Title: What does it mean to be healed?
Text: Mark 1:29-39
Date: Feb 5, 1012
Author: Scott Schomburg
Mark’s gospel begins in the middle. His first written lines form our imaginations for the rest of the story. He writes, “This is the beginning of the good news about Jesus.” What follows is the narrative of a life—Jesus of Nazareth. His life will be good news, for Mark proclaims he is the Messiah of Israel, the Son of God.
Everything Jesus does in Mark’s gospel points back to this first line. This story is a witness to the Messiah, the Son of God, in whose life all things hold together.
By starting in the middle, Mark places an extraordinary importance on the here and now. He wants us, I think, to notice something. He wants us to go looking for Jesus—not by escaping the world—but by becoming the kind of community that can notice the kingdom of God in front of us, breaking into the old ordering of things.
And here we find Jesus beginning to blaze his trail. He has already been conspiring with John the Baptist. At his baptism, the sky rips open, and the Spirit descends—sending him out into the wilderness to be tested. He gathers disciples, calls people to leave the lives they knew, and he begins teaching, in the synagogue, on the Sabbath.
Last week we heard about the Sabbath exorcism, about the ways we find ourselves as church—struggling, not against the flesh, but against the principalities and powers, in need of Jesus’ help. Last week we reflected on what it might mean that our witness as church may not be to do the exorcizing, but rather, to hope that Jesus would form us into a people whose lives witness to good news.
And after the first exorcism in Mark’s gospel, we find Jesus still moving on the Sabbath. He is taken to the home of Peter’s mother-in-law. Crossing the threshold of the public into the personal, Jesus makes it known that his ministry will heal real people, in the spaces hidden from the so-called ‘center’ of the social status and power. Jesus will refuse to heal from a distance—instead, he will form us in solidarity, making us a healthier, more faithful people—never separating the picture of a new world from his grasping of a hand and his call to rise and live.
Yet, Mark’s gospel causes us to pause at this point. If Jesus’ life is good news, then why does his ministry arouse the fears of local authorities? Why is Jesus’ fame the kind that keeps him from being able to re-enter towns, from staying too long in one place? The gospel of Mark is a proclamation of something much more than the story of a man who can heal sickness and exorcise demons. Stories of people who performed feats like these abounded in the ancient world. Their presence was not a threat like Jesus. Jesus means something more than the end of illness for some and the driving out of demons for others—he means the inauguration of God’s reign in the world. In attending to Peter’s mother-in-law, far from the centers of social status and power, Jesus signals the coming of a new world. If this healing story is a resurrection story—then resurrection is a threat. Jesus’ life signals the possibility that the old world built on injustice could crumble at any moment. This is the beginning of the good news of Jesus—the Messiah of Israel, the Son of God, our fugitive Lord.
Healing in the gospels, therefore, always presses us toward meaning. That is, it challenges us to wrestle with the question:
What does it mean to be healed?
It presses us to imagine participation in Jesus’ life as release from that which binds us; that which steals us from whole participation in communities that give us life—reminding us to join up the way we hope for salvation to the way we hope for healing. Like healing, the gospels tell us salvation is not abstract—but concrete participation in God’s kingdom, the possibility that our bodies might bend toward Jesus, toward salvation even in the here and now. Like salvation, the gospels tell us that healing is a sign of God’s reign, a new world that is right in front of us, but always connected to a future hope. It is vintage Jesus—always reminding us that we live in-between the old world and the new, as he dismantles the social barriers we wield as weapons, beating our swords of estrangement into plowshares that cultivate a new way of life together.
Back in Mark’s gospel, Peter’s Mother-in-law is lying sick with a fever. Jesus takes her by the hand, raises her up only to leave the fever behind. Here we find Jesus—releasing Peter’s mother-in-law from what has bound her—the gospel captured in a symbolic moment. Good news is preached to the poor.
While modern categories of poor and non-poor are described mostly in economic terms (think haves and have-nots), the poor in the gospels include the lame, the blind, the sick, people with bodily defects, the hungry, the mournful, the leper. To be poor was not only to lack monetary resources, it was to occupy a place in the world that was deemed negative space, it was to be the subhuman, the one who cannot escape one’s bodily plight, not able to transcend one’s social misfortune. Inasmuch as the poor were reduced to bodies, they were considered risky, dirty, unpredictable, threatening bodies.
