Political Jesus: The Healer
Scripture: Mark 2:1-12
Summit on 16th UMC, January 19, 2014
Rev. Lucy Waechter Webb
This morning is our third Sunday in our series on the Political Jesus. As we’ve said before, this series is not about “which side did Jesus take” politically. It’s not about how Jesus was or was not partisan, or in our terms a Democrat or Republican or Green or Tea.
It’s helpful to look at the definition of politics in order to better understand what we mean by the Political Jesus. The word itself means “pertaining to public affairs”, or in other words, the ordering of public life. Another familiar word that is related is police. Their role is to maintain that order of that public life, right?
Much of what Jesus taught and demonstrated in his ministry had everything to do with the ordering of public life. In fact, his words and his actions often agitated those in power, those who kept the order; they were even intentionally directed to those in power. Jesus criticized the systems that governed public life, and challenged those in power who did nothing to change the way those systems were oppressive. This is what we mean by Jesus was political.
As Pastor April mentioned in the first week of this series, Jesus lived during a time when the Roman Empire had gained control over Jewish communities and cities. Those in power at the center in Rome, had extended their power and control over an entire region which included cities and villages like Jerusalem. So the Jewish people who lived in the region now had a couple of scripts governing their life. They had the script, or the rules and laws of the Jewish tradition and faith that had been part of their community for centuries. But they also had the script of the Roman Empire, with new values and laws that also governed their way of life. And there was tension between the two.
It’s kind of like: Being born a Michigander and love my state and the people from which you come, and yet living in Buckeye Nation and love the people and students in your church. But what to do? How do I live? How to sort out the competing scripts. I’m pushing the analogy a bit, the Jews probably didn’t love the Roman oppressors, but the tension between these two identities and these two scripts was real for them.
Jesus lived during a time when there was uprising and challenge to the rule of the Roman Empire. People were looking for a leader who would bring order to what they felt was chaos, for a king who was re-establish a Jewish nation, and for many, they were looking for a leader who would liberate them, not only from the grip of the Roman empire, but from poverty, illness, debt and death, from broken systems.
So as we venture into our story for today, you may be wondering how can a healing story be a political story? Of the four images we are using in January, this may seem like the least likely be connected to Jesus’ political work.
So let’s start with the images you have of Jesus as a healer. What are they?
Often in traditional artwork, especially when depicting a story of healing, Jesus is pictured as a gentle, humble, sometimes even docile man. He is meek and mild. When I looked at some images this week, he was almost always in a pure white robe (which is suspiciously clean for living in the desert). He is often leaning over with his head at just the right angle looking the afflicted and extending a hand on them or over them as if just his smile would make the world right again.
Now, I’m poking fun, and this is not to say that Jesus was not a gentle and kind man, much of scripture depicts his compassion and care extended to others. But if we always stop with that image, or only those pieces of Jesus’ character, we miss the fullness of what is happening in some of these stories! And I think we have an imcomplete picture of who Jesus actually was.
Jesus’ actions, his storytelling as Pastor April preached about last week, and even his healings were intentionally directed both toward the suffering and the oppressed, and toward the powerful; toward the government and religious leaders. Intentionally, Jesus is not just the passive medicine man, but a strategic, bold, pointed, and prophetic healer. Jesus speaks truth to power and takes risk in a world where power is exerted through violence and the concept of free speech is not a given. So for just a moment, try to suspend the image of Jesus as the quiet humble healer. And let’s take another look at this story.
The scripture we read today is from the beginning of the gospel of Mark, Jesus has been working in the village of Capernaum, which is located outside the city of Jerusalem.
[Here, I want to offer a quick detour and give a plug for a new small group starting this week. I will be leading a six-week study on the gospel of Mark using a book by Ched Myers, who did a political reading of this gospel. If you’re interested in joining us it’s on Thursdays at 7:30 starting this week!
One of the interesting this about reading the gospel as a whole, is that you see how the arc of whole story builds to a political climax with the narrative of the passion, or the story of the cross and the resurrection. And where does that part of the story take place? In Jerusalem. The gospel builds momentum toward that ending, when Jesus will confront the center of power at its core. One of the ways the story builds this momentum is by the way Jesus moves and travels. He begins not in the center of the city, the center of power, but in the village, with the people.]
So back to Capernaum, on the margins. Jesus is in a house in this village, and many of the descriptions indicate he is among the poor. The roof house itself has a earthen roof which the friends of this man are able to dig through, that’s indicative that it’s a peasants house. The stretcher used to lower him is the kind of mat a poor man or soldier would use, and the crowds themselves are referred to as “the confused majority” or “the mass”. Jesus is not with the ruling class, but with the commoners.
However, there are a few people in authority present, the only other speaking parts are given to the “legal experts” or the scribes.
The scribes were the legal experts who interpreted the Torah or the law. Their role was to study, teach, advice and manage people’s debt as it pertained to the law.
Now to understand just how powerful they were, we must take a step back, take our modern day political glasses off, and look at how the political order of Jesus time was very different from our own.
The separation of the sacred and the secular, or the church and the state, was not the same as today. The religious authorities and governmental authorities were very integrated. In fact, it was how the Empire or Caesar gained and maintained power. The temple was the central place of control if an outside nation came in to conquer; it mattered whether they could get the local leaders, those in the temple to cooperate. So once under the power of the Roman Empire, the leaders of the temple were controlled by those in Rome. It’s as if today, the Governor of Ohio were to appoint the Bishop of the West Ohio Conference in the Methodist Church.
