Jesus' healing restores [Peter's mother-in-law] to her social position within the household....

When we sit at church tea and eat and with that smelly person who is wearing two hats and a sheriff's badge, including them as equal to ourselves, what we are doing is "restoring [them] to a valued state of being rather than an ability to function" bio-medically. And that may also restore bio-medicinal function! I notice that in the clinical literature it is a matter of controversy whether the drugs I take are actually efficacious; indeed, the evidence tends to the conclusion that they are not bio-medically effective. I sometimes wonder how much they were the thing that "fixed me," and how much the fixing was my restoration to a "valued state" by family, friends, church, and finally, by my doctor. His prescription of the drugs was accompanied by an "un-doctorly rant" about the situation in which I had been placed. I often wonder if that affirmation was as effective as the pills! Something significant had happened by the time I arrived home with a newly filled prescription but had not yet taken one tablet.

This "old" understanding of illness is not irrelevant because of its age. How telling that we say of a sick person that they are an in-valid. We even in valid some people out of positions or roles! Governments pick on the sick, seek to limit the national disability scheme, anything but value those who need it most.

Stoffregen's description of the demonic − 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−  makes the demonic very ordinary. People afflicted with demons are not other. They are us. Many demons are quiet and pious. Ultimately they are not less dangerous than the ones we meet in the mental health unit, or raving in the street.

So we flock to people like Jesus, we gather around their door, because they make us feel safe, accepted, valued, and unseparated from God. And often, we "get better."

When we are "all in the house together," are we this kind of community? Or are we some other kind of Christians who simply do not provide this love of God?

He would not permit the demons to speak
Alyce McKenzie summarises this difficult feature of Mark well.

The healings and exorcisms reveal the effects of Jesus identity and divine power, but the good news is not reducible to them….  Says New Testament scholar Hugh Anderson: “Such externals might satisfy the popular craving for the spectacular, but they do not ever constitute the good news. For Mark the good news begins with Jesus and what is decisive about Jesus is his suffering and death and call to follow him”

While it was still very dark
I always regret not getting up early on work days. Sleeping in never works. That early quiet time sets the tone for so much else. Not watching TV, and severely limiting my time on Facebook and news sites to concentrate on my spiritual issues has been one of the best things I have done. Despite this, something about our writings on prayer and staying focussed "on mission"− "for that is what I came out to do" (Mark 1:38)− always bothers me.

I wonder if it is because it is so easy to "talk the talk" here, and not "walk the walk." The walk is to the cross. "Divine power only flows through a cruciform life".(Alyce McKenzie)  I wrote in The First Resurrection in Mark

26After crying out and convulsing him terribly, [the spirit] came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, ‘He is dead.’ But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he was able to stand.

Do you hear the pattern? Resurrection, for us, is happening in the gospel, not at the end. Resurrection is for everyday life. Jesus comes and takes us by the hand and lifts us up! [Just like Peter's mother in law.]  If we follow Jesus; if we ask what he would do if he were 83 and had arthritis and bad knees, he takes us by the hand and lifts us up.... and we are able to stand...

But resurrection requires dying. Jesus is praying about dying. The Kingdom of God, with its healing and casting out of demons is life lived in the presence of death, and death dealing illness. "Many demons are quiet and pious. Ultimately they are not less dangerous than the ones we meet in the mental health unit, or raving in the street," I said. Well, ultimately Jesus' healing and casting out demons brings him head on into conflict with the Empire. Empire is demonic.

So to pray, even about "small things," is to be entering into issues that bear on what is Ultimate. Whose are we− the Empire's, or God's? When we talk about prayer and staying focussed on what God wants of us, perhaps sometimes our horizons are too small.

Andrew Prior
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

A note: In Mark 1, Jesus  has healed on the Sabbath, which is a  cause of controversy in other stories, although not here. We have tended to say this was a Jewish problem, and that Jewish Law forbad such actions. It's not that simple. This is Amy-Jill Levine speaking about Luke 13, where the synagogue leader objects to Jesus healing a woman on the Sabbath.

The story highlights Jesus’s action as in contradistinction from what the synagogue leader would have preferred. But the crowd—that is, the Jewish majority—has no problem with Jesus’s healing the woman, and they would have recognized his argument to be a standard form for discussion of legal matters. He argues on the basis of what is called in Hebrew a qal v’homer, or “from the lighter to the greater,” model. The form is also known as an a fortiori (Latin, “by the stronger”), and it follows the logic: “If you already do X, then you should surely do Y, which is even more important.” Jesus’s healing itself is a matter of touch, which is not forbidden on the Sabbath: he makes no potions; he unties no cords. Further, the story is not arguing that anyone with any medical skill should be spending the Sabbath checking for chronic conditions that might be cured. The forbidding of work on the Sabbath remains in place—physicians such as Luke, then and now, got a day off—while miracle working remained permitted. Christians today (and Jews as well) may rejoice that Jesus was able to heal the woman and so allow her fully to celebrate the Sabbath, without having to change their own Sabbath practices. The synagogue leader thus represents not “the” Jewish view but rather a Jewish view, and one against that of the majority of the people in his congregation. (The Misunderstood Jew, Chapter One)