Hold my hand

Week of February 1 – Epiphany 4
Mark 1:21-28

20Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

21 They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 

23Just then there was in their synagogue 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!’ 26And the unclean spirit, throwing him into convulsions and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 

27They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, ‘What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.’ 28At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

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.

Occasionally we would go hundreds of miles to the west to help a very remote community with a windmill, or some other need. My friends were out west. As was often the case, the whole family went.

It was the ant time of year. You can't stand still anywhere because of the thousands of little black ants that bite and get into everything. It makes it hard to find a place to lay out your swag.

Eventually, a few miles out of town, they found a place free of ants, rolled out the swags, and lit the fire. They settled down for a well-earned sleep after a long day on the road.

David had appalling nightmares− indeed, I'm not sure if he knew whether he was awake or "only" dreaming. For much of the night, a grey-white malevolent form circled the camp just beyond the firelight.

He told the men with whom he worked the next day. One of them asked where they had been camped. "There! You should never camp there! It's a mamu place− a place of evil spirits. That's why there's not even any ants there."

We baulk at these stories. Our society wants to dismiss them out of hand as fabrications, or psychologise them away− you had a bad dream after a long journey, you were insecure, out of your environment. That's all it was.

Trying to defend our God(!) some of us react by affirming the veracity of such stories, interpreting them with a literal naivety which only confirms the opinion of the sceptic. We fail to distinguish between the phenomenon and our interpretation of it.

I lived in Pitjantjatjara country long enough to have felt the fear of being on the edge of something I could not see; something way outside my ability to interpret. It is neither that these things do not happen, nor that they can simply be literally interpreted with  our western frame of reference. Reading the introduction to Avivah Zornberg's The Murmuring Deep: Reflections on The Biblical Unconscious, we immediately find these words

As Hans-Georg Gadamer often remarks, we “always already” belong to prejudices, wishes, and interests that close us to certain truths and open us to others. (pp ix)

Far more than we are comfortable or wish to admit, our culture defines us, and what we can see.

This does not mean we can say nothing about the events in the synagogue of Capernaum. But it does change the nature of how we read the story.

There is no question whether this happened. That is our issue as 21st century westerners. The witness of Mark is that it did happen. Now (and then) some people believe this, and some people do not. We are called to believe, (Mark 1:15) to trust the report.

It is not a question of how it happened, or of the mechanics of the healing. Even within our own biomedical frames of reference it is often unclear how healing occurs; we treat symptoms, but the healing is something else.

The correct question is about significanceWhat happened? What does it mean?

In the stasis of the social matrix of Capernaum and Galilee people are powerless, held in place like the molecules in a crystal. There is no opportunity to change. Evil sits in the midst of holiness, in the synagogue itself. The scribes have no authority. Jesus comes with something new. He speaks an authority which cleanses.

The word used here for evil is akatharton. How suggestive! Our experience of catharsis is that it is so often temporary, or a violence against others, and not really a cleansing. Here there is a real cleansing, a power that drives out the uncleanness that invades even our holy places. This is a true healing, a breaking of the bonds which hold us in stasis.

How might we take this understanding into our own situation, unencumbered by our western incredulity about evil spirits, or by the naïve credulity of some sisters and brothers?

Here is our own stasis in which we are powerless.

I don’t understand how the people in charge of us all don’t understand. If you are genuinely unable to apply your imagination and extend your empathy far enough – and you don’t have to do it all at once; little by little will suffice, but you must get there – then you are a sociopath, and we should all be protected from your actions. If you are in fact able and choose not to, then you’re something quite a lot worse.

Lucy Mangan writes these words in The Guardian about the lack of compassionate understanding for the plight of poor people. My cynical self wants to cheer her, on and damn the politicians and their blatant self-interest which exploits the poor. Yet I am always pulled up short by the memory of Prime Minister John Howard, whose policies I despised, visiting the scene of some disaster− I have no memory of which− and, deeply human and compassionate, saying, "This is terrible."

I saw that day a man who was no Eddie Obeid, but was, like most politicians, and all of us, a man who was powerlessly enmeshed in the matrix of his existence.

And this morning, I stood in my large western house before a clean gas stove brewing coffee, aware that even in this act I was indulging a luxury that the world cannot afford. We know we are destroying ourselves. We know that something evil is among us, something separating us from God, driving us toward our own destruction, and we are powerless. We are caught in the structure of where we are. Any attempt at change causes "Crying out with a great cry" (Mark 1:26) and silences us. The stasis tightens around us. We need a Christ with a new teaching and a new authority.

There are things to notice about the placement of this story. Firstly it is in the midst of a hurry. The English NRSV translation hides a repeated phrase; kai euthos. And immediately occurs five times in the Greek of 1:20-29. This is a gospel of action and urgency. I've highlighted the relevant texts in green.

Secondly, the story is in a sandwich. It is wrapped in a recognition of his authority. Mark likes sandwich rhetoric enough that we use the term "Marcan sandwich." You can't have the meat without the bread, or the bread without the meat: the thing is a whole. Jesus' new teaching is an authority which breaks into the "acatharisis" and powerlessness of our time. It heals our broken cultural structures and our separation from God. It offers to make our matrix a supporting place to be, a place to be at home, rather than an enmeshing prison and deception. (I have indented the text.)