The scribes at the temple and the local synagogues carried a lot of power. Remember they were legal experts, but of the Torah, so it’s religious, it’s not just the Constitution of the United States. They managed the debt code, which was for both religious purposes and the state. It you owed debt to the temple, to Caesar, or to another person in the community it was managed in one place, through the temple. It was as if the scribes functioned as judges, priests, lawyers, and the bank all at once. They had a lot of power! Debt was the way people were kept in their social place. Unlike today, debt was more than just monetary, remember the scribes are religious authorities, so debt was tied to morality and religion, and so sin and debt were not as separate as we might understand them. It’s as if the church today could sanction and oversee your tax audit.
And as the goods came into the temple to pay these debts, and the scripts I talked about earlier, the Jewish scripts and the Roman scripts were fighting each other, and there was no mechanism for the wealth to be redistributed. So the temple became a storehouse of riches, storing the surplus in luxury goods and in fine metal products. The scribes were one of the authorities who managed public life and kept order and class hierarchy. And they were conveniently located pretty close to the top, benefiting from the surplus of wealth that came into the temple.
These scribes are located among the mass in this story, which will become important as things unfold. Now the paralyzed man’s suffering would have been interpreted through this same debt code the scribes managed.
In the ancient world, often physical illness was attributed to a debt that either you or your family owed. Someone had sinned, either you or your family and Yahweh was punishing you.
Desperately, his friends dig through the roof because the house is so crowded they can’t get to Jesus. After he is lowered, Jesus declares that his sins have been forgiven, his debt cancelled. Notice, the first thing he says is not you have been healed, get up and walk. He tackles the debt first. Striking at the heart of the system that claims why this man is suffering. And what is the response?
The legal experts begin to mutter. Who is this guy? Why does he think he can do this? They use strong language saying he is blaspheming! A heretic! Crossing a boundary that is not his to cross. He does not carry the authority to forgive.
But they do, right? Jesus is making the man whole, and he is doing it in the presence of authoritative figures in the village. Jesus, this not-so-meek-and-mild Jesus is challenging the power that has been granted to them, and they cannot understand it. So he turns and confronts them directly. Challenging them he asks, which is easier: to forgive sins or make a crippled man walk? Remember at this point he’s only forgiven the debt. Jesus demonstrates his authority again and turns back to the paralyzed man saying, “take your mat, and go,” healing him.
Jesus both heals and forgives, bringing full restoration to this man, both physically and socially. And in the presence of the authorities, he engages with them, challenging their authority to do the same. It’s as if he is saying, “Why have you not done this yet?”
Jesus sees the way the empire and those in religious authority have caused people to further suffer. He takes the debt code, the scripts from the Roman Empire and the temple, and writes a new one. He is criticizing the empire and the religious authorities and structures that are contributing to the suffering of the people. The scribes who are “just trying to keep the peace,” maintain order, explaining away this man’s misfortune as some unpaid debt. Blaming the victim. Interpreting this man’s misfortune as his fault.
Jesus looks right at these powerful men and says, that is not the story I know.
Our scripts rule our lives. Jesus, the healer, challenges us to re-examine those scripts. He proclaims healing where only suffering is known, and to restore wholeness where wholeness has been withheld.
Each time we proclaim inclusion of a lesbian person in the church, each time we welcome a transgender person, we offer healing, we extend a wholeness where wholeness has been withheld, and we engage politically. We challenge a public order and the religious orders that write different scripts.
But if there one theme that runs through the gospel of Mark, it is that even Jesus’ most faithful disciples fall blind and deaf to the call of Jesus. They fall prey to the scripts that do not build the kin-dom of God. Scripts that continue to blame the victim, that understand the misfortune of the poor or uneducated or the imprisoned or the unhealthy to be their own fault. Scripts that say the lowly must pay their way, or earn their way, or just work hard enough and they too will be restored to health, and wealth and happiness. Even though a new script offered, they still fall blind. The beauty of Mark’s writing is that the end of the gospel leaves you hangin’ a bit. The final question and invitation to the reader is a call to discipleship: Will you continue the work of writing a new script?
In February we will look at how the church is called to political work, we will look at our ministry of healing. We will look at how our own ministry can be political, subversive and a truth-telling voice in the world. Writing a new script. In the meantime, I encourage you to consider the scripts to which we are still blind. Where do we withhold forgiveness and healing, because there is some debt still to be paid? When do we attribute a person’s suffering to “their place in life” or to “that’s just the way things are”? When do we hold the some of the power of the scribe, and fail to challenge the way the system works? When do we fail to help the paralyzed, because we assume only they can help themselves? These are the scripts that Jesus yearns to heal us from.
Until then: it is faithful to pray for healing, for ourselves and the world.
Mark’s gospel teaches that justice matters both in the personal life and in the public life. Jesus teaches about the home and the market, the relationship and the system. And so it is the healing of our interior, our own person, that leads us to turn outward and heal the world. Our own wounds only leads to more wounding. Our wholeness makes it possible for us to invite others into wholeness. Today we will offer a gesture of healing toward one another.
You may come forward and receive an anointing on your hand or head. And as the story instructs, the religious leaders are not the keepers of healing. I invite you to turn and offer a healing anointing to the person in line behind you. You might say:
“May you forget the scripts of death, and learn those that lead to life….”
“For the healing of your body and spirit, for the healing of the world.”
If you choose not to come forward, I invite you to use your voice and sing with us, There is a Balm in Gilead, so that your voice may bring healing upon the community. And so today whether you come for healing for yourself or the others, know that both bring God’s love and justice deeper into the world.