Whose call will you answer?

Gospel: Mark 1:29-39

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.

Whose call will you answer?

As with last week's post, I am seeking to synthesise a heap of ideas here. As someone said, I apologise for such a long post; I did not have time to make it shorter.

We begin with Jesus' proclamation:

The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near… (Mk 1:15)

It has begun. Jesus is living out the life of the kingdom.

And again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand…   3And he said to the man who had the withered hand, ‘Come forward.’ … and … said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. 6The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him. (Mk 3:1-6)

I have often wondered if I would like Jesus, if I were to meet him on the road. There is something driven about him, something extreme. Indeed, whilst I am drawn to him (note that the crowds in our reading are being gathered; that is, drawn to him at the door of the house) there is something about Jesus, and the claims of the Gospels that offends and frightens me. I'd like to unpack this, because recognising this offence— or not— will profoundly shape what we see in the gospels, and in Jesus.

Richard Beck has reminded me of my discomfort, and of my fear of making Jesus in my own image, in a recent post at Experimental Theology.

As we know, we're all in grave danger of making Jesus into our own image. I'm coming at this from the progressive side of Christianity, so the danger among us liberal, progressive types is turning Jesus into a compassionate, woke, social justice warrior. To be clear, I think Jesus is those things. But I also think Jesus is more, and that more is bleeding, stinking and mad.

bleeding, stinking and mad is a quote from Mary Flannery O'Connor. (The Violent Bear It Away)

Flannery O'Connor interrupted my cozy assumptions that Jesus can be reduced to being the spiritual warrant for progressive politics, ethics, and activism. There is something sacrificial ("bleeding"), offensive ("stinking"), and foolish ("mad") about Jesus.

So where is Jesus asking progressive Christians, like myself, to do something sacrificial, offensive, or foolish? Where is the bleeding, stinking, mad shadow of Jesus offending progressive Christian sensibilities?

Beck makes a side comment which is very relevant to this week's reading in Mark 1:29-39, and the way we will read it. Beck, the progressive, says

To be sure, the bleeding, stinking, mad shadow of Jesus is also offending conservative and evangelical Christian sensibilities. But I'm talking here about me, about my own personal encounter with Jesus. That is the issue that occupies my attention. Where does Jesus offend me? (Richard Beck, Journal Week 4: The Bleeding, Stinking, Mad Shadow of Jesus)

When we talk about the cultural context of a reading, one issue we often forget, or cannot afford to see, is that we may be reading the text, and drawing "exegetical conclusions" not only assuming the truth of our cultural assumptions, but also in reaction to— against— competing cultural views from our own time. For many people, self-identity is offered by knowing that Richard Beck, as a progressive, is wrong. He is not of their tribe. And I recall bitter arguments at Synod where I had lost sight of the issue at hand, and where the whole situation had devolved to winning over them, because I had reduced what was at stake to my place in the church. Exegesis, love, and compassion had been reduced to identity politics. Being church had been reduced to a power struggle.

So when we argue about healing, and Jesus's power, are we working within the mindset of Jesus' people, seeking to understand how they perceived him, or are we surreptitiously, even if unconsciously, seeking to bolster our own world view, and our own identity, and our own security?  What drives us to see what see?

It is hardly surprising that we our interpretations are influenced by adjacent issues. In the last twenty years of argument within the Uniting Church it has often seemed to me that if they win, there will be no place for me. And it is clear from comments by colleagues who disagree with me, that they feel that if I win, there will be no place for them. We have reduced each other to us and them, instead of together being the ekklesia; that is, the gathering, of Jesus people.

I began this post with words from the beginning of Mark 3, which I take to be the destination of Mark's first two chapters. Mark 3:1-6 is the first stop on the way to Jerusalem, if you like. It is marked by all the power holders in his society rejecting him. The Herodians were the political power brokers, and the Pharisees were power brokers of piety. They were deeply opposed to each other, but in Mark 3:6, the Pharisees went out and allied themselves with their enemies to destroy an even greater enemy.

The words went out (the same root for coming out as in Mark 1) are significant, because there are two major emphases in the reading this week. We have people gathering, coming and going. Along with the healing in the synagogue, this reading is about who is "in" and who is "out;" it is about gatherings of people; where they are going. The reading contrasts the places where people are gathered.

The second emphasis is upon healing, and the healings show the locus of the real power; that is, the power which Mark sees defines the Kingdom of God, and who wields it.

