Menu Close
5th February 2023

The Diseased

Passage: Mark 1;21-42

The Diseased

It was the end of a long working shift in his healing ministry. Jesus started by healing a man who was mentally ill in the local synagogue (place of worship); then healed a woman who was ill with a dangerous fever; was then confronted with just about every diseased person in the town to make well. Having taken a short break to be quiet and to pray, Jesus had moved on, only to be met by a leper. Leprosy was a loathsome, painful, debilitating disease, leading to a slow, inexorable death. Because it was highly contagious, you had to keep away from everyone. You were also excluded from your religion because you were ritually unclean.

Those words, “when Jesus saw the man he was filled with compassion” might more literally be translated, “when Jesus saw him he was filled with anger.” It was a deep, powerful body-shaking emotion we are talking about here.
Jesus had seen all this sickness of body and of mind. And leprosy was perhaps the worst disease of all. One of the commentaries on this story pointed out that, “The Law (that is, the religious law by which the Jewish community lived) could do nothing for the leper.” There was no guidance as to how leprosy might be treated. “The Law could only protect the rest of the community,” as in total ostracism for the leper.
How heart-breaking is that? This situation made Jesus mad! He was filled with anger.
Don’t we get mad when we encounter sickness- our own or other people’s? We shout at God and ask “why?” (At least, I do.) We shout about the NHS and the lack of resources. Frustration, fear, compassion well up in us. We do not understand. And we do not know what to say or what to do.

Many times, during his ministry, Jesus came up against the belief that sickness was punishment for sin. Either you or your parents had done something wrong, and sickness was the result. This was a rather useful theory for three reasons:
First, it gets God off the hook. Believing in a loving God when people are seriously ill is a huge challenge to our faith. We have never sorted this one out and I doubt we ever shall. And that disturbs us. Explaining sickness as a result of sin is neat. You must have done something wrong; that is why you are suffering. God is righteous, rewarding good; punishing bad.

Second, it lets us off the hook. Sickness in other people scares us. If it can happen to them, it could happen to me. It also makes us feel guilty- why can’t I do more to make this person well? None of us cope easily with fear or guilt. Suspecting that the sufferer has somehow deserved their illness, might just make it easier for us to absolve ourselves of that fear and guilt.

Third, it lets society off the hook. When Jewish religious law was first developed, their society was very vulnerable. They were a former slave people travelling through a desert. Everybody needed to contribute something in terms of active work for the community to survive. Sick people could not work and, if they needed care, would take others away from work. This was a problem.
Most human societies are constructed very much around economic survival: how can we produce enough for everyone to eat, to be housed, to keep warm, to be educated, to be safe? Large numbers of diseased people are going to drain the economic balance. To believe that sufferers get what they deserve, gives society the right not to spend too much time or money or effort on them.

OK, this may sound appalling, but you can see why people held the belief that sickness was punishment for sin. It was a neat understanding of life. But what kind of a god, or society or person does this understanding produce? Not nice or honest ones. You see, at the end of the day, we have to face the fact that life is not neat. It is awesome, creative, beautiful, powerful but not neat. Every science will come up with explanations as to why this or that natural phenomena happens but will also admit that their experience and understanding of this phenomena might change. Medicine has made huge advances in identifying causes and treatments of illness but-as we found with Covid- new strains may develop and both illness and cures will affect different people in different ways. It is not neat.
Which puts God, us, and society right back on the hook again. Life is complex; disease appears to be a permanent challenge- how are we going to deal with it?

Jesus’ way was clearly to walk right into the most dis-eased places in life. He touched the leper to make him well. And, let’s face it, without other people also brave enough to risk their own lives touching lepers, a cure would never have been found. Jesus engaged hand to hand with both physical and mental illness. He made no attempt to “get off the hook.”
We can say that it all sounds easy for him. He could simply walk up to someone having a fit of hysteria or burning up with fever bed, say the word and they would get better. Just like that. There have been people besides Jesus who have had amazing gifts to heal just by a touch of their hands or a focus of their minds, but they are rare. For most of us, even medical professionals, it is a much harder and riskier process.

But can we honestly say that Jesus took no risks with his own life? He ended up-as he knew he would- nailed to a cross; condemned by hatred and injustice; bitterly resented by those who preferred a neater and less risky understanding of life and sickness. He descended right into the very depths of physical and mental torture. But, the Bible says, God then raised him from death and gave him authority.

Authority. We are told that, in his healing ministry, Jesus spoke “with authority.” In other words, he believed that he had the right and the power to heal disease. He was not going to shrug his shoulders and walk away; nor was he going to wallow in despair. Life was complex; the causes of sickness complex, but he had authority to deal with it, not all at once but day by day, person by person.

And Jesus’ teaching- which he wanted people to rate higher than his healing- was about the kingdom of God; about a society which accepted its’ authority to heal and about people accepting their authority to be the living word and the healing power of God in their society. Once you have accepted that life is not neat, it is easier to accept that there are no instant solutions to life’s dis-eases. But, in Jesus, there is power and there is authority and there is the hope of victory.

I was thinking about the story of Job in the Bible- a thoroughly good man yet afflicted with every possible tragedy and crisis in life, including a horribly painful illness. His wife advised him to “curse God and die.” For life- if it had been as neat as his religion taught- had treated Job most unjustly. Curse God, give up on life, give up on yourself.
And then I thought of how Jesus transformed the cross- a “cursed” sign of agonising pain and terrible injustice- into a sign of blessing; a sign of amazing love; steadfast hope and authority over sin and death.

As followers of Jesus and children of a loving God, we want to cure to sickness and pain. We want to heal. Of course, we do. But in the light of Christ’s cross, sick people are not simply a problem to be solved, a burden on society. Even in their sickness they have potential to become a blessing.
Jesus found himself in a society where sick people were feared and cast out. Meaning that they gave up on themselves as others had given up on them. But by involving himself with them, he brought them back as children of God into the kingdom of God. And, as their society learned to receive them as God’s children, so the power of healing started to grow in them and through them.
Just think, how many people have we known who, even in pain and frailty, have radiated love, peace, joy and hope to those around them? How many of our burdens have actually been lifted by them? How great are the blessings of God we have received through them? How much healing have we gained in ourselves through being involved with them? And how much progress has been made in curing disease through people who have used their illness as a means of reaching out, of inspiring and of helping others? Healing comes as we acknowledge the worth of every single human person in the eyes of God.

Jesus brought the diseased back from the edges of society. And I believe that it is only as each society learns to do the same, rather than rating the needs of the sick far below the needs of the economy or the nuclear armoury, that a truly health- giving society will be created, with power and with authority to conquer dis-ease.