from St Faith's
Fr Mark Waters, 3rd
Sunday before Lent, 2009
‘On leaving the synagogue’, the opening words of today’s gospel and the
key to understanding what the writer of the gospel is getting us to
understand. Just before this passage about the healing of Simon’s
mother-in-law we have heard the story of Jesus marching into the
synagogue and being confronted by a man who is apparently possessed,
who shrieks at him, ‘I know who you are, have you come to destroy us?’
Jesus’ response is to the man is to cast the demon out.
The way in which these stories are interpreted couldn’t be more
topical, because the stories we’re talking about – of a possessed man
having a demon cast out, and the healing of Simon’s mother-in-law -
takes us right to the heart of a dilemma which is currently dividing
the Christian church. And it’s a debate that’s been going on for about
200 years about how bible stories like these are interpreted.
So, in the red corner, we have the literalists, who say that the only
way this story – and other biblical stories - can possibly make sense
is if we take them at face value. Here is a man who is possessed – held
in the grip of a real supernatural demon – a spirit from another
world, which is inhabiting him. And so Jesus, with a superior amount of
good spiritual power than the demon’s bad spiritual power, banishes
this violent spirit from the unfortunate man.
Similarly, Jesus finds that Simon’s mother-in-law is sick with an
unspecified illness. He cannot but respond and heals her through his
touch. Once again an example of superlative supernatural power,
reconfiguring the laws of nature to make her well again.
But, in the blue corner we have what have become known as liberals.
They have another take on these two stories. For them, the so-called
possessed man was perhaps suffering from some form of epilepsy, or,
more likely, he had a psychotic mental illness making him have wild
delusions and paranoia. And Jesus in the view of the liberals, by his
great insight into people’s conditions, and by his enormous strength of
personality, and his overflowing loving kindness, is able to calm and
control this poor man, so that his manic episode comes to an end.
And with Simon’s mother-in-law, Jesus by his hugely sympathetic or
empathic abilities, has a way of bringing healing and wholeness to
people by his very presence and his touch.
I don’t find either of these interpretations compelling. And the
question I would ask of both of them is this – what sort of God does
each of these approaches portray? What sort of God?
The first approach, the literalist approach – you might call it
conservative, fundamentalist – portrays a God who at a whim breaks the
order of the natural world. This God is a bit of a magician. Using
exhibitions of supernatural power – through Jesus – to convince the
first disciples, and now you and me, that he is in control of
everything. He has the power to break through his own laws of creation,
if we are good, and if he chooses, in order to put some things right
Now to me that is a rather capricious God. Able and willing to
intervene like that for a few people and a few situations, as an
example, while leaving so many others in the same condition to continue
in their misery. This is a picture of a God who not only allows evil,
but makes clear that he could do something about it but chooses not to,
in order to teach us a lesson. For this God, ours is only to believe in
Jesus Christ as a superman, who wields God’s supernatural power, for us
to be saved.
The second approach, the liberal one, what sort of God is implied here?
It seems to me that the liberal approach is to try and explain
everything away. The man wasn’t possessed, he was mentally ill. So the
God who is imagined here is really no God at all. Everything is part of
the natural order which can be explained. And Jesus is a natural sort
of healer or therapist. A wise guru who sees through the fears of
simple, primitive folk and releases them from their superstition to
live new lives in an explainable universe. So, there is no mystery! And
probably no God.
In answer to both conservatives and liberals we have to say that Jesus
wasn’t killed because he was a miracle worker or a faith healer – there
were plenty of those in his day. Nor was he put to death for explaining
away primitive faith.
We need to look a bit harder at the stories if we are to really
understand what is going on, and to know the God who Jesus represents.
And just two words in today’s story provide us with a key to our
understanding. Words which we usually take little notice of, perhaps
thinking of them as mere detail.
Those two words are ‘synagogue’ and ‘sabbath’. Those words tell us that
the two healing accounts are not just random things that Jesus does on
his travels – for people who he comes across by chance. These are not
spontaneous happenings. Everything, every word in Mark’s gospel is set
in a particular context. Nothing just happens. The writer has put all
this together for a purpose – and every detail counts.
Synagogue and Sabbath – these healings are about Jesus’ conflict with
the authorities. They are about power.
From the moment that Jesus enters the synagogue at Capernaum it is
clear that he is in sharp conflict with the local public authorities
and the order they represent. Why does he do this? Why couldn’t he just
simply go about doing good and healing people without facing up to the
scribes and Pharisees?
The reason is that the social codes under which the ruling authorities
made people live had become corrupt and oppressive. They no longer set
them free. Religious observance, and the way in which it affected
everyday life – especially for the poor – had become an unbearable
weight for them.
So this story is about power. It is not about casting out demons and
healing people per se – the gospel is telling the story of the violent
upheaval that takes place when those who control this dead, corrupt
religion comes into contact with the liberation and freedom of God
represented in the man Jesus. He breaks through the cultural and
religious chains in which people – particularly poor people – have been
So this is not the gentle Jesus meek and mild so beloved of the
Victorian hymns which for some reason we keep on singing.
So what sort of God does this interpretation of the stories imply? It
implies that the things which bind people in this world are not
invisible, malevolent, supernatural forces out there somewhere which
need to be defeated by the stronger supernatural power of God. The
things that bind people in this world are the oppressive structures and
systems which human beings like you and me create – often for very good
initial reasons – and which then become corrupted and in need of
Mark’s gospel could not be clearer – the gospel is political with a
small ‘p’. It is the story of Jesus’ willingness to challenge the
status quo which is always in the process of becoming corrupt. And the
gospel invites you and me into that same prophetic process.
The historian Lord Acton said (talking about the Vatican) ‘power tends
to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely’. Mark’s gospel,
like so many of the prophets in the OT, tells us that it is the job of
the people of God to critique those in power. That is one of our
primary tasks. It is not the whole gospel. But it is an integral part
of the gospel. This is what the bible teaches.
In Jesus’ day there was no democracy. No voting. No citizen
participation strategies like we have. No real protection under the
law. No freedom of speech. We do have all that and yet we seem so
reluctant to use the democratic and political tools at our disposal.
Question, who is going to end child poverty in this country?
Who is going to make a real difference in reversing global warming in
The answer – only people like you and me! We can’t leave it to
government. They will only do what we push and push for them to do.
The gospel story this morning tells us of a God who is not dependent
upon supernatural power – that is not how God in Jesus acts. So often
we get so caught up in the questions about whether or not he really did
heal people, or walk on the water, or whatever, that we miss the real
point. And the real point is that God in Christ got his hands dirty in
the murky world of real politics. Martin Luther King – another
prophetic challenger of the things which bound people in his day - was
to sum this up many years later when he said – ‘love without power is
sentimental and anaemic’. In other words, fine religious words and fine
feelings and sentiments are a complete waste of time and space unless
we are also willing to act on our faith, to recognise that we need to
build and use responsible power in order to heal the world and its
There was no supernatural intervention to stop those who plotted
against Jesus to kill him, who brought him to trial, and who publicly
executed him. The gospels tell us that is not how God works.
And the same is true for us. If we spend our time waiting for
supernatural solutions to the worlds problems, and our problems, we
will be waiting a long time.
I the Lord of sea and sky,
I have heard my people cry
I have born my people’s pain
I have wept for love of them
Whom shall I send?
Here I am, Lord,
Is it I Lord?
I have heard you calling in the night.
I will go Lord, if you lead me,
I will hold your people in my heart.
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