We’ve seen Jesus call the disciples and heal the unclean spirit in the synagogue. In this part of the story Jesus goes to the home of Simon whose mother-in-law is very ill.
Here we see Jesus take her by the hand and lift her up. She is healed and able to get up and serve. Then the neighbourhood gets wind of what Jesus is up to and all sorts of people start showing up.
There are a whole bunch of things in this passage to unpack a bit. Last week Jesus dealt with an unclean spirit. This week he’s dealing with demons. There is a distinction here between unclean spirit and a demon or evil spirit.
You might think of an unclean spirit as human spirit that is damaged in some way. To a certain extent we all have unclean spirits in that we do things that harm ourselves, or others or the creation. We all make mistakes and most of us have things in our lives that hold us back, that we regret or wish were different. This is the unclean spirit.
In the ancient world demons were believed to be responsible for anything inexplicable. If you’re on the ground and there’s no wind but the tree above you is rustling that is the work of a demon. Demons were believed to cause illness and suffering. Some demons were benign, others were harmful. We are told that Jesus would not allow the demon to speak. This is because it was believed that their power lay in being able to name someone. If the demon couldn’t speak, it couldn’t have power over a person.
There is also an important distinction between curing and healing. Curing relates to removing the physical symptoms of disease. Healing has more to do with finding meaning, having emotional and spiritual wholeness in the midst of disease and being restored to the community. Many of us have heard stories about inexplicable curing of disease—perhaps someone is close to death and they recover or they have a cancer that suddenly disappears. There are curings that cannot be explained.
Healing can happen when someone chooses to live well with a chronic illness or even to die well. Healing can happen even in the midst of death. Sometimes families that are estranged are brought together in caring for a loved one as they die. Healing impacts not only individuals but families and communities.
In this passage, Jesus didn’t do anything except take the hand of Simon’s mother-in-law. His presence was enough to heal. We might hear the story and think that this is what makes Jesus so amazing and out of our league. These types of stories are what in our culture give Jesus a God-like quality but, as I said last week, in the ancient world people expected miracles and they expected that magic type healings were normal. Mark’s gospel tries to portray Jesus as a very ordinary human and Jesus offers healing in a way that all of able to provide. Ched Myers writes that “[Jesus] provides social meaning for the life problems resulting from the sickness.” With this definition healing lies in helping people to reconnect with themselves and their community regardless of the symptoms of the illness.
In this sense, we don’t need special powers for healing. All of us have the ability to reach out and touch another person. When I was working with people with disabilities, we were encouraged to touch our clients because many of them would only receive touch as part of personal care. Touch of for the sake of touch was healing for many. It helped for many of them to understand that even with whatever disability they were still loved and still of value. The people with disabilities didn’t need healing but the way in which many were accepted and treated needed healing. The healing is in how people are treated.
All of us have the ability to be a presence to someone who is struggling. Illness can be isolating. As people’s physical, emotional and spiritual conditions deteriorate isolation often occurs. Sometimes it is because the individual doesn’t have the energy or ability to go out. Sometimes other people withdraw because they are uncomfortable and don’t know how to talk about illness and death or because the individual’s condition makes them uncomfortable. Sometimes there is nothing to do but sit and touch someone. That presence and touch can be healing.
Illness also prevents people either temporarily or permanently from working. In the ancient world, and in many parts of our own world, an illness means poverty and maybe death for not just the individual but for entire families. In Jesus’ time someone who was unable to work because of illness would have almost immediately become immersed in poverty. There was no medicare to cover the cost of treatments. There was no insurance to help ease people through difficult times. The connection between poverty and illness was and is an intimate one. We can see in our context that many people choose between paying rent, buying groceries, buying medications.
Previously, we heard the story of Jesus calling the first disciples. Then we had Jesus healing unclean spirits that cling to power and privilege. Then we have Jesus healing a woman so she can return to her work and be restored to her role in the community. If we identify ourselves as followers of Jesus then this is the work that is ours too. Later in Mark we find the story of the rich man wanting to know how to receive eternal life. In this story Jesus closes the conversation by telling him that “the first will be last, and the last will be first.” Already in Mark we see this happening and it is directly related to the healing work that Jesus is doing. The rich and powerful will be able to recognize that their values may not be in line with God’s expectations. Those who live in poverty and on the fringes will be restored to places where they are a meaningful part of the community and valued for their contributions.
We look around the world and see violence and destruction around the world and in our own communities. We wonder how these things can come to be. We wonder what causes someone to hate enough to violently behead or burn someone alive. In many ways these things are inexplicable. I don’t how someone comes to a point in their life where that kind of behavior is acceptable. It’s inexplicable to me just like the demons in the ancient world were inexplicable. There is no way of understanding why one person gets sick and someone else doesn’t.
For me, violence and hatred and fear are inexplicable. They are demons. I’m not suggesting that there is evil lurking behind every tree waiting to jump out and capture us. I’m not even thinking of actual entities but the demons exist in our minds, in our attitudes and behavior. Sometimes these demons are grounded in real life situations and experiences that give rise to the feelings. Sometimes they are taught or learned but either way they are powerful and have the ability to make us very ill in body, mind and soul.
In the scripture, Jesus did not allow the demons to speak so that they would not be able to control him. He could speak and was able to control the demons. In our world that is so filled with violence, fear and hate if we can find ways of preventing these demons from speaking they will not be able to control us. If we find our own voices of love, compassion and hope which offer something different from the voice of the demons we may be able to create space for healing to happen.
When we hear and experience hatred we need to respond with love. When we experience fear we need to offer comfort and hope. We witness violence we need to live peace. These practices silence the demons that are destroying the world and create healing.
The passage has one more practice to offer us that strengthens us for the journey of discipleship. That is the relationship between being and doing. Sometimes as church people we want only to worship God. We want the beautiful music, the scripture, the prayer that will comfort and strengthen us. Sometimes we get busy doing things and trying to save the world and forget to allow the spirit to nourish us. In this passage, we see Jesus working hard and then we see him take a break. This cycle occurs many times throughout the gospels. We need both. Our faith is personal in that is strengthens and nurtures us but our work calls us out into the world to heal lives.
. Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (Maryknoll:Orbis Books, 1988), 145.