It’s easy to look at the healing stories in Mark’s gospel and begin to ask, “Another healing story! What on earth can I say about it this time?”
Once we’ve said that Jesus was famous as a healer, and had some sort of debate on whether or not miracles occur (and if they did in Jesus’ time, can we expect them to do so today?), once we’ve explored healing and wholeness, picked up on some of the obvious points about the situations that Jesus deals with, and reassured members of the congregation suffering from intractable illnesses and disabilities that it is not a punishment from God or evidence of their lack of faith … then what? The next move is probably to concentrate on one or some of the other readings for the week, in the hope of having something to say that (a) we haven’t said within the past three weeks and (b) gives us enough material to fill the “sermon slot”!
Mark’s epiphany – the Messianic Secret
This is the season of Epiphany. The Lectionary texts are set to explore the identity and significance of Jesus – to understand who he is and what God is doing through his ministry. Mark’s gospel is particularly appropriate for this season, because one of his dominant themes is the Messianic Secret. There is an irony running through the gospel: Jesus’ ministry is public. Everyone can see what he is doing, and hear his teaching. Yet the point that Mark emphasises time and time again is that very few people “get him”. They see and hear, yet fail to understand. The disciples are used as a narrative device. They are the “fall guys”, whose obtuseness is used to time and time again to reduce the readers to gleeful laughter: we can see clearly what is going on, yet those who are closest to Jesus are astonishingly blind!
Look at the healing of the blind man in Bethsaida, for example (8:22ff). The man sees everything clearly (v25) and as a result, Jesus instructs him to go home – straight home, mind! He isn’t even allowed to go into the village! Why? The narrative follows the structure of the Messianic Secret motif. Those who are healed “see clearly” that Jesus is the Messiah. And Jesus wants this kept a secret. He is the Messiah, but not like the one people are hoping for or expecting. This is why Mark moves immediately to Peter’s confession. Like the blind man, Peter appears to “see clearly”. “You are the Messiah”, he tells Jesus. Note that Jesus sternly orders the disciples to keep quiet about it. Then Mark immediately has the first passion prediction – and Peter reacts by protesting – to the point that Jesus calls him “Satan”!
What is happening here? In terms of the theme of sight and blindness, Peter has not “seen clearly”! He’s right about Jesus – Jesus is the Messiah – but Jesus will only accept the designation in the light of the cross. The first time that Jesus acknowledges the title is at his trial before the Sanhedrin (14:61-62). Peter’s inability to understand that “Messiah” means “suffering” is what constitutes his blindness.
The themes of blindness and seeing, deafness and hearing are even applied to the parables. The irony here is that parables are supposed to be easily accessible and therefore make deep truths clear. Yet in 4:10ff, Jesus makes the extraordinary claim that their purpose is actually to hide the “secret” of the kingdom of God! Mark’s Jesus is a teacher – but also an apocalyptic revealer of mysteries. There is a mystery which requires a “key” to unlock it. Hence Jesus’ oft-repeated phrase at the conclusion of the parable of the sower: “Let anyone with ears listen”.
The healing narratives and Mark’s Christology
Where does this get us with the question of how to preach the healing stories? The point I am trying to make here is that Mark gives us anything but a random selection of “snippets from the scrapbook” of Jesus’ ministry! His intention isn’t to say, “Jesus was a great healer … geddit? You want examples? Ok, let me give you some!” Nor is it his intention to write a potted biography of Jesus’ ministry: “Jesus went here and did this … then there and did that ..”
He isn’t Jesus’ diarist or biographer. His narrative material – the story of Jesus – is carefully worked to reveal who Jesus is so that we, too, might follow, and that our story becomes a gospel, shaped by and recognisably similar to the story of Jesus.
The healing narratives are part of Mark’s Christology, which I have written about here. Mark’s Jesus is the one who overcomes the Strong Man. Jesus alone is able to “plunder the house of the Strong Man” (see 3: 20-7) – to free the captives who are imprisoned by powers that hold them in their grip. Typically, these powers are political (Rome), the religious purity system (the temple, the scribes and the Pharisees), illness and possession.
The new messianic community: healing, restoration and conflict
Jesus’ ministry is about gathering into being a new community – a messianic community – which is a sign of the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is the world as it ought to be and will be under God. The message of the kingdom is the Good News that Jesus preaches (1:14). It has “come near” in Jesus and begins to take shape – takes on “ground space” – in the community of disciples and followers that Jesus gathers around him. This new community is an anticipation and sign of the kingdom of God.
