Chapter 1 of Mark’s gospel introduces the theme of the book – the message that:
Through Jesus of Nazareth who is both the Messiah and Son of God,
God’s kingdom has come to earth by the power of the Holy Spirit
for the redeeming of the world from oppression and destruction.
Mark was likely not an observer of the things he describes, but rather heard these stories from the apostles after Pentecost. His telling of the story paints a picture of resistance, a struggle for life over death, a new way over an old. This new way grows out of the old, just as Jesus’ ministry grows out of the prophetic tradition carried on by John the baptizer. Just as the church’s ministry grows out of the work of Jesus the charismatic evangelist. In Mark’s gospel Jesus is portrayed not as a teacher, but as a preacher, proclaiming the Good News of the kingdom of God, and bringing restoration to people’s lives and communities as signs of that coming kingdom. Jesus interest is in transformed lives. The means of that transformation is through hearing and responding in faith to the message. The power for that transformation is found in the Holy Spirit, who also accomplishes the healing and exorcisms.
In Mar’s story, unclean spirits, demons, represent powers that destroy lives and communities. By labeling the spirit unclean, Mark is reminding us that this man would have been cut off from his faith community, ostracized, marginalized, feared. Jesus frees him from the spirits and restores him to the worshipping community of God. Similarly the sicknesses and crippling deformities disrupt social order. Peter’s mother-in-law is not able to serve her guests because she is sick – a situation that would have been a source of great shame for her. To serve her guests would have been an act of righteousness and a source of honor, not an experience of oppression. The sickness was the oppression.
But the healing is not the point, in Mark’s view. Jesus came primarily to preach the good news, to call people to allow their hearts and minds to be transformed by hope and the power of God. Miracles of healing were manifestations and signs of the kingdom, but not the primary purpose of Jesus’ own ministry.
This can be hard for us to understand. What could be more important than physical healing? And is that even what is being said? Is one more important than the other in the absolute sense, or is this about something else? Let’s look at one section of chapter 1 of Mark’s gospel for some clues. (Mark 1:35-45) 35 In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.
We begin with a rare glimpse into Jesus’ private life – his prayer life to be specific. Jesus left the house where they were staying and went somewhere in the town or surrounding countryside, likely agricultural land, to pray. Was this a daily occurrence? We don’t know. How and what did he pray? We don’t know. We might want answers, but what a blessing that we do not have them. Otherwise we would all strive to copy his example, rather than living our own relationship with God as we are led. What we do get is a clue into what Jesus was like – i.e. he was someone who, though Son of God, needed/wanted solitude for prayer. The prayer likely restored him from the previous day’s labors, and prepared him for the work ahead.
MK 1:36 And Simon and his companions hunted for him. 37 When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” 38 He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” When his prayer is interrupted, he does not complain. Nor does he allow Peter and the others to distract him by what has been called, “the tyranny of the urgent.” He knows what his role is, and though others try to redirect him, he stays focused: “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” Ok, so maybe the healings are not so important. Is that the message here? Words are more important than actions? Belief is more important than physical healing? Faith trumps works? If we lifted those few verses and focused on them, we could certainly draw that conclusion. But we won’t do that.
Instead, we follow Jesus in his chosen/appointed task. Mark 1:39 And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons. We immediately see that Jesus goes to other towns, proclaims the message, AND casts out demons. He was not rejecting his ministry of healing. Rather, he understood his particular role to be one of spreading the news over a region, with Word and Deed. He preaches and he heals in the neighboring towns, even/primarily in the synagogues.
Lest we fail to understand, Mark gives us a scene upon which to meditate.
40 A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” 41 Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!” 42 Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. 43 After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, 44 saying to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.” 45 But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.
We see an expression of faith on the part of the leper – he approaches Jesus.
We see a three-fold response from Jesus – he is moved, he touches him, and he speaks. The text here says that Jesus felt pity, or compassion. Other early manuscripts say that he was angry. Likely not angry with the man, but angry with the situation, and the way the man is being treated by those around him. Jesus could have just spoken, or even thought, and the man would have been healed. But that is not really the whole point, is it. The sickness and healing represent the man’s full humanity. Jesus reaches across social convention and the law of Moses – he reaches across the direct command of scripture, and touches the unclean leper. I think he does this not to accomplish the physical healing, but in order to restore the man’s dignity, and restore him to community, to demonstrate that he belongs, that he is a brother, that he is worthy of love and acceptance before he is healed! In the act of acceptance the healing is accomplished. The kingdom of God comes when we act as though it is already present. We don’t wait for people to be righteous before we treat them as though they are acceptable. We affirm that they are already acceptable, already forgiven, already loved. It is their experience of that love, the power of that love, that accomplishes the healing in their lives. To do otherwise would be like telling people to get better BEFORE they come to the hospital, so that they don’t infect the staff with their illnesses. Medical staff choose to be present with those who are sick, and the healing is accomplished in and through that presence. This is the witness of Mark, the ministry of Jesus, and the call to the church.
We see the result – the man is healed of the leprosy, and thus restored to family, community, and worship. The order of things is made clear by Jesus’ instruction to then go to the priest and do what the law commands. The point is that righteousness is an outgrowth of our salvation, a response to our experience of Jesus and his love, not the means to it.
The works we do as Christians are our response to Jesus and his love because we have already experienced salvation. We do these works in the lives of others by the power of the Holy Spirit so that they can experience freedom and restoration, and that having experienced they may believe. The work we do as people of faith, as church, then becomes signs of the kingdom of God here, now, and coming in fullness.