Healing in Galilee
(Readings: Job 7:1-4, 6-7; 1 Corinthians 9:16-19, 22-23; Mark 1:29-39)
Introduction to Mass
Jesus proclaimed God's Kingdom not only in the words of his preaching, but also by signs - in actions that showed what the Kingdom of God was about. His healing of diseases, and his freeing of people from various kinds of mental and emotional disturbance, shows God's preference for those who are weak and vulnerable rather than powerful and self-sufficient. Christ shows that God's Kingdom is the place where the weak and vulnerable are welcomed and healed, rather than rejected and excluded, as they often are by the standards of conventional society.
As we prepare to celebrate Mass this Sunday...
In Jewish society at the time of Jesus there was a great belief in - and a great fear of - demons and evil spirits. Physical illnesses of all kinds were put down to possession by demons, and people tended to think that if anyone fell ill it was a sort of punishment for the person's sinfulness. And they thought that even more in the case of people who were mentally ill.
The fact that the victims of serious mental illness were obviously no longer their own master, and the fact that they weren't in control of their actions, easily gave people the impression that they were in the grip of some evil force outside of themselves, and with no hospitals or any kind of medical treatment on offer, the "demoniacs", as the gospels usually called them, roamed about the towns and cities, shouting violently and disrupting things in a way that frightened a lot of people.
We probably find it difficult to identify with the thinking of men and women at that time, but it isn't all that hard to see why they attributed that sort of disturbed behaviour to evil spirits: even today, victims of mental illness don't speak and act in the ordinary, expected patterns, and sometimes our contact with them can be unsettling, especially if there's the threat of violence as well.
Jesus' attitude to both physical and mental illness was determined by his vocation and his mission to preach the message of God's Kingdom. Jesus didn't only describe the Kingdom in words and explain what it was about by teaching and parables. Christ also communicated his message by signs - by actions that showed what God's Kingdom was about and what it meant for people's lives to come under God's rule.
And when it came to this widespread belief in possession and evil spirits, and the large numbers of emotionally distressed people who seemed to come looking for him, Christ made his own connection between sickness and madness and moral evil - not in the sense of seeing illness as a consequence of people's moral shortcomings, but by seeing the different illnesses as burdens which he felt compelled to free them from.
Christ saw all forms of disease and all types of suffering, mental and emotional as well as physical, as aspects of the rule of Satan. He saw his ministry as an assault on everything that held people captive, everything that frustrated their true spiritual growth. Jesus' healings weren't only instances of exercising God's mercy, they were occasions when he joined battle with evil, and freed people from its bonds.
And certainly, when we read the rapid succession of events at the start of Mark's gospel, we get a picture of the Son of God, sweeping through Galilee, feeding the hungry, healing the sick, freeing people from mental anguish - a picture of God's Kingdom bursting in on reality and crushing the power of evil in all its manifestations.
In our own time, as well as in Christ's, there are a lot of people who fall victim to mental illness, very often the casualties of the loveless environment that characterises our society, where relationships are fragile, the patterns of daily living are fragmented, and individuals often find themselves forced into isolation. Most of us have our families and close friends to rely on for support whenever we need it, but some people don't, and when they're deprived of fellowship or belonging or acceptance they easily break down, emotionally and mentally.
In fact often it's the gentlest and most sensitive men and women who 'go off the rails', because they're more vulnerable than others. The number of young people and even children suffering from anxiety or depression or some form of emotional maladjustment is rising, and when you add that to all the other trends we see in our society - widespread dishonesty, self-centredness and indifference to others, a willingness to indulge in violence and cruelty - it's a sign that there's a far larger collapse taking place in society. In the language of Scripture the world is just as enslaved by Satan now as it was two thousand years ago.
Families who have someone suffering from mental illness might wish that they had the same power to instantly heal people that Jesus had. But in fact even Christ's confrontation with suffering had a limited effect. Jesus didn't wipe out disease and illness in the whole of Israel; as the passage we just heard describes, he only worked to heal the infirmities that were presented to him. At the end of Jesus' life, there were still far more sick people than there were people he had cured.
If it's a practical strategy we want, let's listen to what St Paul says in the second reading: "For the weak, I made myself weak".
Although Jesus spoke and acted with great spiritual strength and authority during his ministry, at the end of the day his mission was to reveal a God who doesn't commit himself to grandiose displays of power, and doesn't sweep all the negative features of human life away with a magic wand, but who reveals what he's like in weakness and suffering, in humble service, forgiveness, and ultimately the surrender of his life. Many people rejected this revelation of God's true nature!
But one of the implications of this, to my mind, anyway, is that God always identifies with the weakest and most vulnerable members of our society. That's always where he's more likely to be present and active.
That means that as Christians we of all people need to be able to see those who are mentally or emotionally broken as individuals with a value and a dignity and a claim on our attention quite apart from what "use" they might be for us - as friend or parent or wife or husband or employee or whatever.
In fact, if some people are judged to be useless or burdensome by the standards of our commercialised and mercenary society, that should only give them a more privileged place among Christians - because the Kingdom of God is the place where people who maybe can't be cured and maybe will never be fully well again - are cared for and looked after and "carried".
This is the contribution we've got to make as Christians, living in a collapsing culture: to sow the seeds of God's Kingdom and to put forward God's values of service, solidarity with each other, carrying each other's burdens. When human beings try to live without these qualities they only create misery, the reign of hell - and we see the evidence of that around us more and more vividly every day.
So to sum up: Jesus used the spiritual power he had to overcome illness and suffering, but he wasn't a magician - and in our attempts to help and to heal the people who need it, neither are we. And we're not asked to be. But what we are asked, I think, is to do what we can, often in limited circumstances and with our limited resources and limited personal capabilities.
That's part of how we live the imitation of Christ that our faith summons us to, and it's one aspect of the message of the gospel reading this Sunday, Mark's account of Jesus' healings in Galilee.