Scripture: Mark 1:21-45
It seems like whenever a story about Jesus healing someone with an illness or disability shows up in a lectionary, there’s a discussion about how—or even whether—we should preach about healing. In every church congregation, there are people who have illnesses or disabilities. Some folks might even have the same conditions that Jesus heals in the stories. And folks may have prayed for healing of these conditions, but haven’t been healed. So there are many who’d encourage us to skip all these stories. Let’s focus instead on the wise sayings and parables.
There’s only one problem.
The Gospels include stories of Jesus’ healing miracles because they tell us important things about Jesus. And if we skip them, we won’t get the full picture the Gospel writers are trying to show us of who Jesus is.
Our reading today, as well as the ones we will explore the next couple weeks, include several healings, and a few details that help us understand what Mark is saying about Jesus by including them. In this long passage, Jesus heals three people whose stories are told in at least a little bit of detail: a man who is possessed by a demon, Peter’s mother-in-law, and a leper. We also have a couple summaries, telling us that Jesus healed a great many other people, both at Simon’s house and during a preaching tour around Galilee.
As we go through the coming weeks, we will see the beginning of conflict and resistance from certain elements within his religious faith, which will be a part of Jesus’ story through the rest of the Gospel.
It’s sort of interesting how Mark piles all these healing stories up together, right at the beginning of the Gospel. Last week we began with the first twenty verses of the first chapter, in which Mark hurries to tell us what Matthew and Luke take about four chapters each to tell. John the Baptist preaches, Jesus is baptized, he is tempted in the wilderness, preaches his first sermon, and calls his first disciples before Mark even stops for a breath.
Then, immediately, he starts healing and casting out demons, and people start to respond to Jesus. He amazes the people who witness him casting out the demon; we’ll hear similar words from others as we go along, but not usually after a healing. Their amazement is that he speaks with authority beyond what the scribes can claim.
The role of the scribes among the Jewish people can be traced back to Ezra, the one who brought the book of the Law back from Babylon after the exile and read it to the people. They were the Biblical scholars, the ones who studied the texts to help the people understand and apply them to their lives.
The closest modern analogue to these scribes would be our Bible scholars, Bible study leaders, and preachers. Our authority isn’t really our own; we stand on the authority of the Biblical text.
But when Jesus told that demon, “Muzzle it and get out of him!” he wasn’t standing on the shoulders of the scholars. His authority was something completely different. And the people were amazed. They’d never seen anything like this.
Even other healers who were doing business around the same time could not speak or act in this way. When they healed, they performed intricate incantations, or certain movements, or used herbs and spices in ways we’d think of nowadays as superstitious or magical.
Jesus just said the word, and the demon came out. He took Peter’s mother-in-law by the hand and raised her up from her sickbed, and her fever immediately left her. He simply reached out and touched a leper, and the leper’s skin cleared up.
It isn’t any wonder that people were astounded. And I suppose it isn’t any wonder that folks whose lives had been devoted to, and whose livelihood depended on, the religious establishment felt threatened and began to push back against Jesus—especially when, as we will see next week, he declared people’s sins to be forgiven as well as their illnesses and disabilities healed. Only God can do that! How can this man, this Galilean nobody, claim that kind of authority? It belongs to God, and God works through the priests and the temple and the sacrificial system! The Law of Moses says so, and who is this man to say otherwise?
When the Gospel writers tells us the stories of Jesus healing people, whether it’s casting out demons or giving sight to the blind or curing a person of leprosy (an illness that has implications for the man’s social and religious life), they’re making a point that has little to do with the problem of why we, here and now, have not also been healed.
Quite frankly, and I see this also as a gift from God, we modern people survive—or, thanks to vaccines, never develop—conditions that would have killed people in Jesus’ day, or left them hopelessly crippled, with no prospect for their future beyond begging for coins from people passing by. Epileptics, whom Jesus’ contemporaries would have seen as demon-possessed, can in many cases have their seizures well-controlled with medication. We have effective antibiotic and antiviral medicines that can boost our body’s ability to fight off the germs that cause us to have fevers. We have treatments that can save, or in some cases even restore, sight—in my lifetime cataract surgery, which used to be complicated and require a long recovery time, has become quick and routine; a person can be very nearly blind at breakfast and see their dinner clearly.
Someone who lived at the time when Jesus walked this earth would be amazed at things we take for granted.
But still, not every condition can be cured. We still can’t do a whole lot for a person whose spinal cord is severed in an accident. But that person can have access to adaptive technology that might make it possible for them to live a productive life even if they do have to do it permanently seated. Some conditions that cause blindness can’t be treated or cured; but we are able to help a blind person live a fuller life, just as we can do for a person who has a mobility impairment that puts them in a wheelchair. We may not be able to treat every skin condition that the ancients would have called “leprosy”—including things like vitiligo or psoriasis—but we can treat troublesome symptoms, and we also know how infectious processes work now, so we don’t have to fear skin conditions that aren’t catching.
What I’m trying to say, I guess, is that rather than lamenting that some people even today aren’t healed, we need to recognize just what a blessing from God our modern medical knowledge is—because even when conditions can’t be cured, they can often be treated to minimize the damage they do for a substantial amount of time. And while people do still develop terminal illnesses, we have the ability to manage pain and, through Hospice and palliative care, help folks to make the most of their lives, however long they may last.
Jesus healed the sick, and even raised a few people from the dead. But that was never an end unto itself. The crowds that gathered around him when word got out about his healing miracles didn’t understand that. And had Jesus been just any mere mortal, he might not have understood that—after all, fame and attention are very seductive. But he did understand; and between his desert retreat at the beginning of his ministry and his regular habit of withdrawing to pray, he never lost track of what his ministry on earth was supposed to be: proclaiming the good news of God’s kingdom.
When Jesus healed, forgave sins, and commanded unclean spirits to be silent and to leave the people they were tormenting, he demonstrated the truth of the proclamation he made when he preached: The time is fulfilled and the Kingdom of God has come near.
And while some misunderstood, and others outright rejected his message, many, like Mark, recognized Jesus as the Son of God, and committed their lives to following him and living as part of God’s kingdom. More than likely, what first-century Jews understood as demon possession was what we today know as epilepsy or perhaps mental illness. Many scholars will separate exorcisms from other kinds of healing, but I’m not sure the distinction needs to be made quite so sharply.  This is a bit closer to what Jesus says in the original Greek; the Scholars’ Version produced by the Jesus Seminar renders it even more bluntly: “Shut up!”  “Permanently seated” was the way John Callahan, a Portland-based cartoonist who was quadriplegic, liked to describe his condition.