Like many of my generation, I had the measles in elementary school. Why anyone would not want to spare their child this harsh and dangerous illness (especially when a vaccine is available) is beyond me. Nevertheless, we seem to be in a moment when questions of the common good and personal choice are once again at odds with each other. This tension is nothing new in human history. We’ve been there before. Unfortunately, the resolutions of it are never easy.
One way into thinking about public and private health is to look to Jesus as both a personal and social healer. Each of our four gospels shows a different picture of Jesus. We’re reading Mark’s gospel this year, and Mark shows us a Jesus who is at once more stark and yet to my mind more credible than the other three versions. The Jesus of Mark’s gospel is a no-nonsense Jesus. His message is brief, brisk, and clear. He is, to use a Washington idiom, a “one-issue candidate”, and here is his mission statement: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel.” [Mark 1:15]
The passage we just heard now portrays Jesus in this brisk and clear manner. It tells a familiar yet fascinating story. After making that missional announcement, Jesus visits Peter’s house, and once there he learns that Peter’s mother-in-law is ill with a fever. Jesus heals her, and not surprisingly the news of that miracle spreads. Soon Jesus can get no peace. Everyone in town comes to Peter’s house bringing their sick and demon-possessed for healing at Jesus’s hands.
The next morning, Jesus does his best to get away from the house, so he goes to a deserted place to pray. But Peter pursues him into his solitude, and he urges Jesus to come back to the house because everyone is looking for him. Apparently he wants Jesus to settle down, stay put, and open a kind of first-century urgent care center. Jesus declines that invitation, and says instead, “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.” [Mark 1: 38] Mark concludes the story by telling us that Jesus “went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.” [Mark 1:39] And what is the message? “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel.”
I find Mark’s account this morning interesting for two reasons. First, and probably foremost on all our minds, what’s the deal with demons? How do we understand demon possession in the 21st century? Second, what’s wrong with Peter’s idea? What would be so bad about setting up an emporium that would serve all your one-stop healing needs? In the gospels Peter always seems to come up with one bad idea after another, but this one strikes Jesus as probably his worst.
First, about demons: we know, of course, that pre-modern people believed that evil spirits made people both physically and mentally ill. We also know that the earliest followers of Jesus were attracted perhaps more by his ability to heal than by his ability to teach. But when we think about any aspect of Jesus’s ministry, we should remember that he was, at least in Mark’s eyes, a one-issue candidate. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel.” His message is as much a social and political message as it is a personal and spiritual one. The time has come. God’s kingdom is at hand. It’s time to kick out the demons. And for a first-century Palestinian Jew, the biggest demon of them all is Caesar.
Physical healing is an important figure for political wellness in the Bible because the human body provides the most common analogy to the social structure. We talk about “the body politic”, and we call the leader the “head of state”. It is understandable, then, that premodern people would have seen a relation between the possession of a person by a demon and the occupation of Israel by the Roman Empire. As one biblical scholar explains,
The physical body is a microcosm of the social body. There is a dialectic between the personal and the social, the individual and the corporate. . . . Roman imperialism meant that God’s people were possessed by demons on the social level. . . . [Demon possession] indicates a power admittedly greater than oneself, admittedly “inside” oneself, but that one declares to be evil and therefore beyond any collusion or cooperation. [John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus, pp. 313-314]
Peter’s mother-in-law was sick because she was possessed by the demon of a fever. Israel was sick because it was possessed by the demon of Rome. Jesus could make his way back and forth between the personal and the social aspects of his ministry because he saw them as essentially the same thing. Personal suffering and social suffering are not unrelated. They are part of one unified fabric of injustice and pain. It’s not that Jesus chooses to address one over the other. It’s that he knows he must pay attention to both.
Many years ago I had the privilege of spending some time with Kenneth Leech, an English priest who wrote many books on prayer and who also ran a parish in the roughest part of East London. Leech gave a talk where he focused almost entirely on the community justice work he was doing and not much about spiritual practices. After his address, a woman came up to him and asked, “Are you ever amazed by the coincidence?”
“What coincidence?” Leech asked. The woman replied, “You’re such an activist. There’s a man with exactly your name who writes about prayer. Can you believe the coincidence?”
Kenneth Leech looked at her and very kindly told her that there was no coincidence; he was the same person who both prayed and organized. The woman was stunned. She had no way to conceive how someone could be both at the same time.
And that inability to hold the personal and the social together is apparent in the second aspect of this morning’s gospel. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel.” “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.” Jesus declines Peter’s invitation to set up shop so that he can instead go out among the people he came to serve. Peter offers Jesus the temptation of a settled, entrepreneurial life. Jesus responds with a personal recommitment to a life on the road. He didn’t come to be only a personal healer. He came to be a social healer as well. He cannot announce the kingdom of God merely by assuaging personal pain. He must make that kingdom real by addressing social pain as well.
Each of us here knows something of personal pain: illness, depression, grief, loss. Life can be so hectic, so stressful, that we may come into sacred places like this wanting them to be restful oases that will shield us from the storms raging outside. The church, we say, should be personal, not political, dispensing healing for me and my loved ones, leaving the world to itself. But each of us here knows something of social pain as well. Religious extremism, political dysfunction, racial injustice, poverty, environmental degradation, violence of every shape and description. Jesus would heal us both personally and socially. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel.” “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.”
If we are to follow Jesus, if we are to be faithful to his mission, we will remember that he cast out both social and personal demons. Our bodies and spirits will never be well until our body politic and our social spirit is well. There is a deep analogy between social and personal pain. As Jesus’s companions in the journey of faith, our job is to love and serve each other and the world. There is an obvious, but not an easy, answer to the vaccination question. Our individual wellness is a function of the common good.
Can you believe the coincidence? A Christian person must actually care about both prayer and justice. A Christian community must actually care about the health of its own members and that of the world. We are here, as Jesus was here, to cast out the demons of illness, pain, and sorrow. We are here, as Jesus was here, to cast out the demons of hatred, oppression, and violence. There is no contradiction. God wants to free us all from those forces that infect and oppress us. Measles is but one aspect of a larger problem. Healing and liberation, justice and hope, are on the way. In the end it all comes down to one pure unified message. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel.” Amen.