Service Above Self

hospital bed
Photo credit: <a href="">Kate Hiscock</a>

Mark 1:29-39

From church, they went straight home to Simon and Andrew’s house along with James and John. They told him that Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever. But when he came in, he took her by the hand and she got up, the fever gone, and began to serve them.

That evening, as the sun set, people started bringing their sick and deranged to the door – the whole city turned out – and he cured many with various illnesses and cast out many demons, but without allowing them to speak – they knew him.

The next morning at O-dark thirty, Jesus got up and went out to be alone in prayer. But Simon and the others tracked him down and told him, “Everyone’s out looking for you.” He said, “Let’s head out to the next few towns and get the word out there. That’s my mission.” So off they went, all over Galilee, speaking in churches and expelling demons.

[See also previous comments on Mark 1:29-34 (on healing) and Mark 1:35-39 (on not stopping).]

This short trio of events is (sort of) Mark’s equivalent to Luke’s great commission (“You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea and to the ends of the earth.” – Acts 1:8).

  • Jerusalem – The first scene is of Jesus restorative ministry happening among those who are the closest in, Peter’s family, among those few who are (at this early stage) already following.
  • Judea – The second vignette shows Jesus ministry to people who are not on the inside, but who are still close to home. These are people who are coming toward Jesus. They are those who have heard about the movement, who believe that Jesus might have something to offer them.
  • The ends of the earth – The third part reverses the direction of the second part. Instead of people coming to see Jesus, Jesus goes out to take the message to them.

There is a real sense in which every successful, sustained endeavor to lead a movement and to effect real change needs all three of these elements: those who are already in the movement, those who are curious about the movement as a means of satisfying their own needs, and those who haven’t a clue what the movement is about.

In each of these three areas of concern, Mark is careful to show us that Jesus ministry is one of restoration. Beyond this, however, we might also make a few observations about the particular kind of work needs to happen in each of these areas.

  • Jesus’ restoration of Peter’s mother-in-law.While we might focus on the miraculous dissipation of her fever, the more important thing happening here is the result of her recovery. She began to serve them. Jesus will later say, as the disciples argue among each other about which of them is the greatest, that the greatest is the one who becomes a servant (Mark 10:44). Peter may be the most famous of the disciples, but his mother-in-law, by her service is already the greatest. Taken as a whole, Mark implies that the ministry of restoration among those who are already within the community is to generate a community of service.
  • Jesus’ restoration of the ill and possessed. Among those who are coming to Jesus, Mark is careful to note that Jesus would not allow the demons to speak “because they knew him.” This is the first instance in Mark of what’s commonly called “the messianic secret” – Jesus doesn’t want his identity as the messiah to get out. Among those who have come to him focused on their own needs, the notion of a messiah can only deepen their dependence on some external salvation. It reinforces the notion of “a savior come to serve me.” The whole point of Jesus’ restoration (as we have seen in the first scene) is to strengthen people for service of others.
  • Jesus ministry in Galilee. Finally, Jesus isn’t satisfied with merely doing damage control. (Hugh MacLeod cartooned that, “All control is damage control.” Think about that!) It’s not enough to say who you aren’t. You have to proactively advance the mission and say who you are. Again, what Jesus does, and presumably what he says, is about serving others, ending the imprisonment of those possessed.

What’s your mission? Are you caring for those who are already participating in it? Are you receptive of those who are wondering if you can serve them? Are you reaching out to those who have yet to hear your good news? Most importantly, is your work in each of these cases about your greater service or is it about your greater self?

Which Is Easier?

walking and wheeling
Photo credit: <a href="">Dominik Golenia</a>

Mark 2:1-12

A few days later, Jesus returned to Capernaum. When it got out that he was home the masses gathered around until there was no space left for anyone, so that the door was blocked. And while Jesus was telling them what was up, some people arrived: four of them carrying a paraplegic. When they couldn’t get through the crowd to Jesus, they broke a hole in the roof, and after having made an opening they let down the paraplegic to Jesus on his gurney from above.

When Jesus saw their devotion he said to the paraplegic, “Kid, don’t let anyone tell you you’re a defect.”

Some of the bureaucrats who were hanging around there started whispering among themselves, “He’s got no business talking as if he were God! God alone is the one who can say whether he’s defective or not.”

Jesus had a hunch what they were talking about, though. So he said to them, “Why do you insist on ignorance? You can’t do the easiest thing of all: affirm someone’s human value. Do you think it’s easier to tell him to get up and walk out of here? But if you need proof that to forgive is a human capacity….” And with that he turned again to the paraplegic and said, “Go ahead, get up and go home. And get this gurney out of here.”

Jesus pulled him to his feet, and he took his gurney and walked out as everyone looked on. They were awe-struck, saying it was God: “We’ve never seen anything like it.”

Make no mistake. This is about who gets to say whether someone is “good enough.”