And most importantly, this story comes first. This is his first act of ministry. This is what Jesus is about: a new teaching with authority which casts out and heals the uncleanness of our holiness. It brings our "made in the image of God" into consonance with God. It saves us.

How might this be? As Brian Stoffregen says

One indication of my lack of authority is that I have not yet been able to heal any sick people with a word of command. My most elegant and forceful words seldom get people to even change their minds.

So how do we "follow Jesus" in this?

One kind of "evil spirit" which we discern more easily today is that "unclean crying great sound" (Mark 1:26) which can burst out of us when we are mentally unwell. It alienates us and terrifies us by its great distance from our normality. It is an "uncleanness" because of the separation it causes between us, and can be as fearsome as that malevolence which even the ants avoided.

Although we tend to think of such illness in bio-medical terms− brain drug levels out of balance, for example− we are also able to see that much of what is happening is a rupturing of relationships. Often this rupturing isthe key issue for healing. Drugs can sometimes restore the balance very quickly; the recovery of self-esteem, the trust of self and others, and the regaining of trust from others, is a much slower and more difficult task; communal integrity is not so easily restored. (I am indebted to some excellent synthesis by Brian Stoffregen for this thought, see below for a lengthy quotation.)

The obvious alienation and separation we feel from people who are grossly mentally ill, and which we impose upon them, is actually only a matter of degree. We are all separated. Coming back to the image of stasis which I have been using, we know that there are no physical bonds between the molecules in the crystal, no little pipes holding the atoms in place as in a molecular model. There is only separation maintained by the forces of attraction and repulsion between particles.

We are the same. It is the matrix of separation which binds us into place. This crystalline stasis easily shatters into violence. Plasticity, fluidity, and healing are enabled by a weakening of the forces of isolation. Something has to break into the void between us. It "is the void that leaves one aghast," says Avivah Zornberg. (Introduction ppxxiii)

Xanthorrhoea on Mt Gawler, Sampson Flat Fire 2015What seems to do this in Mark, is Jesus' resurrection. There is no resurrection appearance in chapter 16, only the instruction to return to Galilee; "there you will see him." (Mark 16:7) And there in Galilee, which is the place of his daily ministry, he lifts us up. "He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up." (Mark 1:31) It is an image of resurrection, which is repeated through the gospel; eg, Mark 5:41. And it is an image of entering the void between us; hand holding crosses the separation in which evil breeds and has power.

When the separating sickness is terrifying, when it is akatharton, that hand holding is a kind of dying to our self. It is letting go of our security and reaching into an unpredictable other. It is not safe. Yet here is resurrection.

This is the space into which the volunteers race to the fires, open their homes to the dispossessed and waive motel fees, empty their pantries, and  provide agistment and rebuild fences. We see fragments of kingdom when we go into our everyday of Galilee and do compassion across the void between us.

The fires, of course, fill the void between us. They offer us a currency to reach out to each other. Without something so obvious as a fire, no matter how fearsome that is, the void is more threatening. But the principle remains. We must take each other by the hand.

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!

Some notes:

Bill Loader
For those of us brought up with strict scientific methods such accounts of exorcism call for more informed explanations. They feel so strange that we may want to avoid them altogether. It is then very hard to appreciate Mark who has made them so central. There are ways of slipping the awkwardness we feel. The trouble is we may end up slipping past the message of Mark. However we understand exorcisms, those reported from the ancient world or from present day cultures unlike our own, something real is happening. People are being set free. Physical contortions and hugely dramatic moments will occur in many different therapies, whether the frame of thought is demonology or modern psychotherapy.

The important thing is liberation, setting people free… We must not slide too quickly into a kind of liberation theology which then uses such exorcisms only as a symbol and sums up Jesus’ or Mark’s gospel as a programme to combat political oppression. That is certainly an implication, although the social analysis it presupposes is a product of modern thought and not to be read back into Mark or Jesus. Their ancient social analysis used the language of apocalyptic as its sphere of discourse and rarely saw beyond it.

Brian Stoffregen
Myers, quoting J. Pilch ("Healing in Mark: A Social Science analysis," Biblical Theology Bulletin, 1985), suggests two approaches to illness. There is the biomedical perspective that emphasizes the diseases and cures of individuals. There is also the sociocultural perspective which takes into account relationships with other people. To give Pilch's example:

The "sickness" described in the Old Testament as leprosy is simply not leprosy at all from a biomedical perspective. But from the sociocultural perspective -- which is what the Bible always reports -- this condition called leprosy threatens communal integrity and holiness and must be removed from the community. [p. 145 in Myers]…

... 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.

In other words, there are many today who simply do not believe that their liberation is dependent upon being able to talk or walk. They insist on their right to live fully human and "whole" lives in a society that continues to define them as "handicapped" only because they are different. Nonphysically disabled readers must be aware of the biases we unconsciously bring to biblical narratives of "healing." Obviously any interpretation that stresses the biomedical definition of "wholeness" excludes the physically disabled from the good news. If, however, we focus upon the broader socio-symbolic meaning of illness and healing, the stories address us all equally. After all, in Mark the true impediments to discipleship have nothing to do with physical impairment, but with spiritual and ideological disorders: "Having eyes can you not see? Having ears can you not hear?" (8:18). [pp. 147-149, emphases in original (italics)]




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