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Politics of Scripture

The Politics of Healing—Mark 1:29-39 (John Allen)

Jesus’ healings are not just random acts of charity on the way to the cross but are integral to the very point that his death and resurrection make: that God’s intention in this world is human well-being and life, even in the face of death. This presents a challenge to empires.

29 As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. 30 Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. 31 He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

32 That evening, at sunset, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. 33 And the whole city was gathered around the door. 34 And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.

35 In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. 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 neighbouring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.’ 39 And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

Werner Kelber wrote that Jesus in the gospel of Mark has a clear mission: “he came to announce the Kingdom of God and to initiate its arrival in opposition to the forces which threaten to destroy human life.”[1] Jesus’ healings and exorcisms, his defiance to Roman pomp, his challenge to religious elites, his temper in the temple, and even his execution all drove towards a single purpose: to oppose that which impedes the flourishing of human life.

Mark’s narrative wastes no time getting to the heart of the action. Before the first chapter is up, Jesus has taught with authority, exorcized an unclean spirit, and healed a woman who was near death. It is no wonder then that everyone is searching for him. Life under Roman occupation is not conditioned to encourage the fullness of human life. News is spreading of the one who can help them catch their breath, who can reacquaint them with their humanity, one whom even the demons obey. And by way of offering a coda to this first stint of feverishly paced ministry, Jesus says simply: “this is what I came to do.”

Jesus’ program of healing and exorcism cannot be understood apart from the context that necessitated it. Roman rule was emotionally as well as practically destructive to people in Judea. Despite Rome’s earlier tolerance of Jewish religious life, in the years before the Jewish Wars, subjection to Roman rule began to require a deeper psychic break with the promises of the tradition.

As just one example of these tensions, under the procuratorship of Cumanus (48-52 CE), a Roman soldier who was posted on the portico of the temple made an obscene gesture and sound at the people below. The sight of a Roman soldier standing on top of the temple looking down at the courtyards below may itself have been an upsetting imposition of Roman rule over a local religious site. However, after his disrespectful gesture the crowd became so irate that they began throwing stones at the man. The crowd grew quickly and Cumanus, feeling anxious that the situation could escalate, called in his soldiers.

This instance involved no official sanction and no confrontation between existent powers, a soldier offered an un-orchestrated and likely unplanned obscenity and was met with the crowd’s immediate response. It is a good example of the “vast difference between [Rome’s] official policy of noninterference and religious toleration and the actual irritations despite this policy.”[2] To people on the ground it was clear: authentic Jewish religious life was impossible under Roman occupation. Empire was not a condition that facilitated the fullness of human life.

Jesus project was to overcome these realities. His healings are not just random acts of charity on the way to the cross but are integral to the very point that his death and resurrection make: that God’s intention in this world is human well-being and life, even in the face of death. The Roman Empire did not execute Jesus because for heresy against a Jewish orthodoxy: they executed him for disturbing the perverse peace of an imperial status quo.

This is what Jesus came to do. He came to heal the world, not only of its illness, but of its unhealthy subjugation to empires. He came to exorcize the demonic lies that uphold oppressive systems. And this is a challenge to those of us who “proclaim the message”today. Does the teaching, healing, and spiritual care that we offer the world succeed in challenging the corrupt foundation of the evils that prevail in our midst? Does it say not only what the kingdom is, but also show what it is opposed to? That is what Jesus came to do.

[1]Werner Kelber, Marks Story of Jesus (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979), 21.
[2] David M. Rhoads, Israel in Revolution, 6-74 C.E.: a Political History Based on the Writings of Josephus (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976), 71.

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