(The text begins with "and immediately," again hidden by the NRSV for stylistic reasons, as it was last week, but clearly connecting all these events together.1 These readings are linked for a purpose.)

We see that Jesus heals a single person in the (gathering) synagogue.
He then then goes out - ἐξελθόντες; that is, having left out of   
- and comes into a house -  ἦλθον ⸃ εἰς τὴν οἰκίαν; came into the house.

But in contrast to last week, the whole (ὅλη - all) city is drawn to the door of that house. There is a common root to synagogue and to being gathered (..συνηγ…), and I think we are meant to "hear" this. Jesus leaves the gathering called the synagogue, as do the ones following him— did you notice that Andrew, James and John, and Peter via his mother in law, again follow Jesus? Then Jesus enters into a house (the word will later be a symbol of where Jesus' people gather) and the people, many of whom we assume were in the synagogue, are gathered (ἐπισυνηγμένη) — to the door. There is a different gathering2 and many people are healed.

One man— and the spirit caging him recognised the holy one of God, whilst the people in the synagogue saw only a new teaching— was healed in the synagogue, but

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…

The point is not subtle!

But then Jesus  goes out of the house into solitude— into a lonely place (ἔρημον) which is the same word as the wilderness into which he is driven by the spirit and the wilderness (ἐρήμῳ) in which John had appeared. (Mark 1:12, 4)

In this movement of people, there are themes of allegiance (which involve power,) and the movement of Jesus on his own also makes a statement about allegiance and power:  Jesus is his own person, not bound by the needs and identity of the house. His power comes from the place Israel has always met God, which is wilderness. His allegiance is to God.

Going beyond the symbolism of movement, we come to the issue of healing.

When we come to understanding the stories of Jesus healing people we enter the contested territory where we can find ourselves defending our own world view, and defending our own identity and allegiances, rather than listening to the text.

To make this explicit, we need to remember there has been a huge shift in our western understanding of Jesus' healings. Pre-Enlightenment, we would have assumed the simple literal reality of the stories. And:

The people of the ancient world literally, seriously believed that miracles happened. And we have to put ourselves in their mindset of thinking about that, and then look at how those stories are working, with their belief at the forefront of the discussion, and not start by simply saying, "Miracles don't happen." So we have to disengage our modern mind for a while, and think with an ancient mind. … The miracle story is not interested in whether it ever happened or not. People believed that this sort of miracle happened all the time. In fact, we know these are commonplace miracles. Apollonius performs them. Others perform them. Why not Jesus? The point is that the story is more than just the expectation that it could happen, or that it did happen. It's a statement about their belief in the person who they say made it happen. In other words, the stories are more about the presentation of theology and belief than they are about worrying about reality or non-reality of miracles. (L. Michael White)

The spirit of our age has been to assume that such healing could not happen, and that these stories could not be literally true. They have been an embarrassment for many Christians, and we have sought to down play them. That embarrassment is also about identity and standing; it seeks to maintain our connection with, and acceptance by, a certain group of people in society; we are not part of the looney fringe. We cannot hear what Mark is trying to say to us unless we abandon our embarrassment, and make some effort to "think with an ancient mind," as White puts it.

But we need to add to White's words. It is too easy to assume that these ancient people were deceived; that is, superstitious, and wrong about healing. "The people of the ancient world literally, seriously believed that miracles happened" too easily has an unspoken corollary: but we know better. This is the chauvinism of our age. The healings were real. People were healed. Their place in the social stasis; that is, their identity and standing, and their ability to function in that place, was in some way restored. This does not mean that there were no hucksters and fakers, but that there was enough reality for the notion of healing to have any credence.

This is not only a question of cultural arrogance. If we make Jesus' healings into some kind of superstitious naiveté, then how is it that the whole testament is not deceived? How can we trust anything it says about the significance of Jesus, if it is deceived about such a major part of Jesus' ministry?

But the discussion is more complicated again, because we have assumed, so far, that we know what healing means, and indeed, that we know what illness is. Yet these terms are subject to huge cultural assumptions. Something which connotes illness in one culture, may not function as such in another. That sentence alone should indicate that I think illness and health are not mere "facts," but serve a cultural purpose.