Jesus is an interruption of social ascriptions. In Jesus’ attentiveness to Peter’s mother-in-law, one can hear echoes of the beatitudes: the Kingdom of God is hers—it is right in front of her. Jesus confronts those who are deemed to have risky, broken, unpredictable, threatening bodies with the gift of his own life—for, after all—Jesus’s body is a threat as well. It signals something wild, bound by nothing but the freedom of the Holy Spirit. His power to heal, to absorb social boundaries, is a threat to the settled universe of insider/outsider that fuels the old world, the very world in which his ministry is announced as something altogether new.
Yet, we still struggle in the in-between, and our lens is still muddied. Some are still threatened by certain types of bodies, certain people who are considered risky, broken, and unpredictable.
In the midst of this struggle, we throw open the Bible to Mark’s gospel, and it confronts us with the question:
What does it mean to be healed?
Wrestling with that question took me back to a string of articles sent to me at the close of 2011. It was December. For the church, it was advent; the coming of the one who would be our healer. And simultaneously, thousands of people in North Carolina were waiting to see what the state would do in an attempt to repair lives permanently damaged by this country’s most aggressive State Eugenics Program.
During the latter half of the twentieth century, the North Carolina Board of Eugenics administered a sterilization program aimed at ridding the population of certain characteristics deemed unfit for society. Forced and coerced sterilizations were administered mostly on poor women and minorities. It is not a far leap, therefore, to imagine Peter’s mother-in-law as being a prime candidate for such a procedure. Her body was deemed unfit, hidden, like more than 60,000 Americans who were sterilized in the name of a better, healthier, more productive society. Now their damaged lives are witnesses to these malformed dreams.
And back in Mark’s gospel, the question presses for more reflection:
What does it mean to be healed?
It impels us to be attentive to lives, ones like Charles Holt. At 62 years of age, Charles Holt, a resident of North Carolina, holds in his home a collection of vintage government records, proof of his state-ordered sterilization. They are memories of the moment someone decided—once and for all—that he was nothing more than a body, caught in a world of supply and demand—Charles Holt was an undesired commodity.
When Charles was a teenager, he started acting out at school. His social worker described Charles and his family as having a rather ‘low mentality’. Charles was sent to an institution for people with mental and emotional problems. His social worker convinced his parents they were trying to protect Charles; that by ordering his sterilization, he would be protected incase he was ever falsely accused of fathering a child.
Years later, the time for his sterilization operation came. Mr. Holt thought he was getting an examination in order to leave the institution, to start his life. He thought he was being freed from the walls that bound him, only to find out—after waking from anesthesia—that the walls had been pressed upon his own body. According to Charles, he was lied to. He didn’t know his chance to be a parent was being stolen from him.
Mark’s gospel turns to Charles—who presses the same question:
What does it mean to be healed?
Charles’ story is first his own. It is particular. Yet, so many others join him in grieving life lost, having to manage their suffering years after the damage had been already been done. One woman, also 62 years of age, remembers being sent to a state school after her parents told her she was ‘mentally deficient’. She was told she was getting an appendectomy. Later her doctor told her that she had been sterilized. Something went wrong during surgery, and now her medical problems abound.
Nina Ramirez reports being threatened into the procedure. She was 18, had just given birth to her first daughter, and her social worker painted a frightening picture of her future if she refused to go through with the operation. Her brothers and sisters would end up on the streets. Her mother’s checks would be cut off. Her future would be brighter if she was sterilized. She agreed, still not understanding that the procedure was permanent.
These lives still bear the marks of someone else’s malformed dreams of a healthier humanity; someone else, but not Jesus. And while the North Carolina State Government decides how to make amends, people like Charles and others remind us that an apology will not be enough. And people who have had to manage their suffering for decades are left shaking their heads when the most compelling offer the state can give begins with a dollar sign.
$7,000? $20,000? $30,000? Will it repair life?
As disciples of Jesus—as students of Mark’s gospel—we find it preposterous to imagine Jesus walking into the home of Peter’s Mother-in-law with a bag full of coins. Such an offer would only serve to bring the sick inside very world that defines her as sick, as outsider. To be called sick was a social ascription. Financial compensation here is not only an apology—it is also an invitation to accept the established social categories.
Jesus is after something different. Jesus’ message is the kind of good news that exposes the inability of such an invitation to heal us. Jesus is the kind of good news that centers life around his own body, where our destiny is found in his gift of life and resurrection. It is a world full of new possibilities, new categories—new politics.
What does it mean to be healed?