The bureaucrats say only God can. But what they mean is, “Only we can.” Their logic is that God has put them in charge of “society” and since they’re in charge on God’s behalf, they get to say. And they say this paralytic is unable to walk and to participate in “society,” because he owes them something. “Look, he’s done nothing but lie about all day. Instead of asking for a handout. If he wants health insurance and health care he should get a job.” Sound familiar?

Jesus, on the other hand, insists that it’s much easier to give him what he needs to be a contributing part of the social network than to expect him to pull himself up by his own bootstraps and excoriating him when he can’t. And, behold, given what he needs, he turns out to be quite capable of carrying his own load.

It’s not magic. It’s just what happens when you recognize that sometimes the easiest, most practical thing is to give a hand to help someone up. It turns out to be much harder to pretend to speak for God with any kind of credibility. And it’s even harder than that to defend the illusion that some people really are better than others (on whatever basis). So why not get over ourselves? And, Jesus insists you don’t have to wait for God to help those who help themselves. It’s a responsibility that comes with being human to simply lend a hand when and where you can.

You Don’t Have to Be a Doctor to Be a Healer

Doctor makes patient wait 3 hoursMark 1:29-34

From church, they went straight home to Simon and Andrew’s house along with James and John. They told him that Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever. But when he came in, he took her by the hand and she got up, the fever gone, and began to serve them.

That evening, as the sun set, people started bringing their sick and deranged to the door – the whole city turned out – and he cured many with various illnesses and cast out many demons, but without allowing them to speak – they knew him.

Buried in the dustbins of theological research, in a 1985 issue (15:4, pp 142-50) of Biblical Theology Bulletin, there is a wonderful little paper by John J. Pilch: Healing in Mark: A Social Science Analysis. Pilch writes:

Jesus and all healers of that period could only perceive illnesses and not diseases…. Notice in each healing instance the almost total disregard of symptoms (something very essential to disease). Instead there is constant concern for meaning…. Jesus’ activity is best described etically as healing, not curing. He provides social meaning for the life problems resulting from sickness.

The wholeness of persons is essential to Jesus’ mission. Remember, in Jesus’ day and in ours, sickness is not so much what makes you sick, but about what makes you unable to participate in meaningful community. When you’ve got malignant cell growth you have a disease – call it cancer. When you are bedridden with cancer and no insurance coverage and are a financial and emotional burden on your family and neighbors, you are ill – and so is everyone else who is affected. When you have plaque that prevents adequate signal transmission between brain cells, you have a disease – call it Alzheimer’s. When you (without knowing what you’re doing) disrupt your family’s life and abuse your caregivers, its effects are demonic.

In both cases, it’s the second condition Jesus is addressing. He’s providing new conditions for those who were not able to participate in life to do so. The miracle is not in the suspension of the laws of nature – the demons already know and acknowledge Jesus. The miracle is in the rehabilitation of people who have no access to meaningful participation or self-determination.

Think about it. Doctors don’t get famous for curing diseases. You might say she’s a great doctor and recommend her to your friends if they have a similar complaint. But the doctors who are famous – the ones on TV, Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz, Dr. Chopra – are addressing the larger issue of illnesses that are largely sociologically constructed and perpetuated.

Bonus: You don’t have to be in medicine to be a great healer. All you have to do, in whatever field you’re in, is address the larger issues that keep people from meaningful participation and self-determination.

Faith-Healing 101

Blind manMatthew 9:27-31

As Jesus was leaving, two blind guys followed along, calling, “Help us, Great Deliverer!” He went into his house, and they followed him in. Jesus said, “Do you really think I can do this?”

“Yes, sir” they said.

So he touched their eyes and said, “Let it be as you believe.” And they saw. Then Jesus said, “See to it that nobody gets wind of this.” But as soon as they left they started blathering it all over town.

In this instance, as well as in the previous healing story, being able to see and being made well has not so much to do with some magical power or ability of Jesus. It has to do with the capacity for faith, the system of beliefs, that pervade the lives of those needing sight and healing. All Jesus does is help us get in touch with that.

The woman with the flow of blood remained sick so long as she believed what everyone told her about her about being a pariah and unworthy of medical care.

With these blind guys, too, they see what they believe. Who knows what they were blind to, or what the content of their vision was that they saw in Jesus’ house that day! Perhaps they saw (gasp!) that Jesus wasn’t that kind of miracle worker. That Jesus was someone altogether different than the Deliverer they expected. Or could it be that their experience only confirmed what they thought they knew, making their misrepresentation about what kind of deliverer Jesus was even more far-fetched than before? What story – that Jesus didn’t want told – did they blather about town when they left?

We have no answers, of course. But the story leaves us with (at least) three questions worth pondering for ourselves:

  1. What do we say about Jesus, not because we know but because we’ve always been told it about him?
  2. What are we (intentionally) being blind to?
  3. Do we allow our experiences to enlighten us, to change our minds and paradigms, or do we shoehorn our experience into the contours of the stories and worldviews we’ve always told ourselves?

Happy soul searching (I mean faith healing)!