To say that "Culture profoundly shapes our idea of mental illness..."3 is no longer a new thought. But it is simple to note that ideas about the severity and significance of much more "physical illness" are also cultural; the pain which may stop one person in their tracks is often ignored as irrelevant by an athlete, or used as a positive aid to judge their performance, for example.  Stoffregen says

Even in an overwhelmingly biomedical culture as ours, what is "healthy" is still socially determined. The recent controversy surrounding AIDS demonstrates the persistence of popular myth and political epidemiology in our contemporary health care system. An even better example, which bears directly upon our reading of Mark, is the challenge of being put to traditional definitions of physical and mental "disability" by the contemporary movements for independent living in developed societies. Wheelchair-bound persons, for example, insist on equal social access, decrying paternal and oppressive social policies that keep them dependent and segregated. Similarly, many in the deaf community insist that their unique culture, centered around sign language, should be given equal respect and treatment as any verbal sign system.

A person using a wheel chair told me that people often raised their voices when speaking to them. Our perceptions of "physical illness" are hugely shaped by cultural apprehensions.

Now to explore the term biomedical:

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. [An illness is an objective, uncontested fact, in this view.] 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] (Stoffregen)

To which I would add the reminder that the word for someone who is ill is invalid, which is about as disvalued as you can get.

I have been quoting from Stoffregen's  summary of Malina and Rohrbaugh. With reference to society saying someone was demon possessed, Stoffregen points us to this:

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".

So, in short, Jesus' healing is doing something to restore people to acceptance and inclusion within their social networks.  It is something far more profound than our common understanding which is still very often limited to biomedical interventions.

The expression "restoring that person to a meaningful place" highlights the notion that illness can also serve as a boundary issue. As I said of the term unclean,

unclean is the language of boundary markers and exclusion; it is the language of those who gain identity and some stability by the exclusion of others. The scapegoat is unclean. (cf Leviticus 16) We humans have

a tendency to hold onto life at the expense of victims, and think we are just to do so… and there appears to be no human culture or society that we know of that is not dependent on [this tendency] in some way. (James Alison On Being Liked pp36)

So of course there is an unclean spirit in the synagogue! We humans create unclean as a category to define ourselves over against; it is an exercise of naming and designating power which kills, both metaphorically, and in fact, to allow us a) to survive the chaos of and violence of unchecked human rivalry, and b) to avoid thinking about our own death; I am clean, therefore it will not come near me. The irony of the unclean spirit in the synagogue is that the unclean spirit is not in some other person, but that every one of us is in it, formed by it since our earliest socialisation. (Andrew Prior on Mark 1:21-28)

My sense is that even a simple biomedical malfunction can become a boundary issue when we need one. If the group is anxious, or under threat, and needs to bolster identity/safety, and solidarity, it looks for a point of difference to scapegoat as "enemy" or "wrong." And if our physical difference, even our simple left (sinister) handedness, is enough of a death reminder, it becomes an illness rather than an arbitrary difference or simple biomedical malfunction. I am reminded of totalitarian states sending dissenters to asylums; intellectual and political differences are made into illness.

So what is Jesus' entering and leaving of places, and his healing doing? What does his popularity, and all those people following him do and say?  Robert Beck says

Neyrey makes the point that in Mark's gospel Jesus violates nearly every kind of boundary that Judaism had set up. This alone suggests a concerted attack upon the received social system, for a simple blindness to its customs could never manage to be so comprehensive…

According to Douglas, fundamental security is at stake in the boundaries that typify a purity system. The social ordering, though often enough seeming purely arbitrary from an outsider's point of view, is taken for granted by members of that society as a given datum— a part of the natural order established by God. This order is thoroughly internalised, and any violation of it is felt with the intensity which is commonly called, with good reason, a gut reaction. The unclean must be warded off, guarded against, and any breach of its barriers makes us queasy. When holiness is defined as purity, the threat of contamination is one of radical blight, insofar as it involves the very root and foundation of ordered existence. Pp68-9

I quote two Becks this post. The quotation above is from Nonviolent Story: Narrative Conflict Resolution in the Gospel of Mark by Robert R. Beck, which I accessed via Google Books. Richard Beck, with whom I began, also has much to say on clean/unclean boundaries. He has written Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality, which deals with many similar issues.

Richard Beck says the Eucharist

helps keep purity psychology harnessed to and in tension with the call to hospitality. . . . The Eucharist, properly practiced, regulates how the church experiences otherness and difference. (Quoted in the review by Amy Frykholm, who gives a good overview of the book.)