What does it mean to be healed, for Charles, when the operation is already done? When you are told your sterilization is permanent? What does it mean to be healed when the world seems to have already decided that the poor are to be forgotten? What does it mean to be healed when there is no returning to what once was? When what has happened is so wrong, that there is nothing we can do to fix it?
Charles’ life is part of a spectrum of human experiences, and maybe his life causes stories of your own life to emerge—stories of dearly loved ones—either whose lives were lost too soon, or whose stories are marked by enduring struggle. Maybe your stories press the same question. What does it mean to be healed?
The questions plunge us again into Mark’s gospel narrative, with Jesus—the one who brings good news without passing over our plight. The disciples bring to Jesus many in the town who were deemed ‘ill’ or ‘demon-possessed’. And Jesus heals them. Jesus rebukes sickness like he rebukes demons. Both represent an evil that binds us—not only in physical ailment—but in the lie that we are alone, that no one wants us. Sickness is not a pitiable state in the gospels. It is symbolic of an evil social reality.
More and more, the care of Jesus in these moments presses into the public sphere. People talk, and Mark employs a classic hyperbole as the story turns. It is a chaotic moment—and we are in the midst of it—being swept up into its narrative momentum. Mark starts to help us toward an answer to our questions.
While Jesus attended to the ill and demon-possessed, Mark writes, the whole city gathered at the door. (Mark 1:33)
Jesus has caught the attention of the masses. The imagery illuminates something about Jesus—the Messiah, the Son of God; and also something about us—God’s creatures. The scene of Jesus’ healing ministry becomes a window into God’s new world within the Bible; a window into God’s cosmos. The gathered masses–God’s creatures—press up against one another, reaching out for their Creator, watching, waiting, hoping for good news.
Jesus—the one in which all things hold together—stands between us, in the middle. Jesus stands between our boundaries of sick and healthy. He stands on the line that divides insider from outsider. He stands in that large gap between the rich and the poor, absorbing social barriers, standing at the center as our only true stability, the mediator who creates a new community—drawing us closer to each other by drawing us closer to his own life and resurrection. He turns us toward himself, like he turned the whole city toward the door. He calls us to rise and live as he calls the poor, the sick, the so-called social outcast. He speaks true words to us, grasps our hand, and raises us from the dead. Jesus turns us toward God, creatures dependent on our creator who anchors our lives inside a light that nudges us toward life abundant.
And in our being turned toward Jesus, our question is transformed. We are called to follow our questions toward Jesus’ own life, asking the Holy Spirit to guide us in our common search, as the question ripens within the gospel narrative:
What does it mean to turn toward healing?
The gospels caution us from imagining a state of being that we can define as what it means to be ‘healed’, to look ‘healed’. Our dreams of what it means to be healthy, whole, and developed can have tragic manifestations. Instead of creating spaces of life, it can foster death.
Healing in the gospels is not a desired state of being that springs from our own dreams detached from life with Jesus—it is a person, a living God who keeps showing up in our common life. It is a relationship with the one in whose life we find life to the full. And in the midst of that life, our scars remain. The resurrected Christ still bears the marks of crucifixion. They are not patched over with dollar bills, or a bag of coins.
But as we get closer—as people like Charles get closer to Jesus’ own life, as Peter’s mother-in-law feels Jesus’ hand in her own—the more we are drawn into relationships that give us a glimpse of something altogether new, of that divine seed that grows in the soil of our life together, blessing us with the power of life and resurrection. Inside this blessing, Charles’ life is not bounded by his sterilization, nor are we bounded by memories and realities that present themselves to us as that which cannot be fixed.
Charles’ life—and our lives—can instead signal the coming kingdom. In a community of adopted sisters and brothers, we can signal the failure of social engineering to rid the world of people like Charles, because in our being turned away from our own vision of a better life, drawn into Jesus’s body—we are drawn closer together, where we all become a little bit more like Charles, like each other, formed by the collective body of Christ. And this kind of resurrected life is not only a gift; it is a threat. It is bound by nothing but the freedom of the Holy Spirit.
Mark’s gospel sweeps us up until then end, where his last sentences might surprise us. He leaves out descriptions of the resurrected Jesus. He concludes without any siting of Jesus, only the empty tomb. Maybe Mark thinks it’s a bad idea for anyone to ever stop looking for Jesus. Maybe Mark is challenging us to be the kind of community that witnesses to the gift of Jesus’ ongoing life in our midst. Maybe Mark is challenging us to be the kind of church that dares to be an answer to the question: What does it mean to be healed?