Significantly, this happens on the margins. Jesus’ ministry takes place in Galilee, far away from Jerusalem. He is baptised in the vicinity of the city, but in the wilderness. This is the place of resistance to the Temple and the religious purity system centre there. The point is that the purity system breaks down community by exclusion. The focus of Jesus’ ministry is among the excluded.
We need therefore to be constantly alert several narrative-structural features of the healing narratives, in addition to the healings themselves:
- Jesus is a healer, not a curer. This is the “healing and wholeness” point. Jesus pays virtually no attention to the symptoms of illness, so crucial in medical diagnosis. He is not a super-doctor! He does not attempt to explain the causes of illness, either in medical or spiritual terms (eg as a result of sin).
- A fundamental feature of the healing narratives is the restoration of community. Peter’s mother-in-law is healed in order to participate in the Sabbath meal (with all the importance that attaches to table fellowship). Lepers are healed in order to be re-integrated into the community. The purity system excludes sick people from participation in communal life and blessing, and the healings that Mark records almost invariably entail the restoration of the healed person to the wider community.
- Unsurprisingly, the healings are therefore in effect (though not intention) a direct confrontation with the religious purity system. We need to be alert to the reaction of those who see healing as a threat. So, for example, the healing of the man with the withered hand (3:1-6) is set in terms of the conflict over Sabbath keeping (as is Peter’s mother-in-law, by implication). Healings are theologically significant and provide the context for many of the deadly conflicts over the Law between Jesus and the Pharisees. The account of a healing concludes with the Pharisees and the Herodians conspiring together to destroy Jesus (3:6).
- The healings are messianic actions. Not only are they the presence of the saving actions of God (the plundering of the Strong Man’s house) but they directly provoke the opposition of the religious authorities that results in Jesus’ suffering and death (which is what is to define his messiahship).
- They make sense of the “great reversal” of the kingdom. Jesus heals among the marginalised and outside the dominant religious system. The dominant system has no place for these people, so that the idea that God is at work through the Messiah among these is anathema to the leaders. This is part of the reason why “the first shall be last and the last first”. Grace is seen in God’s radical inclusion of the excluded. Those who are unable to accept this cut themselves off from Jesus, the new messianic community and the kingdom.
- Jesus did not see himself primarily in opposition to the religious system of his day, but as a prophetic, “purification” movement within Judaism. There is a dynamic tension in all the gospels over what would have happened had Jesus and his message been accepted. The passion predictions suggest that Jesus was fully aware that he had come to be rejected and that his death was inevitable. His weeping over Jerusalem suggests his hope that he would have been accepted and that the kingdom he inaugurated would come about. The healing stories reflect this tension. In the cleansing of the leper (1:40-5), Jesus urges the leper to go to the priest and go through the proper cleansing and restoration rituals. It is clear that Jesus wished to establish the new messianic community within Judaism, rather than in opposition to it. The healing narratives help to plot the movement of Jesus’ initial hope of acceptance, then through opposition to rejection and inevitable death. They help to emphasise the fact that Jesus died because of the life of the kingdom he lived, rather than only a result of the divine plan of salvation through suffering and death. They make his life, as well as his death and resurrection, significant for Christian discipleship.
Preaching the healing narratives = preaching Jesus
The healing narratives are absolute gifts for Epiphany, because they lead us continually to Christology (which is what Epiphany is all about). This is not to suggest that these incidents are only narrative constructs – another “parable” or excuse for preaching Jesus (thereby giving us plenty of material to fill the “sermon slot”!). The narratives reflect the realities of the situations they describe: his healings mean that Jesus is frequently mobbed, and has to retire. They drain him, so he has to withdraw and pray. The crowds become a logistical problem that has to be considered and dealt with. The stories mean that Jesus will be looked on as a miracle worker and the burden of his message and mission will be lost.
The point I want to make is that Mark has carefully selected and framed the narratives within the gospel as a whole, and we do well to keep a constant eye on how they “work” as part of the story he tells. They are not in the gospel as isolated fragments, but as part of a carefully-worked revelation of who Jesus is, what the gospel of the kingdom is all about, and as a summons to personal faith and discipleship. If we don’t keep that in mind, we will miss the point – and struggle to preach on “yet another bloomin’ miracle story!” When we’re alert to what is happening within the whole gospel, however, we’ll find that each has its own special significance and emphasis – each discloses the startling new world of the Gospel!