Hospitality crosses the lines of our disgust, as well demonstrated by Ms Frykholm's story of the bleeding HepC man who came to communion. Determined hospitality is one of the key ways we follow Jesus and break down purity boundaries. The healing of Peter's mother-in-law is relevant in all this.

Michael Turton quotes Marie Sabin

It cannot be fortuitous that Mark, in portraying the beginning of Jesus' ministry, describes three healings: of a demoniac, a mother-in-law, and a leper. The first and last make clear that he is depicting Jesus' outreach to the most reviled of the community; situated between a demoniac and a leper, "the mother-in-law," we assume, is an ancient joke. But there are serious implications here as well: before the time of Hillel and Jesus, women, like lepers, were relegated to the outer courts of the Temple, and women received social status only through their relationship to males -- usually their fathers or husbands; for a woman to be known through her son-in-law is so extreme as to suggest that Mark is making a special point of her social anonymity."

And Jesus heals even her. She, this still unnamed person, is taken by the hand by Jesus, and thus able to be hospitable. Pheme Perkins shows she is restored to a place of honour.4 At the very beginning of the gospel we see his violation of social boundaries begin. Jesus' final rejection in Mark 3 comes because he heals a shrivelled hand; when he restores the opportunity to be hospitable and to be included. I use the words final rejection of an event which is in only Chapter 3 deliberately. In some ways, the remainder of the gospel is the living out of crossing of boundaries as a rejected person. Jesus is defined as other, at that point, and those who follow him are from the already other; the outsiders.

But back in our reading, already subject to suspicion (1:22, 27) and outright hostility, (1:24) he continues to cross the boundaries, and we can see the rejection which is implicit even then. Stoffregen notes

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.

The boundaries are hardening. But Jesus continues to cross the boundaries. He goes… into the synagogues, and he does this in ὅλην Galilee – all Galilee, rather than "throughout Galilee" as NRSV puts it.

I want to suggest that not much has changed. When we seek to understand what people of his time understood by healing,  and when we seek to understand how purity culture may have worked in the definition of disease, we find we have described own culture alarmingly well. And that Jesus is indeed "bleeding, stinking, and mad." He calls us into behaviour which much of our culture will see as offensive; we will be "on the nose." I titled last week's sermon, "Who will form you?" Perhaps this week's should be called, "Whose call will you answer?" for society calls us to remain within its boundaries with the implicit promise that then we will be accepted and left alone. But Jesus has said the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand and calls us to something else.

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. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!

Also on One Man's Web
Mark 1:29-39 - Valued or ill? (2015)
Mark 1:29-39 - The First Resurrection in Mark (2012)
Mark 1:29-39 - At The Movies (2012)
Mark 1:29-39 - Balancing Act (2009)
Mark 1:29-31- Peter's Mother (2008)

You can find more reflections on biblical texts on the Lectionary page.

1. I drew attention to this in my post last week. This week, Mark D Davis also notes, "The word “immediately” may be more of a rhetorical connective tissue than a reference to any sort of urgency – it’s hard to say…" I suspect it does both things.

2. As Mark D Davis also notes, this movement cannot be legitimately be used to justify some kind of supersessionism.

3. "the observation, first made at least a century ago and well-documented now, that Western cultures tend to send the afflicted into a downward spiral rarely seen in less modernized cultures. Schizophrenia actually has a poorer prognosis for people in the West than for those in less urbanized, non-Eurocentric societies. When the director of the World Health Organization's mental-health unit, Shekhar Saxena, was asked last year where he'd prefer to be if he were diagnosed with schizophrenia, he said for big cities he'd prefer a city in Ethiopia or Sri Lanka, like Colombo or Addis Ababa, rather than New York or London, because in the former he could expect to be seen as a productive if eccentric citizen rather than a reject and an outcast." (Here)


The patients were asked how many voices they heard, how often they heard them, and what the voices were like.

There were a number of cross-cultural similarities: Everyone from the Ghanians to the Californians reported hearing both good and bad voices and hearing unexplained hissing and whispering.

But there was one stark difference, as Stanford News points out: "While many of the African and Indian subjects registered predominantly positive experiences with their voices, not one American did. Rather, the U.S. subjects were more likely to report experiences as violent and hateful—and evidence of a sick condition." (Here)

4. Stoffregen quotes Pheme Perkins: "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 from the person who has the privilege of preparing the food." (pp546 New Interpreters Bible)



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